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care2team 14 min read

Adventures of a Dead Elephant on MySpace

elephant-blogad.gifDeadElephant.ORG is a moonlighting effort I put together with a couple of friends.  The ideas was to demonstrate broad public disaffection with neo-Conservative policies and attitudes (full disclosure--by day I’m the user experience manager at Care2, but this was my own little side project.)   The campaign features 50 free, downloadable bumper-strips that share a tone of ironic parody, and a distinctive logo that links together every sighting of them.  The main aim was to create a hook—sarcasm—to bring more people who share progressive values to join in the fun. DeadElephant.ORG has no need to build a deep or lasting relationship with the activists we are trying to reach, which probably differentiates it from most other nonprofit campaigns. My other aim was to test out various social networking sites, to use them to try to get a campaign to go viral.

Budget (or lack thereof)
It doesn’t cost much to create a campaign such as ours.  That’s good because DeadElephant.ORG is non-profit, and non-funded. Our total operating budget was $300.  That’s a key factor in understanding why we have made use of guerilla marketing methods on free platforms that have a higher chance of going viral, versus paying for an email campaign that would be more targeted.

Getting a viral campaign to “take hold” is like lighting a fire in the rain.  Once blazing, a fire will withstand rain.  The problem is how to get it lit in the first place.  A blow-torch would be very helpful for this: greater expertise in design and strategy, direct advertising, and a mass email marketing campaign, for starters.  Unfortunately, all we could afford was a pack of matches. We budgeted two weeks of keyword buys from Google (resulting in about 700 visits at 10 cents each), and one week of Blog Ads to low-distribution blogs (which have just started running.)  We have done one fairly large mailing (3300 recipients) to a list provided by afriend, which generated surprisingly high click-through rate (about 30%).  Given that performance, it strikes me that our campaign has suffered a huge opportunity cost in not being able to send large proactive e-mailings to a pre-existing social network.

Web 2.0 News Aggregators Strategy
We also promoted DeadElephant.ORG on several of the largest “people-powered” news networks, including Digg, Care2 News Network, Shoutwire, News.Netscape.com, and Reddit (all show the actual campaign except for Shoutwire and Reddit, which are gone).  In fact, the campaign was initially launched on the Care2 News Network.  This was a big early success: It was the “hottest” story for about a week, garnering 143 “note-its” and 83 posted comments.  That translated to something on the order of a thousand visits to our site, which really got us going.  Over on Digg, if your story gets “dugg,” you can receive tens of thousands of visits as a result. However, we could not get any traction on Digg.  Digg seems noticeably more right-leaning, more tech-oriented and a more insular culture to penetrate.  If we had had more time to build relationships with high-credibility Digg participants and groups, then we might have done better there.  The campaign has had meager “take” on Shoutwire, News.Netscape.com, and Reddit.  Our story received “votes” and “shouts,” but no significant traffic, probably because traffic on those sites is low to begin with.

Lessons Learned
1.)  A MySpace page is not an advertisement - it is the avatar for a person - you.  Expect to do more than just post your page, gather friends, and sit there like a billboard waiting for activists to drive by.  And people are noticed and appreciated for the actions they take within a community.  The biggest jump in our MySpace traffic came when we started posting provocative topics into groups and forums, and stuck around to defend our comments and engage with the community.  People noticed, and started visiting our MySpace page, and from there, our site.   Note that the more you and others reply to your post, the longer that subject and your logo will stay at the top of the lists of posts that others see.

2.)  Create a great web-badge and post it into the comment area of all the friends you gather. 
elephant-web-badge.gifPosting badges and comments into individual profiles did not at first strike us as important, or worth the effort.  The MySpace interface seems to be the most poorly designed and difficult to use among the social networks, and can be tedious and frustrating for tasks like this.  But it appears that the bulk of social networking on MySpace is not conducted through groups.  It is conducted page-to-page, individual-to-individual. 

3.) Is your content viral in nature? MySpace offers an incredibly large audience, 43 million members at last count (that number varies widely depending on what newspaper you read), but that audience is very loosely segmented, and there exists no means to find, much less to proactively address, large numbers of individual activists who share one particular concern or demographic.  In other words, on MySpace you have few other options besides viral, person-to-person growth.  If your campaign content and “ask” is inherently highly viral – and few are – then it might do well in that environment. 

4.) Do you have enough edge to cut through the noise?  I think other campaigns -- those that might not be edgy enough to cut through the noise on MySpace -- might be promoted more effectively in better-structured networks, with broadcast tools (Facebook and Care2 Connect are two examples that enable you to broadcast emails to people in your friends network).  DeadElephant.ORG fortunately has turned out to be inherently viral, and so our badges on our friends pages have driven a lot of traffic.  Interestingly, the most effective of these to date is our badge on the MySpace page for Phil Angelides, the Democratic candidate for Governor of California.  Given how edgy our campaign is, we were surprised that he accepted our friend request.  (Does it surprise you that he’s on MySpace?  So are Al Gore, Barbara Boxer, Barack Obama, etc.) 

5.)  Target specific segments of the community. Because DeadElephant.ORG depends entirely on viral growth, we deliberately courted the fringiest activists first – 9/11 conspiracy groups, and the like – on the theory that these would prove to be the earliest and most active adopters.  It worked.  But for larger, more established brands, there might be brand protection issues at stake, if you give up some control of your message, or of who carries your message for you. Being an entirely new organization, and frankly an obviously shoe
-string-type operation, DeadElephant.ORG doesn’t have any brand credibility to protect or to advance.  This, I suspect, sets us apart from many other well-established nonprofits or other organizations that might have more to lose. 

6.)  The design quality of your page may not be important.  This surprised us.  The DeadElephant.ORG page on MySpace is a pathetic thing, really – just a shadow of our actual site.  We’d likely be accorded more credit in the community if our page were “cooler” – though there’s no way to measure this.  We haven’t spent much effort on our page because our primary objective is to get people to click out to the DeadElephant.ORG site and print the bumper stickers.

7.) A MySpace page is not a site – it’s a single page.  So there is no way to offer comprehensive content to visitors.  And there is no mechanism for engaging your visitors to opt-in for email list development.  Those kinds of functions have to be hosted externally, either on your own organization’s site, or on third-party sites such as Care2’s Petitionsite.com that are more hospitable and engineered for this purpose.  You will then have to induce visitors to your MySpace page to click out to your off-site content or service.  We don’t know whether this extra hurdle for visitors has affected the growth of DeadElephant.ORG.

In sum, this is a fun way to campaign, but it also requires a lot of work.  If you build it, they may come, but more likely you’ll still have to rely on good old fashioned promotion techniques (if there is such a thing as good old fashioned on the web) to get the campaign going, and have content available that people will gladly pass along to their friends.

-Jeff Goldsmith
Care2 user experience guy by day, Dead Elephant herder by night

I'd like to recognize a couple of sources that helped me formulate my social networking strategy:

"Think Like a Rockband: Organizing on Social Networking Sites" by Justin Perkins and Heather Holdridge

M&R Strategic Services "Ten Commandments of MySpace Advocacy"

And some personal coaching from a MySpace savvy (2326 friends) grassroots anti-folk musician in DC named Rob Getzschman

-Jeff Goldsmith
Care2 user experience guy by day, Dead Elephant herder by night