Creating the Tipping Point - Blog

Why the Internet Matters

June 11, 2007

The Internet is more than just a passing fad and will be a critical component to any electoral campaign during the 2008 election and beyond.  We have already seen many of the presidential contenders tapping into the netroots to raise money and recruit volunteers. 

But why should higher education institutions pay attention to these campaigns?  Campaigns only last for 18-24 months but higher education institutions must plan for the long-term.  As a result of these short time frame campaigns have become very innovative strategies and tactics to disseminate information. 

But many higher education institutions have shied away from using the Internet because it has not been proven that it is an effective tool.  Many institutions tend to stick with traditional communication methods such as direct mail, media (paid and earned), and phoning.  But it is time that interactive communication be placed on the same level as these other tools for a variety of reasons.

The Internet matters because...

  1. It is where people are going to get information
    According to the Pew Internet American Life Project, 31% of all Americans, or about 60 million people, say they were online during the 2006 campaign season gathering information and exchanging views via email.
  2. It is becoming harder to reach out to people through traditional means
    Television - Seventy-five percent of marketers feel that television advertising is becoming less effective and some have even declared the end of the 30-second television spot.  Direct mail - it is very difficult to break through the clutter. Newspaper and radio – less people are using traditional media. 
  3. It is more interactive
    Traditional communication vehicles provide more of a broadcast model that simply distributes information to a targeted audience.  The Internet allows communication to become more interactive with the audience, as they can comment on the information or repackage the information.  This interactivity is critical to engaging any audience because the public wants this type of engagement.  That is why participation programs like American Idol and blogs have exploded in the last few years.
  4. Individuals can get involved anytime and anyplace
    This level of convenience is something that the public has come to expect.  The Internet allows individual to customize their experience and get the level and type of information that they want.

Why the Internet works

  1. Easy for people to participate
    With just a few clicks of a button supporters can donate money, contact their elected officials, or engage many of their friends to get involved.  The Internet makes it so easy for people to participate and get involved. People have many competing priorities and the Internet allows them to get involved without having to spend a lot of time.
  2. Increase loyalty of supporters
    The Internet allows groups to communicate with members on a more regular basis.  This type of communication used to be extremely time consuming to develop and cost prohibitive.  But through e-mails, web sites and blogs, users can become more engaged and active.  This can be used to strengthen the relationship that your organization has with supporters and make them.
  3. Improves speed and efficiency that information can get out
    The Internet allows institutions to very quickly and easily communicate with members.  The web is instantaneous; within a few minutes thousands of supporters can be notified about an issue and those messages can be easily passed onto to others extending the reach.
  4. Save time and money
    Previously, to get information out to supporters, institutions would have to develop a direct mail piece.  Now the web allows institutions to communicate with members twice as much and at half the cost through the Internet.
  5. Can evaluate it
    The Internet allows institutions to monitor who is taking action, what they are reading, and how many people they are forwarding the message to.  This real time evaluation is not possible with direct mail and advertising, and this data can help evaluate what messages are working who are your superstar activists.
  6. Can target impact
    Once you know who those superstar activists are or what issues people are concerned about, your organization can customize messages to these individuals very easily.

Do interactive web sites increase giving?

April 25, 2007

A recent study by two professors at Bentley College found that candidates having the "most comprehensive and innovative websites" were the same candidates that raised the most money. The report does not prove that innovative web sites raise the money, but it begs the question: how effective is the web when it comes to fundraising?

Interactive web sites can do a much better job of not only getting your message heard but also having it sink in.  A study that I brought up in an earlier post demonstrated that readers are better able to retain information if it is displayed in a creative manner.

Plus, interactive web sites are more likely to get people coming back for more information.  Any fundraiser will tell you that it is all about developing effective relationships.  By capturing an individual’s e-mail address and urging him or her to create a profile on your site, you can easily cultivate a relationship with these individuals. 

The web allows you to develop these types of relationships with a much wider audience, thus increasing the potential amount of grassroots giving.  This does not replace the big donor giving, which is still cultivated through person-to-person interactions.  But, the web can match those big donations with thousands of smaller contributions.  Plus the excitement generated through grassroots fundraising can even motivate big donors to give to causes that they may not normally give to.  Both the Edwards and Obama campaigns have demonstrated this.  They both have more small donors and the best interactive and engaging web sites.

Thus, the answer to the question is yes - interactive web sites can be an effective tool to strengthen and develop relationships with donors big and small.

The Politization of Higher Education

April 23, 2007

Politics has always been a part of the higher education experience.  One of the core missions of many institutions is to train the next generation of civic leaders.  Over the last 40 years students have debated and protested many issues on college campuses throughout the country.  But in the last ten years there has been a shift - the educational institutions themselves are increasingly becoming the targets of political protest from outside groups.   

The most high profile example of this is the University of Michigan’s affirmative action admission policies.  The University defended its policies all the way to the Supreme Court.  The Court came back with a split decision that upheld some sections of the policy while rejecting others.  The opponents then ran a statewide ballot initiative to restrict all affirmative action policies in the state of Michigan.  The ballot initiative passed in November 2006 and now the University is exploring its options.

This week, the Minneapolis Community Technical College was under attack because it plans to install footbaths for Muslim students.  The story exploded because one right-wing blogger discovered the news and started a blogstorm on Christian conservative blogs.  The story was then picked up by conservative newspaper columnist as an example of how the university restricts the right of Christian students by limiting Christmas displays on campus but it is willing to spend $200 to install a footbath for Muslim students.  The columnist failed to mention that the footbaths were installed because staff were concerned that students could injure themselves by trying to wash their feet in a 3 foot high sink.

Both of these stories highlight the need for higher education institutions to be aware that they may easily become the target of a political firestorm.  Corporations have been experiencing the same sort of attacks since the 1980s.  In response, they have developed reputation management and public relations teams that monitor these type of activities and work to address them.  Despite their best efforts, the Internet is now making it significantly easier for a single individual to destroy a reputation of a corporation or higher education institution.

Wal-Mart has found out the hard way how information, thought to be a secret, can get out to the public.  Over the last few years, Wake Wal-Mart has released embarrassing internal memos about the companies hiring practices.  Also, the Internet allows information to travel very quickly.  Many corporations often don’t know that they have a problem until it is too late.  Here are some recommendations to more effectively manage your institutions reputation:

1. Monitor it It is important to know what is being said about your institution on the net.  Monitoring this information will help you evaluate whether the information is gaining traction on the web.  If a few tier one (influential) blogs begin to pick it up.  You will need to respond quickly.  But, not everything warrants a response.

2. Engage Critics It is always appropriate to correct misinformation.  This can be done on the blogs themselves, through the comment sections, or by creating your own blog.  Responding quickly gives your supporters the information they need to defend you.

3. Be Open Too many institutions respond with "no comment" when these issues develop.  It is important to be transparent, provide candor, and admit to mistakes (if mistakes were made).

4. Alert Communication/Customer Service Staff Staff that answer the main phone lines for your institution should closely monitor phone calls that come in on this issue.  Some groups will try to reach out to you before they go to the media.  It will be important to flag so that the appropriate person can follow-up with them.  Too often, these calls get lost in the shuffle and these individuals are never responded to.  This can make the situation much worse.

5. Identify Allies If you think that an issue could blow-up soon, you should identify some allies that can speak in support of the institution. 

Where do voters get their information?

April 11, 2007

Another recently-released study confirms the growing influence that the Internet is having and will continue to have on the 2008 presidential election.  The study, conducted by Burst Media, found that voters choose the Internet as their favorite place to get information about candidates and issues.  This study confirms the findings of a January 2007 Pew study on the same topic.

The best source of election information
Internet - 25%
TV - 21.3%
Newspapers - 17.3%
Radio - 6.9%
Magazines - 4.4%
Direct Mail - 3.3%

This study highlights the importance of developing a quality, interactive web site, not only for political candidates but for all advocacy-minded organizations.  Yet, for many organizations web sites are still an afterthought and do not receive the attention that is needed to effectively educate and engage visitors to the web site.  As public preferences shift, those that adapt will be the most successful at building support for their issue.

Not getting the media attention that you deserve?

February 14, 2007

Then communicate directly to your audience!  Over the last few weeks many of the presidential candidates having been announcing their candidacies through their web sites.  These online videos have provided an unfiltered vehicle for candidates to communicate to supporters and the public.  All while still receiving large doses of traditional media coverage of their online announcements.

Many higher education institutions struggle to get media attention on the great news that comes out of their institutions, whether that is recent discoveries, examples of students and faculty giving back to the community, or groundbreaking programs.  Unfortunately the mainstream media likes to cover the bad things that happen and that often skews the public perception of higher education institutions.

Now it has become cheap for institutions to distribute their good news directly to key internal and external audiences.  These efforts don’t replace traditional media relations activities; rather, they should be used to complement them.  I have seen institutions send out press releases to the media and watch it get no coverage.  Then a few weeks later the media calls back because the issue is generating interest on the Internet because the same story was pushed out electronically to key audiences.

The presidential campaigns are expanding the possibilities what can be done on the Internet.

The kind of cantankerous, no-holds-barred fight for the White House that has become the norm is bound by the passionate issues, volatile events and news headlines that drive record-breaking traffic on news Web sites, blogs, chat rooms, Internet video and e-mails. It is just the kind of provocative event that will heighten the ways in which consumers access, search, transfer, socialize about and respond to online content from a variety of devices and platforms ranging from iPods, personal computers and Internet-supported mobile phones to IPTV.

Congratulations on being named Time’s Person of the Year

December 22, 2006

This week, Time announced that “You” are the person of the year for being a part of the community on the World Wide Web.  Time’s announcement recognizes the impact that the Internet has on every aspect of our society.  The Internet is sparking a revolution that is changing politics, communications, and the way that we interact with one another. 

Time describes it best when it says, “the new Web is a very different thing. It's a tool for bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter.”

The Internet created a participation society where we can all make an impact.  The Time story highlights a few examples of how average people broke the news.  Whether it was investigating the Mark Foley scandal, Sen. George Allen’s “macaca” comment, or a soldier blogging from Iraq, our news no longer just comes from media; it can come from everyone.

This trend is shifting the power back to the people and changing the perception that we don’t have the ability to influence politics or decision makers.  Non-profits, educational institutions, and advocacy groups need to recognize the growing influence of the Internet as a tool for social change and as a vehicle to advance their agendas.

Groups can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines and take a wait and see approach because these interactive tools are too new.  The public now has an expectation that groups will engage them using these types of communication tools.  And the Internet is more than just a one-way communications tool.  The public also wants to participate in the conversation.  The more you engage them, the more engaged they will be and willing to promote your issues.

Read the full Time Person of the Year story here:,9171,1569514,00.html?aid=434&from=o&to=http%3A//

Web – a major political player

October 22, 2006

According to a recent survey, likely voters ranked the Internet as the best place to find election information, beating out television, newspapers, radio, and direct mail. This study demonstrates how critical an effective online strategy is to any political or advocacy campaign.


We are in the midst of revolution in politics that will be critical to master. Political campaigns that master the newest mediums tend to be victors at elections time. A good example of this is FDR and the radio or JFK and television.

The growing impact of the Internet on politics is further proved by a survey from Pew Internet and American Life Project. It found that 26 million Americans are logging onto the web to gather political information about candidates and issues on a daily basis. This is a huge jump in participation from the last midterm election (11 million users) and a sizeable increase from the 2004 Presidential election (21 million).

The emergence of the web as a major medium is occurring at the same time that voter interest in politics is increasing. An Associated Press poll found that voter interest is at the highest level in more than a decade.

The study hypothesized that this growing interest is caused by voter frustration with the status quo in Washington DC. That may be part of the reason, but I believe that the rise in the use of the Internet is also helping to fuel voter engagement. The web allows voters to actually participate in the process and have their voice heard before Election Day.

Before, the candidates just spoke to the voters and it was a one-way interaction. Now voters have more opportunities to engage in a dialogue and ask questions, thus increasing voter engagement. Voters’ concerns with Washington are helping, but this new medium is very quickly impacting how political campaigns are run on a fundamental level. Candidates that monitor and engage in these discussions will have a stronger insight into what the electorate is concerned about. The same can be said about any institution, organization or corporation.

Election Engagement for Higher Education

July 24, 2006

There are a little over 100 days left until mid-term elections in November. This election will not only have an impact at the federal level but also at state legislatures around the country. These newly elected state legislators and governors will have a tremendous impact on public and private universities around the country.

Too many institutions wait until after the election to educate elected officials. But the election is often an ideal time for this to happen. The interaction should be occurring between university advocates (alumni, faculty, staff and students) and legislative candidates, not by university leadership, because election time is often when elected officials are the most likely to listen to constituents.

Here are ways that you can encourage advocates to get involved:

1. Vote
While this may be the most obvious, it is still important to encourage people to vote and be registered to vote. Meet with student government and organization leaders to learn how your institution can help them register students to vote. Federal law actually requires that higher education institutions provide voter registration cards to every student.

2. Become an educated voter
Encourage advocates to research where candidates stand on issues that affect your institution. Provide advocates with a list of questions for candidates.

3. Urge candidates to support your institution
Many candidates will be conducting door-to-door visits and be at many community events. These are great opportunities for advocates to talk to candidates about the value of the institution. Provide advocates with some talking points. The easier you make it the more likely it is that advocates will carry out your requests.

4. Encourage advocates to donate to, or volunteer for, candidates they personally support
During the waning days of a legislative session, legislators are more likely to listen to people with whom they have a relationship. Campaigns are a good opportunity for your advocates to develop stronger relationships with elected officials, which may eventually benefit your institution. Make it clear that advocates can support whichever candidate they support and that the institution does not support or endorse candidates.

Why create a word of mouth network

April 02, 2006

In my last post, I discussed how a survey found that marketers believed that advertising is less effective than it was two years ago. One of the ways that marketers are addressing this shift is by developing word-of-mouth networks. Wikipedia defines word of mouth as “the passing of information by verbal means, in an informal, person-to-person manner.”

This tactic is nothing new for marketers. For a long time word of mouth was described as buzz. Although, it wasn’t a tactic that was often employed because television advertising was felt to be the most effective way to reach the public. In the Internet age, word of mouth networks are extremely crucial to sell any product or build public support for any legislative issue.

For many in the public affairs realm, creating word of mouth networks is extremely difficult for them to do. It is difficult because many they do not want to give up the control that is necessary for these sort of campaigns to be effective.

The dinosaurs in the public affairs world believe that as long as they raise enough money to spend on advertsing that their issue or candidate will win. This assumes that you have the right message that is going to resonate with voters. But even if you spend a lot of time with focus groups refining your message your audience is not guaranteed to respond to it. This problem arises because of the speed at which information travels and changes. What may have worked 3 months ago during a focus group now no longer works because the debate on your issue has continued to evolve. So how do you address this problem?

You should develop a grassroots base of supporters that can defend and build support for your issue. Markets are now conversations that constantly evolve. Anyone that is trying to sell something should understand that the attitudes of customers, constituents, and the general public are constantly changing. A grassroots base allows you to listen to those conversations and employ your supporters to introduce your message to their word of mouth networks.

Organizations and corporations that are able employ their supporters to speak out will be better able to advance their issues.

Using March Madness Creatively

March 16, 2006

Today, Colleges and Universities from across the country walked onto the court in the annual NCAA Basketball tournament. This tournament is big business for many institutions across the country. It provides great exposure for many small (and large) institutions and brings in substantial revenue for the NCAA. Inside Higher Education reported that the tournament brings in 90 percent of the revenue for the NCAA.

American Action Progress (AAP) fund launched a different type of tournament this week. Their competition highlights some of the academic problems that effect many of the institutions competing in the NCAA men’s tournament. Check out their brackets here:

The campaign indirectly pressures corporate sponsors such as Nike, Adidas, and Reebok to urge institutions to improve their graduation rates for student athletes. This group does a very effective job at applying pressure to the right people and they creatively bring this issue to light.

These types of campaigns will become more prevalent as public and private institutions rely more on corporate donations/sponsorships to fund athletic programs. Higher education institutions need to be prepared for these types of direct and indirect campaigns. The Internet makes it easier for these groups to effectively get their message out to the public and stakeholders.


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