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Using "Big Listening" and "Distributed Campaigning," Upwell Seeks a Sea-Change in Ocean Organizing

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, September 25 2012

Social mentions of "Shark Week" from 2010-present, courtesy Upwell

In 2008, people watched videos about the Obama or McCain campaigns 1.5 billion times; just ten percent of those views were garnered by videos made directly by the campaigns. So far in 2012, according to a recent report by YouTube, there have been nearly 2 billion views of videos about the presidential candidates, with just five percent of those being official campaign videos.

In other words, if you work in politics, you're swimming in a sea of social media. The content you make aimed at influencing the public--press releases, reports, events, infographics, videos--is all just a tributary in a much larger flood of civic chatter. Messages you want to spread sometimes catch a wave, but more often than not you are being carried by larger currents and unexpected shifts in public attention. (Think Trayvon Martin, Komen, ALEC, Kony2012…)

Most advocacy organizations are just starting to try to understand this new environment, let alone adapt to it. But in the last year, a handful of intriguing new efforts--some not-for-profit and some for-profit--have emerged that are surfing these waves with rising degrees of sophistication, such as Upworthy, Twitchy,, and Thunderclap. In this article, we're going to look at Upwell, a nonprofit that describes itself as "a data-driven social media PR agency" with just one client, the ocean, and just one goal: more people talking about the ocean.

Big Listening
Last year, the Ocean Conservancy decided that it wanted to create a "war room" for the U.S. marine conservation community that would monitor public attention to ocean issues and lead timely campaigns to raise awareness. Armed with a million-dollar seed grant from the Waitt Foundation, they hired Rachel Weidinger, then the head of international marketing for TechSoup and a longtime "communications for good" professional. But instead of asking her to promote the Ocean Conservancy and its initiatives, Weidinger was given a much broader assignment: "to condition the climate for change" in ocean-related activism and to do so in a way that was "brand agnostic."

So instead of worrying whether a particular group or spokesperson is getting attention, Upwell's staff is looking at the big picture of what drives public attention to the ocean and how to empower anyone who is evangelizing for saving them from the climate crisis, acidification, over-fishing and the like.

I recently had the chance to interview Weidinger while, appropriately enough, on an hour-long ferry ride crossing the strait between Vancouver Island and Vancouver. We followed up with a second conversation here in New York City while she was visiting. (Upwell is based in San Francisco.) The more we talked, the more convinced I became that what Weidinger and her staff of seven are doing is a new kind of online political organizing, one that is striving to get its arms around all the ways individuals and groups now participate in political life, grab hold of the moments and moods that move people, and pro-actively weave a network of more coordinated effort out of the usual cacophony. It's very much an experiment, but the early data they're sharing is quite suggestive.

Upwell starts with what Weidinger calls "big listening." Using a variety of tools, they're tracking all "social mentions" of the ocean anywhere in English. That includes tweets, public Facebook posts, blog posts or comments, mentions on boards and forums, mainstream news coverage, and to some degree even photo and video tagging. A big chunk of their budget--$60,000 a year--goes to Radian6, a social media monitoring service that is mainly used by well-heeled corporate clients.

"Upwell tracks social mentions because they're a concrete action," Weidinger says on the group's website. "Creating a blog post, retweeting or posting a video is a bigger deal that just viewing content. We track ocean content creators. These makers drive the online conversation."

Using Radian6's tools, Upwell's staff has built keyword sets around eight key ocean subjects: marine protected areas, sustainable seafood, ocean acidification, overfishing, the Gulf of Mexico, tuna, sharks and cetaceans. In some cases, they've paid for data going back as far as three years, and from that they've been able to build a set of baselines for the median level of public mentions for each of these topics. This then enables Upwell to quickly notice when an event or some other stimulus appears to be causing the ocean-related conversation to spike.

Their biggest discovery so far: the public loves sharks. Note: loves, not fears. While the Upwell team is wary of so-called "sentiment analysis," their analysis of prominent word pairings discovered that the bulk of social mentions of sharks were celebratory ("sharks are awesome"!) with less than a quarter emphasizing people's fears. They also found that "Shark Week," the Discovery Channel's annual August marketing blitz, was far and away the most consequential time of the year for mentions of sharks: "the Superbowl of shark," in Weidinger's words. In 2011, there were more than 740,000 social mentions of sharks that week, compared to between 40,000 and 70,000 a week during the rest of the year.

Armed with that historical data and insight, Upwell decided to hold a series of "sharkinars" for marine conservation communications staffers, to help them prepare for this year's Shark Week, which they predicted could be three times as big as in 2011. Or, as their blog put it, "when you see that fin-shaped spike, it's time to get into the (social media) water."

"Traditionally," Weidinger told me, "the conservation sector has viewed Shark Week as horribly sensationalized. But we were, like, this is the high point of people talking about sharks all year."

So Upwell posted detailed tips on how best to wade into the conversation without turning people off. (Share the celebration, for starters.) They also mined their data and blogged in advance about the top influencers in the marine conservation arena, to help knit some free agents into the network. And finally, they collected and curated a smorgasbord of photos and infographics that groups could use most successfully for social sharing during Shark Week. After all that preparation, "we asked people what their plans were and let them just share what they were planning, rather than pushing them to all retweet the same thing," Weidinger added.

In other words, Upwell used Shark Week to foster a network of formal and informal influencers and engaged them in advance with useful tips and content. And they got results. While the overall Shark Week conversation grew by 109% according to Radian6's data, to nearly two million mentions, the shark conservation community's share of that grew by an even greater amount, 210%. The people Upwell engaged not only participated more, they were mentioned more by other participants in the much larger overall conversation.

Was this just a drop in the ocean? (So sorry.) Says Weidinger, "The idea is that Upwell's work with online attention will significantly increase public awareness of the crisis the ocean is facing. With this new base, we hope to give ocean policy work and consumer behavior campaigns some serious footing to stand on. Finally."

Distributed Campaigning
An earlier initiative around World Oceans Day, last June 8th, taught the Upwell team some subtle lessons about how best to get organizations that ostensibly have the same goals, but also compete for attention, to work in tandem. "We made a huge mistake in that campaign in trying to get everyone to use the same hashtag, #worldoceansday," Weidinger told me.

"We were talking to all the mid-level communications people at these organizations." she noted "For most of them, social media is an email list-building device. They all had siloed campaigns they were running on World Oceans Day."

Weidinger recounted trying to get them to all work together. "'Sorry'," we were told, 'we can't even retweet you.'" On the basis of that experience, she decided "it would be crazy to spend years getting to the point where people can retweet each other." That insight led straight into the revamped approach Upwell took around Shark Week, sharing everyone's efforts and making sure participants knew why coalescing around particular themes and terms would be important.

The "Tide Report," Upwell's daily email, is another evolving tool in its portfolio. Geared for busy communications professionals who work on ocean issues, along with "social media nerds" and evangelists, these little newsletters are beginning to get a following among online strategists impressed with their quality and spunk. They're also really focused on building and reinforcing a community feeling, or, if you don't mind yet one more ocean pun, nurturing a school of fish swimming in the same direction. Last Friday's email called out several people by name for having joined in an alert on a European Parliament Fisheries Committee vote, updated readers on a successful but-not-quite-yet finished campaign to get Livestrong to stop featuring shark-fin recipes, and shared an amazing picture of a puffer fish "circle of love" that was total Facebook sharing bait.

This curated email is really one of Weidinger's obsessions. As it got going, she had a staff intern mail a thank you postcard to every individual who signed up--many of whom remember the touch. And she and her staff zealously track their daily open rates, going so far as to use Mailchimp's "Golden Monkey" app to sound an audio ping in their office every time one of their key influencers clicks open. Metrics are god at Upwell.

And so is experimentation. If you read Upwell's blog, and in particular the posts coming out of its "Attention Lab," you'll find yourself invited into a fairly open process of trial and error. A post about NOAA's Mission Aquarius project in July digs into how NOAA builds online engagement. A look at a comparison between mainstream media coverage of the Kardashians and ocean acidification offers the bemused discovery that simply including the celebrities in the study probably produced a big spike in online discussion of the more serious issue. In sharing these findings, Upwell isn't just showing off its smarts--it's drawing other smart social media practitioners into its internal conversation, which can only make everyone a bit smarter.

Ultimately, that's the main reason why it's worth paying attention to Upwell, even if you aren't an ocean enthusiast. The techniques and savvy that Weidinger and her team are learning, modeling and deploying have uses far beyond that single issue. For one thing, every advocacy organization can apply these ways of listening and acting to their own work. Jim Pugh, CTO for Rebuild the Dream and the former Director of Analytics and Development at the DNC, says this about Upwell's approach: "Organizations that focus on moving hearts and minds typically don't have any good way to measure the quantitative impact of their work, so if they're able to build a system to accurately track that, it would be a big step forward."

But thinking bigger, it would be pretty interesting if more funders copied Ted Waitt and the Waitt Foundation and seeded similarly open, brand-agnostic listening and campaigning hubs for other issues. Imagine an OpenWell for the transparency movement, or a UpStrike for labor, or a FemCast for the women's movement. Entire sectors of the advocacy arena might be transformed in the process.