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Changes at Change.org: A Media Hub for Social Action

BY Micah L. Sifry | Saturday, October 11 2008

Is it possible to build a successful web portal and community hub around issues and activism? So far, no one has succeeded in this quest, though there a lot of people trying and one could argue that sites as diverse as DailyKos.com, Townhall.com, and Idealist.org each play this kind of role for tens of thousands of reader/members, and projects like the Facebook Causes platform built by Project Agape, Razoo, Changing the Present, Donors Choose and Kiva.org each have somewhat similar aspirations.

One of the longer-distance runners in this search for the holy grail of social change organizing online is Ben Rattray of Change.org, who Josh Levy and I wrote up back in December 2007. Back then, Change.org was going through its first major re-design, shifting from focusing on individual users looking to connect with specific causes, to a platform for organizations looking for a ready-to-use social network toolset tuned to their members. The elevator pitch Rattray used with us was that Change was "Ning for non-profits," and he thought the new approach would not only meld well with the site's 50,000 members but would also, through subscription revenue, help float Change.org's boat.

Well, now Rattray is on to a new vision and strategy to expand Change.org's reach, and as close readers of this site already know, he lured Josh away with promises of untold riches and seventy virgins to help him build it out. (No, we are not bitter.) Earlier this week I had a chance to chat with both of them about this new approach, and here are my notes on the conversation.

The fundamental strategic move that Change.org is making is to recognize that search is THE dominant way people find stuff on the web today, and that when you search for issues like "global warming" or "homelessness" or "animal rights" the top results rarely point you to links that answer the question, "how can I do something about this?" A Wikipedia entry on global warming may be very useful if what you're doing is writing a term paper on the topic or just want to brush up on your understanding of the issue, but by definition Wikipedia pages don't offer advocacy suggestions. So Change.org is gunning to win the search fight around issues, by hiring expert bloggers who will act as daily guides, or curators, around each topic. Says Ben:

"I see the old Change.org as a failure, but full of lessons. It’s extremely difficult to build a critical mass of people AND content, as Project Agape has shown. If you look at DailyKos, it’s an awesome example of a hybrid approach of top-down and bottom up. On the old Change.org, the user experience kind of sucked. You could get lost, not finding the community conversation.

So, we’re approaching this from this starting point, 'I care about an issue like AIDS in Africa, or global warming, or human trafficking,' and no one is really helping you figure out what you can do. You Google those terms, and you don’t really get good results."

Josh adds, "I should be able to search 'human rights' and get more than static pages from nonprofits." And that's the second key part of their strategy: to win in search, they will offer a ton of dynamic, up-to-date content around key issues. Says Ben: "We want to aggregate and filter and provide context. If I care about human rights, what do I need to know, what’s going on in this space, and how do I connect to others. And the big difference is rather than have everything happen on Change.org, we want to point out to most compelling content on the web or the most useful actions. Rather than thinking of other sites as competitors, they’re our content. We want to be a media hub for social action."

That said, they are planning to do more than blog the news of the day on an issue, or list hundreds of available actions a motivated reader can take. Each of their topic bloggers will aim to provide real focus to readers. Ben says, "I don't want to see 8500 campaigns about global warming." And Josh adds, "The idea is to create trusted sources on each issue."

If this sounds a lot like what Jason Calacanis or Nick Denton might do if they cared about politics, that's no coincidence. Says Ben, "This is very much a Weblogs, Inc. strategy. I really want to own this space." He adds:

There’s two audiences that we want. In a fragmented media landscape, there are blogs that will promote causes, and we can work with them on competitions, contests, and other special events. In addition, we have a real opportunity amongst the 50,000 to 100,000 people who really care about global warming, or the 20,000 people who care about human trafficking. If you have a daily blog covering that space, naming names, you get a huge influx from those niche communities.

This is not to say that Change.org is abandoning its social networking roots. The site has ported over all of its old member-originated content, and thus if you are one of the 120,000 people who created an account there in the past two years, you'll find you still have a profile that tracks the money you've raised, the actions you've taken and the number of people you've recruited to your causes. Like Facebook, the site lets you friend other users and track each other's activities. And Change.org still draws on a huge database of more than 1 million non-profits, so participants have a lot of latitude to use the site to rally support for groups they like.

I think that Ben and Josh and crew may be on to something. There's no question that most, if not all, advocacy organizations are poorly designed for the web. Organization websites are invariably static billboards written in an impersonal voice. And they're absolutely right that on many issues, a Google search doesn't produce satisfying results.

But it's far from clear that a blog intensive strategy will succeed in getting Change.org's cause pages to the top of search results. Heck, Denton has been running Consumerist for more than a year now, but if you search for "consumer" or "consumer outrage" or "consumer rip-off" you won't find it on the first page of results. Ben and Josh are going to have to pay close attention to SEO as they go forward to make this strategy work.

I also think they've got to make each Change.org landing page really engaging. If they're right, and people will come to the site looking to answer the question "What can I do about this issue?" then they've really got to highlight immediate actions that visitors can take, or somehow draw them in to a vital conversation about that issue that will make visitors want to stick around. Can individual blogger-curators do this? Well, obviously people like Markos Moulitsas have shown that it's possible--but it's not easy.

Change.org also has a bigger problem to address: on many of its chosen causes, the actions suggested are hardly up to the task at hand. The top action on the Humanitarian Relief page is a call to, I kid you not, literally stand up "between 9pm GMT on Oct. 16th and 9pm GMT on Oct. 17th and be counted towards a Guinness World Record for the most people to Stand Up and Speak Out for a cause." It might feel good to do this, but it ain't going to thing to actually end extreme poverty. The ...but doesn't exactly help the visitor find one.

I hate to end this post on such a tough note, but it needs to be said. If Change.org is going to grow as an online community and a web portal for people searching to get involved in issues and causes, it's going to have to struggle with the same problem we all have when it comes to social change. Beyond giving busy people a five minute action like making a donation or signing a petition or forwarding a message, how do we get salient numbers of people organized in support of actions that have lasting, systemic effects?

The answer that partisan political websites give is, win a majority of seats in Congress. The answer that sites like Idealist or Kiva or Donors Choose give is, make a donation of time or money. Change.org's team may come up with a new answer, something like, "band together through this site to see your individual actions combined into something greater." Will that be enough to get people to keep coming back, and to spread the word? Time will tell. Good luck Ben and Josh!