I’ve been buried since my visit with the Spirit of America people in L.A. 3 weeks ago. I wanted to understand what the most interesting pressing concerns are and whether I might be helpful. I mentioned before that SoA connects the needs of people in Iraq and Afghanistan with willing donors in the US. Jim Hake, SoA’s Founder, Angel Investor and CEO, calls it “entrepreneurial humanitarianism”. The people of America are calling it good sense. Explaining it to a bunch of smart, tech-savvy people last weekend, the best description occurred to me:
Spirit of America: just-in-time peer-to-peer foreign aid
I’m taking on a full time involvement with Spirit of America to see how killer a web app we can put together. By killer, I mean a site that collects and catalogues all requests and exposes the needs and responses to all interested parties.
SoA has two very talented programmers working on contract, Donovan Janus in L.A. and Rhesa Rozendaal in the Netherlands. Donovan is also Dutch, but has lived in the US for four years. Donovan is candid about their respective roles, “I’m a really good programmer, but Rhesa’s a great programmer.” They built and manage Exposure Manager which, it turns out, is a unique set of services to host digital photography, present galleries, and offer prints (yeah. physical product) for sale, through a commercial processor. It’s received raves from Glenn Reynolds, which never hurts business. Instapundit’s gallery is here.
Naturally, I’m encouraging Donovan and Rhesa to develop a blogger program, so that people who’ve archived history or art can make a buck or three without leaving the comfort of their den. Hell, people would pay big money for a print of Jeff Jarvis’ classic golf swing!
Tiger by the Tail
Spirit of America had quite a roller coaster ride in April. After posting a request for a $90,000 project, several newspapers described the project and the web site’s switchboard lit up to the tune of $1,300,000.
Is this, like, even legal? I mean, isn’t this what government is for? Don’t we have to carefully weigh the various demands and study them in committee? And make sure we don’t move too quickly? It turns out we don’t. Here again, the web is disintermediating something that seemed like it was locked up in an “official” function forever. As a cyberlibertarian, this is how I think the world should work, P2P good works. It took just 21 days from the time of the request to equip TV stations in Iraq’s Al Anbar province to delivery of the equipment.
The great story though, is what happened about 6 weeks later when Spirit of America delivered 50 commercial sewing machines to a new sewing cooperative set up in Ramadi by “The Organization of Creative Women in New Iraq”. Here’s the report from one of the soldiers working with Spirit of America, Major Holden Dunham, USMC:
This works on so many levels. It’s a women’s organization. The women are gaining economic clout. Individual American citizens, their empathy and abundance leveraged and focused by the Internet, have reached out to touch individual Iraqi citizens with new jobs, new opportunities and a newfound enthusiasm for economic freedom. Yep, Spirit of America is a collection of disruptive technologies.
It’s especially gratifying that the local TV station that covered the story used equipment donated by the same SoA Iraqi fans who sent over the sewing machines. In fact, the TV stations exist only because of the equipment sent by Spirit of America.
Re-purposing the funds
What, you ask, happened to the $1.1 million that SoA didn’t need for the Al Anbar TV stations? We sent out a mailing to ask what we should do with the excess. The options are to 1) use the money for any Soa purpose, 2) limit it to any support of populist media (or refund the excess), 3) use it only to support the Al Anbar TV stations (or refund the excess); 4) refund the excess.
Here are the responses as of Sunday noon, EDT:
Party opportunity lost: This response, which came in the Thursday before July 4th, was typical. Atypically, we didn’t follow this donor’s directions. There are limits to our responsiveness:
Guy Kawasaki, the magnetic personality who rose from jewelry salesman to Apple’s Mac evangelist to venture capitalist, once said that there are four criteria of great software. It must be:
As remarkable as it is that I would assume a full time commitment, what may be more remarkable is that we at SoA have a real opportunity to develop a DICE-y suite of tools for organizations that want to engage, seduce and bond with its stakeholders. Here’s how.
Every time a person hears about an organization, they usually check out its web site. As we have all learned, the site can be seductive or sucky. Interestingly, that’s a choice that the organization makes. The principles are fairly obvious, but the will to stick to obvious principles is not common. Do we care enough to draw out the new visitor and engage her in the promise and thrill of our work? Or do we simply mimic our competition?
Every organization wants its visitors to register at the site and to share as much information as possible. Then the organization instinctively seeks to keep asking for more from the new member of the site: more sales, more attention, to put up with more annoyance.
At the Dean campaign, we discovered quickly that an email that’s welcome on Monday is spam by Thursday. How can an organization optimize the sales or support it gets from its members without pissing them off doing it?
Excitement First there must be a reason to share more than a modest bit of registration data. That requires an exciting product or cause, a Howard Dean, Spirit of America or, some would argue, a Mini Cooper or a Macintosh. (Wendy’s, much though they might yearn for an unofficial spokesman, just look silly when they show actors doing it.) So the first step after getting some snippet of registration info is to establish a meaningful connection with your new member.
Connection to the Cause is the precursor to “stickiness.” There must be a two-way connection between the member and the site. The member is there because the product is, as Alan Kay used to say of the Macintosh, good enough to be worth criticizing. Criticism is a blessing: customers willing to invest time helping design the next rev of your product. The way to connect to your members is to know they have important wisdom to add to the community surrounding your worthwhile effort. Armed with that internal conviction you need to exhort your members to not hold back their suggestions. Here’s where you list what you already do and the next obvious things you haven’t done yet and seek real ideas from the huge brain trust surrounding the meager set of ideas at the home office. Pop-up lists of unrealized possibilities and probing questions seeking fresh ideas, if you’re skilled and lucky, can convince people to spend time telling you what to do. As the member invests this time, you can often get more personal information from him.
Connection with Other Believers is the blessed event where one member reaches out to another in an authentic, unexpected and welcome way. In the case of a cause like a political campaign or Spirit of America, the members are enthusiastic until your web site bores them, or worse, drives them away. Having discovered where the new member lives and what parts of your cause she likes, you can encourage other members to initiate that connection. (Obviously, you cannot give a new member’s email address to another member. You must forward the message much as UserLand does when you click on that little envelope on the left of this page:
Pull is the reason to return to the site after the first flush of enthusiasm. If the product or cause is exciting, it’s probable that it’s touching people’s lives. In that case, the stories need to be collected and posted often enough that there’s a reason to return. Obviously, the centerpiece of any web site is the official blog. This is where you post the news that’s actually news. If there is no actual news, then you don’t have a cause – game over.
Hyper-Connectivity is what happens when the members start connecting and doing real things together in the real world. User groups, clubs, support groups, volunteers – however they express their collective enthusiasms, this is the tipping point for any organization. It’s what happened spontaneously with the Dean campaign and Spirit of America, but it needs support and encouragement from the web site. At Spirit of America, we’ll provide a collaboration module, called Teams, where any member can invite others to join up for anything ranging from a cuppa Joe tomorrow morning to a 3-year campaign for reliable drinking water in Iraq.
Friends don’t let friends not register As I’ve suggested before, each member needs a convenient way to upload a list of their contacts to the site and to invite them, in a secure and respectful way, to perform a one-click registration. (Heh. Mebbe I oughtta patent OneClick registration…;-).
Acts II and III
Registration is where most web sites stop, and rely on spam and the magic of their “content” to increase membership and skyrocket their company into the stratosphere of fame and fortune. Well. We’ve seen the future, and it isn’t that. Stopping at registration is like inviting friends over, only to leave them in their dripping raincoats in the foyer, holding their hats and umbrellas, wondering what’s next. Where’s the love?
In this ideal registration sequence, this cause needs as much direction and wisdom it can get from newbies, who look at the organization with beginner’s mind and can teach us so much more than we can teach them. By asking which of our activities are most exciting, we’ll hope to get more information about the newby, not to spam her and impose broadcast techniques, but to discover who else in our community shares her interests, and to connect her with like-minded people. But the communication is among them, with just a bit from us.
Insert Picture, Cut 1,000 Words
This is what I’d hoped to inspire at the Dean campaign. It’s not clear that it would have made a difference, but it’s a chance for the world to tell this dilettante to go back to the bat cave. Although I was happy to put my money where my mouth was up in Burlington, this is even more of a commitment to testing these ideas in the public laboratory.