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May 07, 2009

You Don't Know "Chuck"


Your most vocal online supporters may not be representative of your supporter base

Always have a online community plan when it's time to make changes

Focus attention on desired community actions and providing the tools to empower your supporters


I know what you're thinking.  Will the NBC series Chuck make it another year?  Perhaps that wasn't on the top of your mind, but now you're probably wondering what Chuck has to do with non profits.  Hold that thought - I'll get to it in just a minute.

Back to Chuck's survival.  Thousands of twittering fans are clamoring for its return next season.  Unfortunately for these avid fans, they don't run NBC.  That hasn't stopped them from organizing online in support of the show and its sponsors - Subway in particular.  Yup, thousands of die hard fans are demonstrating their support by buying up six inch turkey and meatball Subway sandwiches.  Despite their efforts, the show still appears to be in jeopardy.  So what does it take to keep a show on the air?  Eyeballs.

NBC isn't approaching this decision without precedent.  Competing network CBS went through something similar when it canceled the show Jericho.  Fans rallied and sent over 40,000 lbs of nuts to CBS since they were, err, nuts for the show.  CBS agreed to put the show back on the air and sent a letter to its fans to thank them and, among other things, to let them know what to do to ensure the show stayed on the air.  This excerpt was taken from that letter (which the nut distributor Nuts Online posted on its website):

A loyal and passionate community has clearly formed around the show. But that community needs to grow. It needs to grow on the CBS Television Network, as well as on the many digital platforms where we make the show available.

We will count on you to rally around the show, to recruit new viewers with the same grass-roots energy, intensity and volume you have displayed in recent weeks.

Guess what didn't happen?  Growth.  Fans were able to organize for the show, but were not able to grow the fan base, which is what CBS needed to make the business case to keep the show.  Definitely a shame for the show's fans, but you can hardly blame CBS.  Moving forward to Chuck's current situation, it's hard to believe that NBC isn't making a similar calculation.

According to Josh Bernoff on AdAge and Groundswell there is an important lesson here:

Thousands of visible, loyal viewers does not equal millions of actual viewers. Objects in the groundswell may be smaller than they appear. People who congregate online are not a representative sample.

So what does this have to do with non-profits?  Here are a few lessons that I took from these experiences:

First, keep it in perspective.  Your most vocal supporters are extremely important and influential whether they are on Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, a blog, or your own internal website, but they are only a small fraction of your overall base of supporters and/or service recipients.  Don't avoid making hard decisions or changes better for the community at large out of fear of alienating this group.

That said, have a plan.  Undoubtedly there will come a time when you may need to go against your most vocal online supporters.  If you don't have a community manager, get one!  They will keep you tapped into your online community and will know best how to navigate change.  Make sure s/he develops a solid plan for acknowledging, empowering, preparing, and communicating with your online supporters about the upcoming changes.  Your plan should be comprehensive and should encompass those channels (i.e. Twitter, Facebook, etc.) where discussions are happening about your organization, whether or not you are in control of it.  You've heard the pitfalls of not doing so (think Tropicana), but the benefits of a well thought out plan can lead to a stronger, more committed supporter base.

Lastly, online ruckus-making does not necessarily result in desired offline action.  Jericho fans were not able to recruit a sufficient number of new viewers.  For your non-profit, your metric may be petition signatures, community growth, or even service delivery.  Make sure your supporters have the tools they need to do what you want - simply asking them to take action may not be enough.


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Well said, Joel. In my experience working at a cable network, our online community fans were often passionate in their love (or hatred) for a show, but they were not necessarily the ones with Nielsen boxes (or who had friends with them) in their homes.

Luckily non-profits don't have the Nielsen box issues. Social charisma of individual posters can encourage their friends to join a campaign, sign a petition, etc.

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