Friday, November 6, 2009

improving our online outreach during times of distress

When Ondoy hit I was, very fortunately, safe in a house that didn’t even experience a black out or power fluctuations. It was only on that Saturday afternoon, when I started seeing frantic photos, videos and status updates on Facebook, that I realized that something was really wrong. I stayed tuned to my social network that weekend to keep in touch with what was happening, not once checking the news.

People were calling for help and sharing ways to reach out. Facebook and Twitter were abuzz with shoutouts and calls-to-action. Very quickly, the links to Google Maps (with updates on the flooded areas) and Google Spreadsheet (with the ways to help) were spread via social media.

No doubt that citizen journalism and volunteerism were able to exceed the efforts of traditional mass media outlets. Real-time updates and responses, more credible because they were done by people in my immediate online network.

Unfortunately the Philippines has become a sort of hotbed for tropical depressions (after Ondoy there was Pepeng, and several others) and we could easily be hit by another catastrophic storm.

So how about next time? Is there anything we can do to improve our online outreach? Is there anything that can be improved on the design or user interface side?

Came across an interesting article that addresses this on Threeminds. (The title makes it sound like it is about design, but it is more about content and use of the right platforms. Still, very helpful.):

When Good Design Could Save Lives

"On September 26, 2009, Typhoon Ondoy brought a month's worth of rainfall to Metro Manila and nearby areas in just a few hours, causing severe flooding which resulted in the loss of many lives and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. 8 days later, Typhoon Pepeng struck the northern regions causing more damage. This site compiles relevant information about the disaster, including a volunteer-maintained map of persons needing rescue and a list of relief organizations accepting donations, so that more help can be provided where it is needed."

There is no denying that Google's efforts are admirable and for a great cause. So it's hard to suggest that the site they developed to rally people around the Typhoon Ondoy cause could benefit majorly from improved design and usability. Normally, as marketers, we get the benefit of a specific demographic we are trying to address and for a defined product. In the case of large scale disasters, the demographic really is everyone, and the emotions you are trying to illicit is everything from awareness to action.

Knowing the need for action is great and the design challenge is real, I sent the site around to some colleagues. Together, we tried to come up with a few of best practices for making cause-based sites more effective...

1. Provide clear direction on needs, goals, and progress. Help users understand where the need is the greatest.
"I often feel a little helpless when massive events like this happen, if for no other reason than I don't even know where to begin helping. Is sending cash the right thing, do rescue workers need provisions that can't be locally sourced, etc?" James Vreeland
The current page leaves the user with too many questions. What's already been donated? What are the areas of need? What could my money be going towards? Is there something that needs to be donated besides money? Giving user a list of numbers to call only makes them feel overwhelmed, not motivated.

2. Use stories, not numbers. Stories make the user feel closer to the cause, while numbers often do the opposite.
The current Ondoy page isn't organized to elicit a reaction... not emotional or actionable. With so many charity stories and good causes out there competing for attention, incorporating a story of an actual person affected does more good than stats and charts. People need to be moved and then lead to action.

3. Harness the power and reach of social media to generate interconnectivity and spring users into action.
Google has seem to forgotten the "share this" button. No tweet this, no Facebook that. While links are simple and becoming ubiquitous, that simple addition could have made all the difference. Google could have also considered something like for quickly bringing folks together, especially now that Twitter is rolling in geolocation data.

#ihave a spare bedroom for up to 3 nights
#ineed a place to sleep, my house burnt down

It works best for big events, not one-off needs, but it is still an interesting way to connect at a personal level, those who have with those who need.

- Marta Strickland

{Original post here.}

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