With a year of data on hand, we've learned a few lessons about effective social change communications from the way visitors interact with the features we built into our new website.

A year ago, I wrote “What’s New about the New LivingCities.Org,” with the purpose of highlighting a series of interactive features we’d built into the design of our new website. We believed that these features would streamline the experience of navigating the site and discovering content, facilitate discussion, and connect you with the emergent ideas and promising practices we were seeing in our work.

We’ve kept an eye on how that’s been working all year long. We even designed intentional engagement strategies around some of those features - part of our work on three Pilot Projects to understand “what works” about our efforts to open-source social change. Ultimately, open-sourcing social change is about shared learning and continuous improvement. We make the best of what we’re learning - the most valuable lessons - open and accessible, in real time, so that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. That practice helps us collect feedback in an ongoing way, and in turn, we learn from your experiences, ideas and insights. We believe this process can accelerate the pace and scale of change in our collective work.

How is the Living Cities website working for you? Add your thoughts 

As I think about what that means for social change communications, I’ve stepped back examine those interactive features we launched a year ago. How are they working to connect you with emergent ideas, spark discussion and bring your work closer to dramatically better results? I’d love to hear from you, directly, about your experience with our new site. In the meantime, here’s what the data has revealed about two of these features:

Building a Shared Language for Systems Change

Sometimes, people use different words to mean the same thing. In social change work, especially when you’re collaborating with partners from sectors that may have their own jargon, this can cause confusion and distrust. That’s why we launched a definition feature on the new website. The feature–displayed as an orange highlight around the word, term, or phrase–allows contributors to clearly define and add context to the terms they use to talk about their work.

“Language is critical to catalyzing change.” - Tynesia Boyea-Robinson

While we have been encouraged to discover that our web visitors are actually clicking on these terms, triggering the pop-up definitions that help them learn more, the feature had an unintended outcome. More often than not, when we suggested that a contributor add a definition box to the word, term, or phrase they were using, that contributor went back and re-worked their content so that the language was clearer and more accessible. Sometimes, this “wordsmithing” negated the need for further definition. As an editor, and someone who is passionate about social change communications, observing this trend has been very exciting. Tynesia Boyea-Robinson, our Director of Collective Impact, expertly notes that “language is critical to catalyzing change.” By launching the definition feature, we were able to spark the behaviors that Tynesia finds are key to catalyzing change: 1) using language that resonates with your audience and 2) iterating to find language that works.

Of course, we’re still using the definition feature when it’s needed. Sometimes, we do need additional context. And we continue to iterate and test messages to learn what language most effectively moves hearts and minds.

Engaging Others to Make Our Work Better

We know that interconnected problems require interconnected solutions, and that this requires players from across-sectors to come together in new ways. It requires us all to share what we’re learning in real time, to talk to one another and learn from one another so we’re not constantly reinventing the wheel. So, on our new website, we built in a “discussion prompt” feature to help facilitate conversation and sharing on the platform itself.

Visitors were more likely to take the time to compose a response when someone else had done so first.

At first, uptake was slow. We found that, while blogs with discussion prompts did receive comments more often than blog without them, they weren’t sparking the level of engagement and discussion we’d hoped to see. Yet, the few comments we did receive were helpful and the feedback was valuable to our work. We started asking how we could take “discussion” to the next level, and decided to build some tests into our Pilot Projects. One series of tests was particularly insightful. We made discussion prompts a key element of each blog in our 4Ps of Pay For Success (PFS) series. Through the blogs, and discussion prompts, we made it explicit that we were looking to receive feedback on the 4Ps framework and on our approach to PFS. We also reached out to thought-leaders, including our own staff, and asked them to seed discussion in the comment section. We monitored if folks were clicking on the prompt to answer, or if they directly responded to questions in the comment section. What we found was that it took a combination of approaches to spark substantive conversation. Plenty of visitors were clicking on the prompts, encouragingly. We were getting somewhere by posing questions! But, visitors were more likely to take the time to compose a response when someone else had done so first. Seeding conversation also had the effect of deepening engagement.

We’re continuing to explore the trends test other hypotheses around what it takes to spark conversation in the comment section. We’ll take our lesson to design strategies and other features to make comments and conversation course-of-business on our site.

Testing new ideas and experimenting with nonprofit communications strategies is a core part of our work. We hope our efforts help you understand how to better advance shared learning and facilitate the co-creation of ideas across social change efforts. Check-out a few other projects that are informing our strategies. And please share your own experience in the comment section!