Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Walking with Dinosaurs

I had a meeting today with a not-to-be-named educational financial service provider about a potential content sharing relationship that would improve information for college-bound low-income students. They are going through a number of financial troubles, so that they are cutting back their "community funding", which is understandable. What we were offering was to license a portion their content and distribute it on the Beehive with appropriate attribution branding.

A Win-Win?

It was what would appear as a classic win-win. They would use our channel to get their content (and related branding, as we vetted the content as being accurate and non-commercial) about how to appropriately finance a college education for low-income folks and we would get what we saw as solid content by experts that they would help maintain.

Upload Digital, Download Print
The first issue arose when all of the content was only maintained as a PDF. OK, it is printable, so the logic is that organizations pass it out to folks without access. It might be a little cynical as studies generally show that income is not a predictor of online behavior and that most US measures show that the digital divide, while significant is shrinking. But, OK I can see the logic from the lenses of 2001. My main concern is that the content discoverable and is relevant? Meaning, you take all of that great intellectual property and lock it up behind the walls of what basically comes down to a paper document on the web. I also suspect that once an organization like the one I was speaking with commit to a PDF they tend to treat it like a dead piece of paper and not an interactive piece of knowledge to be updated and maintained. Oh it was just crying out for some simple measures of interaction...online expert blogging for crying out loud, the subject is what they DO.

Our Playground, Not Yours
Next up, you had to register to download their free content. The stated reason is that they wanted to know who was coming online to use their information. So, they are concerned with something akin to ROI...that's good! On the other hand, and to write this kindly, the number of downloads is a rather, um, dull measure of ROI. (Is anyone using the content actively? Is it engaging and usable? How are they using it? Are not these more important measures of ROI for what could nominally considered public purpose media?)

Not a Good Sharer
Finally, they were very hesitant to share the content directly, but were just fine with us linking to their site. Linking? Ye Gods, their content is good, but how attractive is it to the user, let alone our perspective of how we have been aggregating the marketplace, to offer up a link out to their site. We all appreciate and patronize sites that provide a compelling interactive media experience in our personal lives, but when thinking about providing that experience the big fences come up.

Consumers to Providers: Please, Please Me!
I don't mean to pick on the corporation's lack of a coherent media strategy (or at least one that is a
bit antiquated). However, this experience pointed clearly to one of the biggest barriers facing public media information aggregators; namely that the content is locked behind too many doors. This is almost pandemic of the for-profit and nonprofit organizations that serve low-income folks. They subscribe to a very traditional form of service, otherwise known as "I have got what you need." In other words, the whole of the social or community service platform is dedicated to an industrial process that has already preformed the pathways to success and widgetizes the outcomes into regular packets of "case management", "income transfers" and "asset supports."

Do I disagree with the government, nonprofits and the stray multi-billion behemoth trying to provide a safety net for our poorest citizens? Hell no, but I do thoroughly object to the difference engine they use to process outputs when we know that each human being that seeks shelter, food or even a student loan has a particular set of questions and answers that apply to them.

While across the pond, the UK's OFCOM (see previous post) did recently look at the availability of public service content, and what were the big lessons?

In general, provision of public service content is strongest in genres where provision is underpinned by a competitive market, with well-funded commercial providers pursuing established, sustainable business models,typically focused on advertising revenues.
While the UK might not be the perfect comparison to the US, the sentiment is laid out strongly - if you want to have great public purpose content you need to have an active marketplace. We could debate whether commercial providers are better or worse, but the fact of the matter is that public purpose content, such as the stuff as I started this post off with - educational information - today is primarily locked up behind organizations that have very little incentive to make it useful and tangible. We have to start to change all of that.

A Call to Arms: Being A Change Agent

What are the characteristics of a 21st century, digital-savvy, social service change agent? Here are my top picks (and what are your picks?):

  • Has two separate web offerings: a corporate site and a consumer exploration site that allows potential clients to understand the culture and requirements of the services or products provided;
  • Separates the product from the idea, meaning that the knowledge accumulated around navigating major life moments that a change agent brings to the table is just as important the product or service provided;
  • Offers variations of services or products to niches, rather than demographics. While there are clear reasons for being culturally competent and offering services in multiple languages, a media savvy change agent will offer their services as 'content packages' to groups of like-motivated folks and focus less on race, sex or income.
  • Recognizes that geography is meaningless for knowledge and seeks to serve the whole nation by promoting the change agent's intellectual property by leveraging 'engagement' and participatory media, such as blogs, videos and mutual benefit networking. (And maybe just help organize a new market of ideas to fight poverty?)
  • Realizes that the best way of encouraging participation and success is by letting people tell people stories, rather than God-awful propaganda from an annual report. (And for that matter, no annual reports on the consumer experience site!)
  • Video and audio are cheap(er) and way more effective than print, especially for low-literacy or highly skeptical audiences.
  • Does not invest in technology, but platforms and better yet other people's platforms and then let's other people play on them.
  • Print is dead, long live interactive media. I mean at least turn that brochure into a wiki for goodness sakes, attach an expert blog and target it at specific communities of interest to act as a catalyst for conversation.
The First Step is the Start Is it this easy or simple? Of course not and there are hundreds of consultants who will tell you how to make it hard and complicated (and expensive), but there are so many tools out there that are just being used to tell our friends that we are going out for a beer, and why don't you meet me, and then look at us online as we are drinking our beer. For Pete's sake, just starting is a beginning and we will be doing a sight better than we are doing today.

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