Adding a texting support line to outreach materials

Adding a texting support line to vegan outreach materials can be a very useful practice.
It's likely to increase the effectiveness of outreach and provide organizations with valuable insights.

Preamble

What if we could greatly increase the impact of educational initiatives?

This page provides an overview of an experiment where a 24/7 text-in/sms support line was added to vegan outreach leaflets so that recipients could send in questions and get an immediate and tailored response.

For the last year, we (Ellie Donohue-Miller and Em Heppler) have been working to address the rate of recidivism and burnout among vegetarians, vegans, and activists through the development of support services. We’ve been particularly interested in working on ways to improve the processes used to onboard and retain prospective vegetarians and activists. In a similar vein, our last project was The Animal Activist Support Line. Our goal has been to start a conversation in the movement about the importance of support systems and how organizations might benefit from incorporating supports into their educational initiatives.

The Experiment

Experiment details

We handed out 1000 leaflets at 4 different locations on post-secondary campuses (handing out 4000 in total). The leaflets advocated for the adoption of a vegan diet and included a small note on them encouraging people to send in text messages if they had questions about vegetarianism or the leaflet. A unique local phone number was used for each location.

We distributed the leaflets in the first couple weeks of Fall on warm days (~20C+/68F+) between 10:30am-2:30pm.

The results

In total, we had a response rate of 3.45% (138 people out of 4000 recipients). Below is a breakdown of response rate by location.

  • Location 1 (Environmental/Humanities quad) received messages from 59 unique individuals (5.9%)
  • Location 2 (Engineering quad) received messages from 18 unique individuals (1.8%)
  • Location 3 (General campus commons) received messages from 27 unique individuals (2.7%)
  • Location 4 (General campus commons) received messages from 34 unique individuals (3.4%)

While it was relatively small sample size, these results are still very encouraging and do support the claim that the coupling of a text-in support line with educational initiatives could be a very effective practice.

Messages we received

  • Questions about how to help/get involved & appreciative comments (23)
  • Asking for information on where to find vegetarian food and people (18)
  • Asking broadly for more information (24)
  • Asking for advice, tips, help, or resources on vegetarianism/veganism (56)
  • Argumentative/negative & prank (17)

Almost all initial messages were received within the first 12 hours of leafleting. Only 6 out of 138 initial messages were received the following day and no initial messages came in 36 hours after leafleting.

We responded to all messages within 20 minutes and most within 3 minutes. Almost every message we sent received a response. Only 7 of 134 did not respond to our response, and those were mainly from recipients who demonstrated active opposition to the idea of vegetarianism. Most exchanges went back and forth 2-5 times and finished within the first day. Our longest exchange went back and forth 14 times over 3 days.

Note that the approach taken while responding will dramatically change the length and nature of each interchange. For example, a warmer, more conversational or socratic approach will lead to longer conversations.

The leaflet

The leaflet used in this experiment was designed to be very barebones. It was a single sheet (3.7”x8.5”), double sided, grayscale, and used a common printer stock.

We deliberately kept the leaflet very simple. We wanted to show how this idea could be implemented with minimal cost or sophistication. Our aim wasn’t to show the impact of this particular leaflet; it was to demonstrate the utility of adding a texting/sms support number to outreach materials.

We also made a choice to omit the inclusion of a website on the leaflet so that we would only be tracking responses through text. It is possible that the response rate could have been increased by excluding a website since it left recipients with texting as the only direct means of accessing more information.

The use of different designs would certainly have a tremendous impact on response rates. There is a long discussion to be had about potential best practices for implementing this service using higher-impact designs.

Note - We used a unique local phone number for each location. For the purposes of this write up we used a dummy number because those local numbers are no longer being monitored.

Limitations of this experiment

This was a simple experiment conducted to demonstrate the potential of text-based models for veg support. The results only show us that there is indeed potential.

In the section on applications, we touch on how text messaging could be used to test the effectiveness of different approaches to outreach with different populations.

Applications

How to do simple A/B tests with a texting line

You test two leaflet designs:

  • Leaflet Design #1 has Phone #1
  • Leaflet Design #2 has Phone #2

Collate Design #1 and Design #2 so you can hand them out in equal numbers one by one on the same day to the same audience, distributed by the same person/team.

Assuming the effect is large enough to notice in the population size you leafleted to, you will then know which leaflet design is more effective for that audience based on the difference in response rate and quality of responses between the two designs.

You might find a large sample size to do this at a festival that hosts a fairly homogenous audience (e.g. Warp Tour).

What are some hypotheses that could be tested?

Text-based support paired with outreach efforts can provide immediate and measurable feedback. It can highlight the strength of specific pictures or wording. It can point to a need for additional info (eg. if a high number of people text about iron deficiency, it may be beneficial to specifically address that in the leaflet). It can even provide feedback on the success of certain locations, volunteers, and staff.

The following hypotheses could be fairly easily tested

  • What designs are more effective for which audience?
  • Which leafleters are more effective?
  • What audiences are most open to going vegetarian?
  • What locations are most effective to focus on?
  • What approaches lead to more commitments to go veg?
  • What content is most effective?
  • What common questions is your audience likely to have that could be addressed in the leaflet?
  • What approaches to support lead to more actions taken? (email signups, donations, sharing content, etc)

Variables that will change response quality and rate

    • Weather
    • Location
    • Audience
    • Combination with other outreach touch points (e.g. seeing a poster, Facebook ad, etc)
    • Novelty of the message and medium
    • Social concentration of audience
    • Time of day, week, semester, year
    • Design of the outreach material
    • Attributes of the leafleter (on the day of leafleting)
      • The effectiveness of their approach
      • Their appearance
      • Their identity
      • Their demeanor/mood

These variables will also affect the enjoyability of leafletting and speed at which leaflets can be handed out.

Discussion

Missed opportunities in current educational initiatives

There are few reliable metrics used to assess the effectiveness of specific outreach initiatives and so opportunities to improve and innovate are missed.

There are few supports available to prospective vegetarians and so there is a lower uptake rate. There are few supports available to existing vegetarians and vegans and so there is a high rate of recidivism.

Outreach can be an incredible form of activism because it allows organizations to utilize volunteers / novice activists in a meaningful and effective way. Outreach requires little input of resources. However, it’s also an area of activism that has remained fairly stagnant. Our approach as a movement has not changed much in the last couple of decades. Digital and tailored support may be a way to revolutionize outreach and dramatically increase the return on investing in educational initiatives.

The benefits of humans in real-time

People contact tech support even though there are published troubleshooting guides. They ask their friends where they should eat even though a Google search displays more suggestions with a larger number of details. The internet is great, but there are many questions and concerns that are more effectively talked through with a human in real-time.

Even if you could design a leaflet or website perfectly for an audience, there is still a large benefit to having them reach out for help; you start a relationship with them and build trust. Humans are generally perceived as more credible and more persuasive than static content. And this trust becomes even more important when we are asking people to diverge from the norms of their friends and family.

There are many other benefits to providing support in real-time. Literacy and attention spans are dropping and as they do, static content will become less effective. Decreased attention spans have also been linked to a decreased ability to empathize.

Scenario: asking the Internet vs asking a person

Imagine a college student receives a leaflet and while they are interested in the idea of going vegan, they think it will be to hard to do because they are allergic to gluten.Compare the following options for how they might approach this question.

They Google: Can I be vegan if allergic to gluten?
Results: A list of 6 million pages that may or may not be helpful, and they can only know if they are helpful by putting in additional effort to read through them.

They go to the website found on the back of the leaflet*
Results: They have to read through your website and it is unlikely they will find particularly helpful content that address their questions fully.
*having a chat feature like MFA’s ChooseVeg.com does makes this option much better

They text in their question: Can I be vegan if I’m allergic to gluten?
Results: They get a response saying "Yes definitely, there are lots of vegan foods that are entirely gluten free. I actually avoid gluten and it’s pretty easy to do. Checking out this specific blog post might be helpful. What type of food do you like? I could send give you some suggestions of popular easy dishes that are vegan and gluten free..." The conversation then continues (there can be a lot of value in this)

Texting begins a relationship with your organization. It is the easiest way for the recipient to reliably get more information and be influenced to take further action.

Further Topics

There are many applications for a texting support system that we have not touched on in these notes. The use of support systems has been generally untapped by the movement and their development could yield treamendous results. While the implementation of these systems for educational initiatives has the most obvious benefit, there are also many unique ways to apply them to other efforts.

Broader discussion of veg support systems

We've written up some of basic thoughts on the importance of veg support systems here.

Our work to address burnout & turnover in the movement

We launched The Animal Activist Support Line in August of 2016. It was built to be a free, 24/7, annoymous text-based support service for vegetarians, vegans, and animal activists struggling with things like stress and burnout.

Intensive and concentrated outreach

We've been very interested in how to improve the onboarding process of new vegetarians and how to reduce the rate of recidivism in the movement. Beyond the broad introduction of support systems, we think there is a great deal of potential in focusing efforts intensely on concentrated populations.

To a certain point, the more intense and concentrated outreach is, the significantly more effective it is. 1 leaflet to every student in a school of 1000 is likely extremely more effective than 10,000 leaflets to a sea of 50,000 people in downtown New York. The population of a small campus of 10,000 all getting a leaflet, seeing posters, seeing Facebook ads, seeing billboards, seeing news articles, hearing about it from their friends, and having their campus dining hall highlight plant-based foods, is likley much more effective than leafletting to a random 50,000 people.

Veganism is a social phenomenon. It is spread socially. Social phenomena are made more robust and often grow rapidly in reach as a result of concentration.

The potential applications of intensive outreach techniques are exciting. There are obvious uses for it, like increasing the total number of vegetarians and vegans but there's so much more that could be done. You could use the techniques to increase donations by focusing intensely on a particular affluent population. You could create a self-replicating hotspot of animal rights activism by focusing intensely on a particular campus. You could focus your efforts on a particular tech company to increase the rate of veganism among their employees. You could focus on faculty at the universities that lead the field of food science. Where to focus depends on your goals.

We have experimented with how to do intensive outreach in the past but have never had the resources to really test its impact beyond anecdote. We'll be writing up our experience with intensive outreach and would love to see more experimentation with it as an approach in the movement.

Appreciation

We want to thank:

  • The counselors at The Animal Activist Support Line for helping to cover all messages that came in.
  • Animal Equality for their innovation with VR Outreach. We were introduced to this at FARM's National Animal Rights Conference and it had us asking what unique approaches we could take to help animals.
  • Faunalytics for publicizing the rate of recidivism among vegetarians and vegans. This research is eye-opening and highlights an important problem.
  • Mercy for Animals for putting energy into their chat support function on ChooseVeg.com. This is a perfect example of what the movement needs more of.
  • The Humane League who are growing quickly and demonstrating what a results-oriented approach can accomplish. We’re hopeful for the future because of organizations like this.
  • Vegan Outreach for popularizing the simple yet revolutionary action of leafleting at a scale never seen before by the movement. Since 1995 they’ve handed out over 23 million booklets.
  • Organizations like PETA(2) for launching youth focused support systems that cultivate the next generation of activists.
  • And Animal Charity Evaluators for improving the effectiveness of the movement as a whole.

Postscript

When first starting on this work in late 2015, it was obvious that the scale of supports needed by prospective and existing vegetarians would require a large commitment of resources. Our efforts so far have just been to play with the idea, to test minimum viable supports, experiment and learn best practices, and start a conversation in the movement about the importance of support systems. We're at a point where we could experiment more, but seriously exploring the effectiveness of support systems is going to require an active effort from large animal protection organizations to truly tap into the their potential.

About us

We met at the National Animal Rights Conference in 2010 and have been collaborating ever since.

About Ellie - Check out her website at IamEllie.org.

About Em - Check out his website at EmHeppler.com.

Let us know if we can help

If you'd like to talk about the implementation of anything we've touched on please let us know. If you think we might be able to help but aren't sure how, we can set up a phone call and talk through your ideas. You can reach us by emailing Em@non-profit.work and/or Ellie@HelpActivists.org.