Assessing EA Outreach’s media coverage in 2014

by William_MacAskill 5y18th Mar 201520 comments

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Effective Altruism Outreach is a sub-project within the Centre for Effective Altruism, led by Niel Bowerman, Kerry Vaughan, Tyler Alterman and William MacAskill. Its primary purpose is to grow and strengthen the effective altruism community. For more information, see here.

A core part of EA Outreach’s strategy for 2015 involves gaining attention to EA ideas from mainstream media. It’s highly unclear to us how valuable this is: it’s perfectly plausible to us that this will involve generating a lot of noise, but that this won’t ultimately generate much value; it’s also plausible to us that it will lead to significant connections that wouldn’t have otherwise happened. It may also be that some sorts of media attention are much more valuable than others. For these reasons, and because we feel we don’t currently have a good understanding of these issues, we’re conceiving of this aspect of EA Outreach as an experiment. We’ll therefore periodically take the opportunity to reflect on aspects of our media initiatives, so that we can better assess whether we should continue with this aspect of our strategy, and if so in what way we should approach it. It seems almost impossible to get high-quality evidence on the issues that we care about in this area, so in our ‘experimentation’ strategy we are forced to rely on a small number of data points and a lot of reflection.

In 2014, getting media attention for EA was not one of our aims. However, the popularity of my ALS ice bucket challenge article provided us with an opportunity to do some media outreach and start some discussion of effective altruism in the media. In this post, I describe what happened, what short-term and long-term impact I think it had, and what lessons I took away from it.

Background

On August 14, 2014, I wrote an article on the Ice Bucket Challenge for Quartz, which the magazine entitled “The Cold Hard Truth about the Ice Bucket Challenge.” It became extremely popular. We can’t disclose the viewing figures, but it received about nine times as many views as my second most popular article, and 30 times as many views as my median article. The article received 141 Google+ shares, 467 LinkedIn shares, 1490 tweets, 16,008 Facebook shares and 41,967 Facebook likes. It also led to a significant amount of attention in other venues, with coverage in The Guardian, The Telegraph, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, BBC News, CBS News, Vox, Slate, and dozens of other news sources, and appearances from Niel Bowerman and I in international radio and television.

The article had a mixed reception.  Of those we sampled, most twitter shares were positive; most facebook comments were critical. 

On August 18, I wrote a follow-up article, which Quartz entitled “This week, let’s dump a few ice buckets to wipe out malaria too” (again, I wasn’t responsible for the title). This one received the typical number of views.

 

Positive impact

The short-run impact of the article was as follows:

Referrals to GiveWell: ~10,000 unique visitors. Elie told me that, on average, 1 in 200 unique visitors donate, that the average donation is ~$1000, and that he estimates that 50% of people are repeat donors. However, we both agree that these numbers would give too high an estimate of the value of a unique visitor, because much of GiveWell’s money moved comes from very large donors, who have heard about GiveWell from multiple sources.

From their 2013 metrics data, $3mn was moved via small donors (less than $10k) in 2013. On average, 14% of donors came via online referral; assuming that this is representative for small donors that would give $420,000 via online referral. There were 151,000 visitors via referral links, giving a money moved per visitor figure of $2.78.

Using this number, the Quartz article would have moved $27,800 (not including regular giving beyond a year). This was quickly estimated, and there may well be errors in this assessment, and still seems somewhat too high to me. We could therefore give cautious bounds of between $5,000 and $50,000 moved as a result of the article.*

Referrals to Giving What We Can: ~9,000 unique visitors. Soon after the article, we received 3 pledges and 8 try out givers who cited ‘on-line article’. We’ll follow up with these people, but it’s likely that not all were influenced by the Quartz article, rather than some other online article. If we assume 3 pledges only, the article raised approximately $1 million in pledged donations. Converting this into the value of present donations is a tricky issue, but my guess is that the long-run money moved via new pledges is somewhat greater than that via increased traffic to GiveWell’s site.

Donations to SCI: As a result of the initial article I wrote, Tim Harford invited Niel Bowerman from CEA and Elie Hassenfeld from GiveWell onto BBC Radio 4’s ‘More or Less’ show on ‘the numbers behind the news’ to discuss effective altruism.  This resulted in follow-up pieces on the popular More or Less’s podcast, in BBC magazine, and in the Financial Times.  In the interview with Tim Harford, Elie and Niel discussed SCI, and Tim Hartford decided to donate there at the end of the show.  After the appearances, SCI contacted us to report that they had received several £1000s of donations as a result of our media.  The exact amount SCI received as a result of this media attention was difficult for them to estimate relative to the variable background rate, but they suggested it may have been as much as £10,000.  

Given these figures, and given the fact that an article as successful as the ice bucket article is perhaps a one in twenty event, my impression is that the short-run benefits of writing articles are not themselves sufficient to justify the time investment, compared to other sorts of outreach.

However, my guess is that the main benefit of media attention is longer-term: leading to further media opportunities in the future; improving my position as a public advocate of effective altruism; increasing the real-world credibility of the effective altruism movement; generating connections with people who we wouldn’t otherwise have met; and, most importantly, learning via practical experience of engaging in the media.

This view is consistent with our conclusions from previous media rounds. Relative to the size of the media attention Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours has had in previous years, the short-run benefit has been lower than one would expect. However, it has led to some of our most valuable relationships, with people who were initially in very different circles, who we would not otherwise have met.

 

Why was the article so popular?

My leading explanations (in order of plausibility; not mutually exclusive) are:

  • Snowball effects
  • The article piggy-backed on an extremely popular trend. 
  • The title of the article was particularly good at arousing interest.
  • The article defended a minority position.
  • The article discussed an issue that’s rarely covered in the media.

 

Mistakes made

In my view, the article is of lower quality than other Quartz articles I’ve written. It was written quickly; it half-makes several distinct points rather than having one clear focused point; given that people many find the central points surprising, it made those points too hastily; and at times the tone was unnecessarily snarky. 

I do not know if I should have spent more time on the article to improve its quality. If I’d known how popular it would be, then I certainly should have done; but I didn’t know that (nor did I know how popular Quartz articles could get). Moreover, I have a distinct worry that what I call poor quality was a positive factor, in terms of the article’s popularity. People are more easily annoyed—and more likely to voice their annoyance on social media—at articles with poorly justified claims; readers will more easily read whatever they want into vague or ambiguous statements; and an article with several distinct claims has a higher chance of piquing the reader’s curiosity. This explanation, if true, would be deeply depressing, but would also explain a lot about the poor quality of many popular articles. This could be investigated further by, for example, looking at popular writers, and seeing how the quality of their most popular writing compares to the quality of their less popular writing.

The potential costs from the article were:

(i) angering people, and turning them off ideas relating to effective altruism; 

(ii) damaging my brand, or the brand of effective altruism. 

My impression is that, for a one-off article, these aren’t particularly great costs. Consideration (ii) is the larger concern. There is a real long-run risk of being perceived as a charity skeptic (similar to e.g. Bill Easterly), which suggests I want to strictly limit how many ‘critical of charity’ pieces I write. I’m even more concerned with associating the brand with poor quality of argument than with the sort of contrarianism that this article might have been perceived as embodying. This provides a reason in favour of writing fewer but more in-depth articles.

A separate mistake, in my view, is that we should have capitalized more on the success of the article. For example, I could have written a series of articles on the topic, using the opportunity to discuss charity cost-effectiveness in more depth. This would have also mitigated some of the brand-related worries. As noted, my follow-up article was only as popular as my typical article, which I took to be evidence against spending more time on it. However, other articles on the ice bucket challenge also did very well on Quartz, and my follow-up article had a poor title, so I think I put too much weight on that fact.

 

Overall Assessment

It’s very difficult to assess how valuable the article was, and whether it was positive or negative in value. 

My guess is that the benefits outweigh the costs in this instance. However, I don’t think that I should keep writing similar articles: my hunch is that the marginal costs, in terms of brand damage, of articles like this are either non-diminishing or increasing, whereas the marginal benefits (learning and profile), are decreasing. I do plan on writing more articles for Quartz.com, Vox.com, and other media outlets, however I plan on making them comparatively more rigorous than the article in question.  

 

Lessons learned

The short-term benefits of media attention are comparatively small but non-negligible.

Representing the minority view in an ongoing debate seems to be a promising strategy of gaining media attention.  In an attempt to insure “balance”, the media give roughly equal weight to all viewpoints, regardless of popularity.  As a consequence, articles defending minoritarian positions will tend to receive disproportionate media coverage.

Brand-management is going to be very difficult, because it’s so difficult to predict what will go viral, difficult to predict how people will react, and very difficult to judge what the appropriate level of controversiality is.

 

Future experiments

In the coming months I will experiment by with writing longer and comparatively more rigorous articles on carefully chosen topics. 

This will greatly increase the time cost of writing articles. How to balance increased quantity with increased quality is difficult to know. Moreover, though developing a personal brand as “the really reasonable and well-informed guy” would be optimal, it’s highly unclear to me whether this is achievable. There are examples of people who have been successful in this regard (like Nate Silver and Tim Harford), but it’s difficult to generalize from cherry-picked examples. However, it’s worth trying it out. 

These articles will be stored up and released around the time of my book launch to help raise the profile of the book and to help boost book sales.  

 

Plans for 2015

EA Outreach has hired Goldberg McDuffie Communications to raise the profile of Peter Singer’s book launch in April 2015.  We have already distributed advanced copies of Peter’s book to over 100 journalists.  

In May 2015 Peter Singer will be in the UK for the UK launch of his book and Yale University Press will be working with us to promote Peter’s book here.  Text Publishing will manage Peter’s Australian book launch and associated media push.  

We’re still deciding whether to hire a publicist or marketing firm to help with the launch of my book in August 2015; it’s unclear what the value added will be over my publishers’ own efforts.  Penguin will be promoting my book in the US, and we have Guardian Faber and CEA publicizing my book in the UK.  We will be negotiating rights with other countries in the next few months.  

 

* Given that the money moved per visitor figure may be as high as $2.78, and may be even higher, it seems worthwhile to experiment with paying for ads to GiveWell’s site, to see if one can achieve a better than 1:1 return on expenditure.