Abstract: Last year, we hypothesized that a name change could increase the success of EA university groups. Since then, we have gained new insights from user interviews and an alumni survey, as well as a progressing understanding of community building. It seems like we previously overestimated the advantages and underestimated the disadvantages of not having EA in our group name. Looking back, we believe that the success of other aspects of our experimental approach to community building became conflated with the results of our name change.
One year ago, we hypothesized that a name change could increase the success of EA university groups. Now, one year later, we have gathered data and want to share the results of our naming experiment with other community builders. Our primary reason for doing so is the high potential information value of our name change: information about the success of a name change could potentially improve the results of many future groups. In addition, as community building seems to be an area based on relatively few data-driven decisions in an otherwise evidence-based movement, we hope this inspires other groups to also conduct experiments and gather and publish data on the results no matter the outcome. We think this is particularly important given that many EAs indicate that the movement does not discuss its mistakes enough.
Let’s start with the overall conclusion: in contrast to our initial post, we now believe that the advantages of our name change did not outweigh the disadvantages. A survey of our alumni showed that the advantages were smaller than hypothesized. In addition, we stumbled on some unanticipated difficulties during the year. In this post, we will briefly refresh your memory on our initial line of thinking, followed by our experiences of the year. We hope this follow-up helps others to crystalize their thoughts about names for their groups or organizations.
Assumed advantages of a name change
1) Easier to attract people who would love EA if they knew it
Most importantly, we wondered whether a different name would make us easier to find for people who would love EA if they knew it, but don’t know it yet or are unduly put off by the name. To put this idea to the test, we surveyed the 82 students who participated with us long-term (as a fellow or committee member). Of the 41 responses, only 8 people had a preference for the name ‘Positive Impact Society Erasmus (PISE)’ over ‘EA Erasmus’, while 19 people were neutral and 14 people prefered EA Erasmus over PISE. This is a somewhat disappointing result, considering that our sample likely had a sample selection bias (we could only survey people that joined the organization with the name PISE and not the hypothetical organization EA Erasmus) and a potential non-response bias (half of our long-term members did not respond).
In addition, we held user interviews with non-members, where we asked them to scroll through our social media channels while answering questions or thinking out loud about what they thought of our pages. The interviews showed that our different name made it very hard for students to determine whether EA was something for them, as googling ‘PISE’ did not lead to informative results and the connection to EA (and specifically the effectiveness component) were often not made. As a result, some of the students we interviewed initially indicated that they would not be interested in joining our events because they found PISE ‘too fuzzy’ and our impact ‘too vague’, despite being enthusiastic about EA after being debriefed. For example, after our explanation of PISE and EA, one person responded: “It does sound interesting and more engaging like this. You should definitely put it [EA] on the page.”. This suggests that the name EA may actually serve as a useful filter that prevents a very leaky funnel; Looking back, people may be better at ‘determining’ whether EA is for them if they can google the overarching movement than if they cannot.
2) Has a better ‘ring’ to it
With a small thought experiment, we initially illustrated how a name that ends with ‘ism’ may put off potential members and collaborators. That is, when people don’t know the terms that come before the ‘ism’, this forces them to go off on the association they already have with ‘ism’. We expected that a name change might lessen this. In practice however, the different group name added another layer of confusion: in addition to explaining what PISE did, we now also had to explain how PISE was related to EA and what this “EA” thing was. This also relates to the point about transparency below (spoiler: being intransparent that your group is about an ‘ism’ may raise even more brows).
3) Smoother start to a conversation
We originally hypothesized that having a different name may clear up the confusion about the two projects of EA: EA the research field and EA the community. However, this increasingly paints an inaccurate picture, as EA is becoming more synonymous with the community than with the research fields (which have names such as global priorities research, welfare biology and progress studies rather than effective altruism research). As stated above, this added another layer of confusion.
Assumed disadvantages of a name change
1) Lack of transparency
We anticipated that not using EA in our name could come across as intransparent. Indeed, some members saw our name as a lack of transparency, despite our attempt to incorporate the EA name and logo in all of our social media output. For example, one survey respondent stated that “tbh I was always a bit confused about the name and didn’t realise PISE was supposed to be the exact same thing as EA 😅 so I think if your main aim is to promote EA, it might make sense to change the name”. This continued confusion may have partially been due to the fact that using a common subtitle such as ‘part of the Effective Altruism network’ is not always possible in practice. For example, an overview list of student organizations usually does not allow you to add the subtitle. In addition, mentioning the subtitle on landing pages may not be salient enough for readers who are scrolling through subsequent posts/pages without focussed attention.
2) Lack of searchability
We anticipated that a name change would mean that some people that were already interested in EA would miss us. As stated before, we tried to overcome this by using the EA logo and name in all of our communication. Yet despite these efforts, this problem proved hard to overcome. The (qualitative responses to the) aforementioned survey showed that there were at least as many students who were interested in EA but ‘almost missed us’ as students who didn’t know EA and would have perhaps not shown interest if we were called EA Erasmus. This may be the tip of the iceberg, because - by definition - we have no count of how many people exactly missed us. The few we ‘almost missed’, as well as the success of recently launched groups in the Netherlands in finding ‘hidden’ EAs (we may write a forum post on this later) suggests we may have underestimated the amount of people who are already interested in EA, yet not engaged with the movement. We believe that this point will become increasingly influential in the next few years, as the term Effective Altruism is becoming increasingly known in the Netherlands (through the media attention caused by public figures such as author Rutger Bregman) and will lead to more ‘EA interested’ people missing us due to suboptimal naming and SEO.
Lastly, we also encountered an unexpected disadvantage. We worked hard on building a positive brand name, but there seem to be little spillovers of PISE’s success on our followers' awareness of and inclination towards EA. For example, our user interviews showed that some of our followers still didn’t notice the connection between PISE and EA after scrolling through our social media for an hour, despite the fact that we frequently used the term EA. Although we believe that the majority of our impact comes from creating a few HEAs rather than many low engagement EAs, we think that there is additional value in ‘improving’ the general image of EA through a successful local EA group, rather than creating a separate brand. Like @Catherine suggested, our user interviews confirmed that spillovers from positive associations with PISE to the wider EA movement seem limited to our long-term members (instead of to our whole social media following and one-off participants too).
In sum, we may have overestimated the advantages and underestimated the disadvantages of a name change. This is largely due to the fact that we encountered more ‘near misses’ later in the year than people who would have not been interested if we were called EA Erasmus. We believe that this problem will become increasingly influential in future years as awareness of Effective Altruism is growing rapidly in the Netherlands - but perhaps also globally.
However, we noticed that over time the results of our name change became conflated with the results of other innovations in our movement building approach, and the growth of PISE was inaccurately attributed to our name - perhaps because our name was the most visible aspect of this approach. When we started PISE, we wanted to create an EA chapter that better fitted the Dutch student context than the standard template of an EA group. As such, we not only changed our name, but also strived for more diversity, more ‘community’ feeling and a warm and accessible ‘vibe’. While the name may have been the most notable illustration of this approach, it has not been our most successful one. Indeed, further surveys indicate that different practices may have contributed to our success more. We intend to write another post about this soon!
We thank Catherine Low for encouraging us to write up our thoughts on the result of our naming experiment. In addition, we thank Lizka Vaintrob, Koen Schoenmakers and Robert Praas for providing feedback on this post.
8 students indicated a preference for PISE (i.e. would have been less interested in EA Erasmus), 19 students were indifferent (i.e. stated they would have been interested in both associations) and 14 indicated a preference for EA Erasmus (i.e. almost missed PISE or would have been more interested in EA Erasmus).
In addition, about half of the people who preferred PISE were members who had dropped out during the year because they did not like the ideas of EA or the ‘academic’ approach to doing good.
We already had ‘EA’ on our page, but this often went unnoticed between the multitude of other terms that people were unfamiliar with (e.g. alternative proteins, cause X or Factfulness).
Based on our experiences, we think that the funnel would be less leaky if an alternative name hints toward both the altruism ánd effectiveness component, rather than the altruism component only (e.g. ‘rethink impact’ instead of ‘positive impact’).
This was complicated by the fact that both ‘EA’ and ‘PISE’ are acronyms and we rarely used the full forms in practice (especially in spoken language).
At the end of the interview, each participant was asked what their impression of Effective Altruism was now. Here, we realized for the first time that many students hadn’t noticed the term Effective Altruism at all, let alone figured out the connection to PISE. For example, at the end of the interview, one student said: “Effective altruism? Wait, I haven’t seen that. I don’t know what that is. I’ve never heard of it, outside of what XX told me. I know what altruism is, that takes me halfway there. Effective would mean doing it in a way that’s good.”
In the current dataset, the observations that we referred to in our original post appear to be outliers, as over time more and more people came in that preferred the name EA or were at least neutral about it.