5 affordable ways nonprofits can use mobile technology: presentation

One reason mobile technology fascinates me is its ubiquity across all levels of society. That makes it potentially a very powerful tool to engage and empower people who don’t necessarily sit at the top of the U.S. privilege food chain.

On Thursday, July 26, I’ll be delivering the following presentation at the Social Media for Nonprofits – Silicon Valley conference: 5 affordable ways nonprofits can use mobile technology. (Follow the conference hashtag: #sm4np)

This presentation is meant to be just a quick overview, to let nonprofits know what’s possible today, and where they should focus their attention.

Why the focus on “affordable?” Well, mobile technology isn’t free…

It costs money to get a mobile device, and telephony/data service is an ongoing expense. Also, if an organization wants to offer content or services optimized for delivery to mobile devices, they’ll have to invest time and effort — and often lay out some cash — to make it work.

Most nonprofits, especially those which operate at a community level, don’t have a lot of money or technical expertise. But they can still leverage existing mobile (or mobile-friendly) tools, platforms, and strategies to further their core missions to serve communities or raise awareness.

Earlier this year I co-authored a white paper published by the ZeroDivide Foundation: Funding mobile strategies for social impact. This document is intended to orient grantmakers to the possibilities of mobile — but it’s also pretty useful for nonprofits, too.

Here are the mobile strategies I’ll recommend to nonprofits in my presentation this week:

  1. Mobile landing pages.Actually I advocate mobile-optimized websites wherever possible. But as a starting point, nonprofits which offer services or information, or which run campaigns of any kind, can launch some targeted mobile-friendly landing pages as an initial engagement point for mobile users. This is especially important if you’re doing any marketing or advertising that includes a web address — anywhere people see a URL, they should be able to enter that into their phone and get a mobile-friendly webpage.Google Sites offers a basic but pretty good — and free — landing page builder. It’s intended for business, but nonprofits should be able to use the lead generation or custom themes pretty well. And if you’re not sure how well your current site performs via mobile (or even if you think it’s a great mobile site), use Google’s site performance testing toolto see what kind of mobile experience you’re really delivering.
  2. Tumblr.This relative social media newcomer is exploding in popularity, especially among people under 25. Tumblr is a hybrid of microblogging and social media. The reason I like Tumblr, and advocate its use, is that it’s perhaps the most mobile-friendly blogging tool out there — both for mobile viewing/interaction, and for posting via mobile.Everything you post to a public Tumblr blog gets indexed by search engines — which beats the hell out of Facebook’s walled garden in the long run. Oh, and Tumblr is completely free. And you can create as many Tumblr blogs as you like off a single account, making it useful for special projects or campaigns.
  3. Crowdsourcing via social media. Besides texting and taking pictures, social media is one of the most popular non-voice activities people do on their mobile phones. Anything you do via social media inherently has a considerable mobile audience. This makes mobile social media a valuable tool for crowdsourcing — gathering input or content of any kind from the communities you serve or adjacent or broader audiences. I point to two recent examples conducted on Tumblr: Faces of Black Men and Planned Parenthood Saved Me (both brilliantly executed by Deanna Zandt).Whenever you want to crowdsource, make it easy for people to contribute content via mobile social media. (Read: no complicated webforms!) Also make it easy for people to access, explore, and share that content via mobile social media. Tags, hashtags, and landing pages are your friends here!
  4. Teach people how to use their mobile devices, especially their cell phones. Especially their feature phones. For instance, it’s amazing how many people don’t know how to download or share photos that they take with their phone, or how to access e-mail or the web on their phones — even though many feature phones now offer these functions and more.In addition to teaching phone-use skills, nonprofits can help community members understand the carrier and other costs that might be associated with using data, e-mail, or other capabilities of their phones — as well as how to choose a phone or wireless carrier.

    The Mobile Voices community publishing platform (which gives public voice to the Hispanic community of immigrant day laborers and domestic workers in Los Angeles) emphasizes mobile technology as a tool of empowerment. Even cheap mobile technology. In a Knight Digital Media Center article, I explained how the nonprofit behind Mobile Voices, the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA), incorporates mobile skills training into many of its community activities and events.

  5. SMS text messaging. I put this last because it’s the most complex and costly strategy I’m recommending, but it really should be first — since text messaging (simple messaging service, or SMS) is hands down the most ubiquitous and popular non-voice activity for mobile phone users. And that’s for allmobile users — even people who can afford the fanciest smartphones and fattest data plans text a lot.Before you dive in, understand some of the challenges. First, there’s some fairly toothy US federal and state law in place to keep people from getting text spam, so it’s worthwhile learning how to stay on the right side of these laws. In addition, U.S. wireless carriers charge both the sender and the recipient of text messages — a double-dinging that’s virtually unheard of in most of the rest of the world. This rapacious billing for text messages is a big reason why many of the innovative SMS-based programs and services popular in the developing world haven’t taken off in the U.S.

    Furthermore, carriers are getting more aggressive about blocking “free” (at least for the sender) text messages sent via e-mail-to-SMS gateway technology. So if you want to be sure your messages go through, it’s really best to bite the bullet and pay for a service that lets you send out bulk SMS in the way the carriers prefer.

    So if you offer text alerts, news, or interactive services (and most nonprofits probably should!), it’s best to pony up for a legitimate paid service. One that’s popular with nonprofits and activists is Textmarks.

…Why didn’t I mention mobile apps? Because that’s the most costly and advanced approach to mobile. Apps are software projects that cost money to develop, test, and maintain. Apps also are tied to specific smartphone operating systems (Android, iOS, etc.). And finally, people must find your app, download and install it, and remember to run it. Those are all huge hurdles for nonprofits and the communities they serve.

I’ve seen very few projects from nonprofits which truly warrant the app approach — especially since so much app-like functionality can now be delivered fairly well via the mobile web. For a good example of a fun mobile web app, use your phone to check out Planned Parenthood’s Where Did You Wear It campaign for condom use.

However, for nonprofits that adopt my #4 strategy (provide mobile skills training) it can be useful to find apps that will be especially useful to the community you serve. For instance, people living in “underbanked” communities who have a smartphone (lots of cheap Android models out there now!) might directly benefit from learning how to use their bank’s mobile app.

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