How Data Could Define the Future of Advocacy

Could advocacy become more personalized than ever? A new app, based on public nonprofit data, suggests that publicly accessible databases could become a new form of messaging for associations.

The thing about public outreach efforts is that they usually aim big, trying to give a message the widest reach possible.

But sometimes, a more direct and personalized approach makes sense. Rather than pulling out all the stops to tell the public that milk isn’t bad for you or that frozen foods have gotten a bum rap, maybe what the consumer really needs is more information.

That’s where a novel new app comes in.

OpenLabel, a platform that works as something of a halfway point between Wikipedia and Yelp, offers up crowdsourced information about a product from a wide number of sources, including other users. But rather than just keeping that information stored online, it makes it easily accessible in app form through a barcode reader.

And beyond that—here’s the point where your ears should perk up—it also pulls in publicly accessible data from nonprofits, so if you’re not sure whether a box of cereal uses genetically modified corn, for example, it’ll let you know.

The concept behind the app isn’t unique—a few months ago, for example, the Environmental Working Group launched a database of its own for food products—but it’s the differences that make it stand out.

Founder Scott Kennedy says the goal is to close the gap between compiling data about a product and making it easier to access.

“The Sunlight Foundation, for example, does a great job collecting who donates to what, politically,” Kennedy told Fast Company last week. “But nobody really looks that up, to be honest. I don’t even do that. And if I don’t do it, nobody’s doing it. I just thought about all of these silos of data, and it just seemed like a no-brainer to me to start collecting it and putting it in one place.”

In a way, it creates an opportunity for consumers to keep their personal preferences in mind when looking for stuff at a store. If, for example, you find the use of animal testing questionable, you can follow the Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics’ Leaping Bunny Program. If you’re concerned about product recalls, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has a place on the platform. If fair labor practices matter to you, Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign is there. And so on.

Much like personalized news apps have allowed users to tailor content to their own needs, OpenLabel basically lets users create their own boycotts. That’s power.

Open Data = Opportunity

But here’s the thing. The connective tissue that makes this all work is data—data that’s been publicly released, can be touched by the public, and is accessible by programmers through an API or similar means. OpenLabel wouldn’t have a killer product without the data from Oxfam or the Sunlight Foundation or any number of other organizations.

Generally, associations don’t think about leveraging apps this way. The typical thought process is more like this: “We should have our own app so we can control the experience. We want our face to be out front.”

When reach matters, you want to be on the best app, and that’s not necessarily your app.

That, however, doesn’t necessarily match the way most consumers actually use apps. Generally, they hear about an app and try it, but the ones they stick with are the ones with the right mixture of user base, user experience, and content that meets their needs. That’s why, putting this in media terms, Flipboard has been such a hit on tablets and smartphones, and it could wipe the floor with a single-publication app any day of the week.

Or, if you’re looking to grab dinner, you’re far more likely to hit GrubHub’s site than search for a random Chinese restaurant’s website. Ultimately, users gravitate to the best tool for the job, and that isn’t necessarily the tool associated with a single brand entity.

When reach matters, you want to be on the best app, and that’s not necessarily your app.

That’s why a product like OpenLabel is so fascinating. It’s not clear whether it’ll be the GrubHub or Flipboard of its space—it’s way too new for making that claim just yet. But you can see the partnership potential for associations that have such data on hand.

Seeing the Potential

Obviously, if you don’t have a public database already developed, the hard part is figuring out the kinds of data that would make sense to offer up in a public way. Here are a couple of starting points as far as thinking on that front:

  • teaming with a mapping app like Waze to allow users to see physical locations where they can donate to your nonprofit
  • offering data on industry credentials in applications related to employment (such as LinkedIn) or services (like Angie’s List or ZocDoc)
  • explaining the benefits and/or risks of certain financial decisions in apps like Mint
  • providing daily tips in apps focused on health or well-being, such as MyFitnessPal or Jawbone Up

And of course, there are probably thousands of other directions to take this, based on your association’s needs or interests.

Having useful consumer information on hand is in some ways more powerful than any individual advocacy campaign. And informing consumers at the time when that information is most needed can provide more advocacy power than any commercial.

The message might be bite-sized, but the reach could be more focused than ever.

(OpenLabel press photo)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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