From Discovering the new Radiohead to Discovering Sustainable Development

It might seem like a loose connection, but in this post I want to explain how Spotify’s approach to helping users discover new music can be applied by non-profits, particularly those with a research focus, to achieve greater impact when they release data and information on the internet.

Whether I’m at work, walking through the streets or on a train, I love nothing more than sticking on a pair of headphones and shutting out the world with music. My quest for new music to fill all those hours was helped when Spotify added their new ‘Discover Weekly’ Playlist. Not only do I love the huge range of new bands I’ve discovered in such a short amount of time, but I love the approach. For me there are three key parts which we should all try and emulate in the way we communicate our messages, data or research on the internet.

Make things discoverable

There are so many great artists in the world, how can you ever hope to discover that one song that comes out of nowhere to become your favourite song? The same applies to the relationship between non profits and the web: with so many websites and digital distractions, just releasing a report or a dataset online isn’t enough for it to actually be used.

So the first thing bands often do is put music on the web in places where people naturally look for music, like Bandcamp, Spotify or Soundcloud. Each of these platforms also allows people to embed and share that music with others, so it can spread from that on central location across the web, into more places where people look for music. Replace the word band with NGO and music with information and you have the first principle you need to escape the PDF graveyard.

Curation heals the radio star

The Discover Weekly playlist is more than just a way to help me discover more music: it creates new value for me because 1) it brings music to me and 2) gives me music that I would not have encountered before. Through a curated snapshot of their entire database, tailored to my previous listening tastes, I can learn about a huge number of new bands. Some are ok, some I like, some I love; it’s not perfect yet, but every week as I re-listen to the songs I love the recommendations get better.

I think curation is a skill that a lot of non-profits could also benefit from, especially when you look at some of the huge data portals and ‘one-stop-shops’ that are churned out. No two people are the same; their interests, their technical ability and their reasons for visiting a site are all different. Giving them the same experience isn’t going to help them achieve what they want. More tailored delivery, using a number of different means to provide certain people the things they want in the way they want it, is the key to successful curation.

Water your data to keep it fresh

The final thing I love about Discover Weekly is the fact it’s weekly. It borrows from the idea of artificial scarcity, deployed so well by marketeers to lure us into buying that reduced perfume ‘for a limited time only’. I always get nervous every Friday if I haven’t listened to my playlist at least three times, because I don’t want to lose out on that opportunity to discover my new favourite song. There’s also the expectation that you will get new music every week: every Monday is a new hook. By keeping up with my changing taste in genres and avoiding repetition as much as possible, it always seems fresh and new and exciting. If I can rely on that music changing every week, I’ll keep coming back for more.

You see exactly the same principles in the best TV, blogs, vlogs and radio shows: you keep people coming back if they expect great new content at a specified point. As a non profit about to release some data or a new report, do you think about keeping it fresh or adapting it to new contexts as the world changes around us? Will the findings or the underlying data evolve over time? Is there a way to capitalise on that evolution to build a deeply engaged following that anticipate every new finding or updates to cherished data?

From Spotify to Sustainability…

Whether you’re an NGO delivering a report, a piece of research or an online data tool, your objectives will be similar to those of Spotify: you want people to come to your site, you want people to feel like you’re generating unique value, and you want people to return. I think we can all learn a lot from Spotify’s approach, especially the principles of discoverability, curation and refreshing, to get noticed and to get things done. Here’s some things you can start doing right now to do that:

  1. If you’re releasing a dataset, make sure it has an open and well-documented API so others can easily use it in their own work
  2. Break a long report into a number of smaller pieces targeted to a specific audience that is most able to use that data. And make sure it’s delivered in a way that ensures they read it, whether that’s a blog post they can finish over morning coffee, an infographic or a summary video.
  3. Publish your work in the places your audience naturally looks for information: the right social networks, news outlets, blogs, open data accumulators can all give you valuable exposure.
  4. At the start of a project look at the key points where you can release information or start conversations about your work: these could be internal to the project (survey completed, preliminary data collected) or external (a response to others’ reports, a key meeting)
  5. Aim to release information at regular intervals, but retain the flexibility to provide more in response to emerging discussions or events.

With just 15 years to achieve the lofty Global Goals, we don’t have time to wait for people to come to us; this approach could help us share huge swathes of valuable information to a global audience waiting to act.

Photo Credit: aka Francois aka Mister Pink