An image of the #FakeWash game. To try it for real, go to mwater.co/fakewash

#FakeWash: How we did it and why it matters

Midweek during the UNC Water and Health conference, mWater released an online game that invited conference participants to generate their own WaSH session titles. This small effort had big viral lessons that speak to the real world of WaSH practitioners.

How we did it.

The game was an auto-generated series of words based on the most common lingo and jargon used for the water, sanitation, and hygiene field. I’d seen a similar version at SXSW, mocking startup lingo.

It was surprising how easy the game was to make. In the short course of six weeks, mWater had attended three global WaSH conferences and the jargon poured out quickly. In a Google doc, I made three columns reflecting the typical conference session title format: A big idea (followed by a colon or question mark), a very lingo-ish approach phrase, and a sector field such as rural wells, sanitation, and — a particularly big one for UNC — hand washing stations. The humor came from the middle set, which reflected the trendiest buzz words of the year. But viral also depends on skickiness, features built into the user interface that make it social. The stickiness came from the hashtag but also the autotweet button on the game’s page, which meant making your own title was not the point of the game, sharing it was.

a clip from the full table, which has 15 rows and 3 columns

Within 10 minutes, in 15 rows and 3 columns we had 3,375 possible unique responses. Mathieu, one of mWater’s developers, wrote the HTML for the game in about an hour. Then, he adjusted with the color and perfected the appearance for another hour. We didn’t know if more than 10 people would ever see it, but Mathieu wanted to get it right. He has a background in game coding so it was perfectly in his coding wheelhouse.

We released #FakeWaSH live to Twitter at 1pm Wednesday, just at the end of the conference lunch break. Immediately, The World Bank’s WaSH account picked it up and added the conference hashtag. By the end of the day, we’d gone conference viral. We did not want to presume we should flood the conference twitter stream with unwanted, fake tweets so we did not include #UNCWaterandHealth in the auto-generated tweet, but it made for great fun and truly marked the game’s viral audience when some conference participants began adding the UNC hashtag themselves.

Each autogenerated tweet included the mWater.co/fakewash website, inviting Twitter friends to go play the game also. The game’s page included several advertising targets for mWater: the UNC conference talk by John Feighery the following day (now removed), mWater Explorer, a new app for WaSH data collection in accord with SDG6 targets, and a ‘contact mWater for more information’ form.

Many who came for the game stuck around to visit other pages on mWater’s site. Total page views for all mWater pages increased 3 fold on that first Wednesday, and five fold the following day. In fact, traffic on the site continues to be driven by the game, which even now, two weeks later, is the second most common page hit on the mWater site. More people visited mWater’s website from the game than attended the conference. If we could have paid for a booth, we would not have expected such high traffic as we got with a simple, two-hour team project.

What we learned.

Lesson 1: The booth is dead. Conference booths are so expensive that only very large, highly bureaucratic organizations with conference overhead budgets can afford them (an aside: I still want one). mWater is successful in our niche of the aid market because we’re the opposite: opportunistic, lean and mean, with almost no overhead. But moreover, conference organizers go out of their way to make sure booths aren’t sticky. When one mWater partner tweeted to her followers that she would be hosting a social meet-up at their World Water Week booth, it was quickly shut down by conference organizers. She was told that hosting events was a higher fee structure with its own planning process involving the conference organizers.

Lesson 2: Disrupting traditional approaches to conference networking and communications is the strongest arrow in the small organization’s quiver. Small organizations can’t win by competing on the same ground as large organizations. So we have to make our own ground. Virtual ground.

A Twitter Card, a paid tweet mWater released during the conference

Two World Water Weeks ago, mWater paid $15 to elevate a tweet in the hashtag stream for a day. A US government staffer immediately tweeted that it seemed inappropriate, which began a lengthy twitter conversation (in itself drawing attention to mWater) about virtual conference marketing vs real world swag: handouts, bags, calendars, etc. This year, that staffer was converted into an mWater fan and was one of the first to laud the game and mWater’s Twitter cards (an evolution of the elevated ad, see photo) in the hashtag stream.

Lesson 3: If it’s not fun, it won’t work. The transferable observation from this game for all of our work is one of behavior change and adoption. Sharing important information is the key job of many tweeters in our industry, but it is seldom fun. Releasing the game in a way that hit the right time of the week with the right amount of humor meant people shared mWater’s website because they wanted to, not because they were supposed to. Treating household water, protecting water sources, using latrines rather than OD, and washing hands are all behaviors that people too often do begrudgingly. Success for our sector depends on all of us finding approaches to these goals that make it matter at the personal experience level.