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Upwell's Distributed Network Campaigning Method

Ray Dearborn's picture
on February 28, 2013 - 5:32pm

The mission of Upwell is to condition the climate for change in marine conservation, and to ready people to take action. In order to do this, our team sifts through the vast amount of real-time online content about the ocean, and amplifies the best of it. Upwell’s campaigning model capitalizes on the insights we glean from Big Listening and other curation efforts, and responds to the currents of online conversation. Through an iterative process of lots and lots of campaign testing, we find ways to create spikes of attention in conversations. Ultimately, we hope to raise the day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month, year-to-year baseline of those conversations.

What is an Upwell campaign?

Upwell’s campaigning model combines a few key elements. Our campaigns are attention campaigns, focused on raising attention to ocean issues. They are minimum viable campaigns, operating on short time-frames and focused on rapid delivery of content, continuous learning and iteration. They are run and amplified across a distributed network, rather than being housed on, and amplified by way of our own platforms. 

The Attention Campaign

The nonprofit community has deeply-held ideas of what constitutes a campaign. Often, organizations build campaigns with institutional goals (e.g.: awareness, list-building, advocacy and fundraising campaigns), and compete with other entities in the same sector/issue space. Upwell’s attention campaigns operate on a different plane, one in which success (greater attention) elevates the work of everyone in Team Ocean, and is tied to no particular institutional outcome other than generating conversation. 

What we do with attention campaigns is try to drive more attention to existing content and actions that are not on our properties. They’re not associated with our brand. We use this loosely held connection, tying into the momentum of the news cycle, and being strategically opportunistic in the pursuit of creating spikes in attention. 

We focus on shareability, and measure our success by the same, simple attention metric we use to measure online conversations: social mentions. Social mentions are the currency of attention, and represent small bits of action. In contrast, awareness is a less meaningful measurement, representing what someone thinks they might do, not what they have done. 

Over time, we believe that increased attention to ocean issues will raise the daily baseline of conversation about ocean issues. We have been experimenting with trying to understand what makes baselines go above the expected, or historical level (i.e., what causes spikes in conversation), with an eye toward making these increases in attention sustainable.

The Minimum Viable Campaign

“You can't just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they'll want something new.” - Steve Jobs

On the advice of Sean Power, Data Scientist at Cheezburger, Upwell has adapted an agile development principle from the  lean startup movement - the minimum viable product. Our campaign lifecycle embodies the Build-Measure-Learn cycle that software developers have used in order to quickly release products with the minimum amount of functional features, in order to gather immediate insight that can inform later iterations. 

The cycle of agile software development

Through our minimum viable campaigns, we employ ongoing, iterative, continuous delivery of content, resisting our urges toward perfection and providing irreverent, timely, contextual content to audiences immediately instead of strategizing for six months, or a year. We focus on the quickest, dirtiest thing we can get out the door that we think will have a measurable effect on a conversation. 

Our campaigns have short lifecycles - anywhere from a couple hours to a few days, and they are inspired and informed by hot news that feels really immediate to those campaigns. We move very rapidly through a process of hatching an idea, finding or creating the campaign product(s), putting it out into the world and getting back data. We are constantly learning how to be more effective. In our first year running over 160 minimum viable attention campaigns, we have learned that even a tiny bit of effort can make a huge difference in how campaigns get picked up.

Combining These Models

The minimum viable campaign model could be applied to not just attention campaigns, but also fundraising, advocacy, or other types of campaigns. Likewise, an attention campaign could certainly be run at different time scales. For instance, there is no reason why Red Cross couldn’t start doing minimum viable campaigns. Keeping everything else the same, they could tighten up their campaign time cycles and run experimental campaigns to engage their base in different ways. Red Cross could also start running attention campaigns. If they believed that Ushahidi was doing really good work, they could run an attention campaign, pointing at Ushahidi’s work and amplifying attention to it. This could turn out to be a faster path to achieving their own mission.

By applying both these models, Upwell has crafted a new way of campaigning that is easily delivered, measured, and adapts to the ever-changing sea of conversation. In summary, through our campaigns, Upwell:

  • Surfs existing conversations in order to increase and expand attention.
  • Measures social mentions (rather than policy outcomes, petition signatures, or public opinion) to evaluate the success of our campaign efforts.
  • Delivers, measures, and learns from campaigns on a short time cycle, embedding lessons and insights immediately. We sacrifice perfection.
  • Collaborates with a network of ocean stakeholders and curates a diverse set of existing ocean content, rather than building on our own brand, and creating our own content. Our campaigns are not aligned with Upwell program priorities or policy goals, but instead amplify attention to the priorities and goals of those in our network.
  • Runs our campaigns across a distributed network of ocean communicators, rather than relying on our own platforms as information hubs.

The Upwell Network

The key to our campaigns’ success is in our network. Our attention campaigns are amplified not by us, or by a dedicated base of supporters we’ve built over the years, but rather by the network of ocean communicators that we regularly contact through the Tide Report, our social media channels, and our blog. We call this “running a campaign across a distributed network.” It’s more of a syndication model than a direct-to-consumer model.

We built our network proactively to respond to several trends. With the rising cacophony of the internet, the rapidly increasing pace at which news spreads, and the shift toward people finding news through their friends on social media channels rather than getting it directly from “official” channels, we decided to approach network campaigns in a new light. It would have been cost prohibitive to buy the attention (through ads or purchasing email lists) or to build a world-class, unbranded media hub. Rather than collect a large set of official MOU’s and partner logos to put up on our website, we built a loosely held, distributed network. We’ve reached out to nodes of people who control the communications channels that reach lots of people who are interested in ocean issues. We’ve been scrappy and ruthless about who we put into that distributed network, trying to make it diverse and ensure the reach is big.

Campaigning across a distributed network means that we have that golden ticket of communications - message redundancy - but those redundant messages are all tailored by the individual nodes in our network for their audiences. It’s the job of the individual people in our network to know their audience really well. They take our messages and content and they translate them out to their audiences through the communications channels they maintain. 

As a point of comparison, Upworthy, a similar effort that launched just after Upwell and that shares our goal of making social change content more shareable and “viral,” approached the problem of distribution from a different angle. Rather than build their own network through which they could distribute the content they curate, they built their own media hub, repackaging content under the Upworthy banner, and rapidly scaling up an audience and brand of their own. This model certainly brings eyes to worthy content, but doesn’t (yet) effectively pass on engagement to the organizations and individuals it supports - it retains that engagement for its own channels.

We wanted to build an issue-specific network, and through our networked campaigns, strengthen our network’s members’ and supporters’ potential for future action. 

Below are the values that guide Upwell in building and strengthening our distributed network:

  • Trust: we share only science-based content, ensuring that other science-based institutions know that the content we share is trustworthy.
  • Transparency: we share our campaign and big listening data with our network, so that they can apply our lessons in their own work.
  • Brand-agnostic: we work as willingly with Greenpeace as we do with Deep Sea News, as we do with the Facebook page “I Fucking Love Science.” We will share an organization or individual’s content or campaign, as long as it promotes ocean conservation goals and fits our curation criteria. Often, promoting content from an array of brands meant releasing control of the message.
  • Issue-agnostic: We aren’t working just on overfishing, or GMO salmon, or catch shares to cultivate the network. We amplify any ocean campaign or content as long as it fits our curation criteria.
  • Personal: We build relationships with humans, not organizations. The liveliest online conversations happen between people, not institutions. We model the authentic behavior of the internet.
  • Generous: We provide small bits of advice and feedback to help our network do better. If their work will get more people talking about the ocean online, it fits with our mission.


We've spent the last six weeks reflecting on our pilot project, and want to share our results with you. This post is one in a series of pieces about what we've learned over the last 10 months.

If you like this post check out:

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