No matter where you are in the world, if you run a Freedom of Information site, you’ll come up against one common issue: how to get people to use it.
It’s not just the usual hurdle that any new website faces, of getting publicity. There’s often a lack of knowledge among the general population about the whole concept of Freedom of Information, and the rights that come with it. Not only do users have to know about the site, but they have to understand why it might be useful for them.
The Freedom of Information conference, AlaveteliCon, was a great place to share ideas on how best to counter that. Here are ten strategies you can put into place right now.
1. Make FOI concrete
Freedom of Information can be rather an abstract concept to the average person, so your tweets, blog posts and press releases might not be getting through to them.
Instead of asking people ‘what would you ask under the FOI act?’ or ‘Isn’t freedom of information a valuable right?’, try asking more concrete questions like ‘what would you like to know about government spending?’ or ‘if you could ask one question about nuclear defence, what would it be?’
You might make a cheap, fun and informative video by going out onto the street and asking such pre-prepared questions to passers-by.
2. Use SEO to your advantage
Alaveteli is built so that it naturally performs well in search engines: the title of any request also becomes the title of the page, one of the main things that Google will consider when deciding how to rank a page for any given search term. And when useful or interesting material is released as a result of a request, that will attract inbound links and again, will be reflected in Google rankings.
The net result of this is that many users will come to your Alaveteli site because they’re interested in a specific topic, rather than because they want to make an FOI request. They may never even have heard of FOI, but they surely want to know about hospital mortality rates or cycling accidents in their local area.
A request on WhatDoTheyKnow, about the faulty brakes on a VW Passat, is one of the consistently most visited pages on the site. Even though the request itself remains unanswered, the page has become a place for Passat drivers to exchange knowledge and experiences.
Pages such as these may even be more frequently visited than your site’s homepage. Look at request pages as a first-time viewer would, and ask yourself if it’s clear exactly what site they have landed on, and what it is for.
Also: once you have created a community of people with a common interest (like the faults in the VW Passat), what could you do with them? Maybe post on the page yourself, offering to show how they could take a similar request to the next stage?
3. Make passive users into active users
The previous point leads to a further question: how can we turn users who land on our sites into active requesters (if indeed that’s a desirable aim)?
One answer might be to explain the concept of FOI somewhere within the request page template, so it’s seen by every visitor.
Another would be to build a user path that encourages readers to make their own request or—perhaps more likely to bear fruit, since making an FOI request tends not to be an impulsive action—include a newsletter sign-up button for people who want to know more.
Alaveteli already includes some actions in the right-hand menu on every request page, but so far they have concentrated on asking the reader to tweet, or to browse similar requests.
If you have ideas on how to encourage users to make requests, you could discuss them on the Alaveteli mailing list, or, if you’re a coder yourself, you could make the changes on your own branch and then submit it to be merged so that everyone can benefit.
4. Contextualise FOI
In the UK we are fortunate that when a news story is based on an FOI request, that’s usually mentioned within the story. It leads to a certain level of understanding of the concept of FOI within the general population.
Whether or not that’s not the case in your country, you could keep an eye out for stories that were clearly researched via an FOI request. Where FOI is commonly mentioned, setting up a Google alert may help.
You can then highlight these stories on a regular basis: for example, on a Facebook page, or on your blog. There was also talk of feeding a Facebook stream onto the homepage of one Alaveteli site.
5. Create a community
Sharing stories is one thing, but communities are a two-way endeavour. Facebook pages, blogs and Twitter accounts all need regular attention.
Post often, reply to users’ comments and queries, and soon you may find that you have a responsive community, and can even ask your followers to do a bit of advocacy for you.
A newsletter is also a useful way of getting your message directly into your supporters’ inboxes.
6. Write about interesting requests
Some requests just appeal more to human interest than others do, and they’re obvious candidates to be blogged/tweeted/Facebooked about. You might also consider putting out a press release.
There was a bit of discussion at the conference about the unfortunate phenomenon of ‘comedy’ requests which are of great interest to the press, but could actually harm the case for FOI. Examples given were:
- Is the New Zealand Prime Minister actually a shape-shifting reptile?
- A series of requests about the zombie apocalypse
In the UK we’ve generally taken the decision not to run these kinds of stories, though the press sometimes pick them up on their own anyway.
Such publicity can lead to ‘FOI is a waste of public money’ campaigns, and it was suggested that it is useful to have a list of the good things that have come from FOI that you can provide in return: here’s one that @FOIMonkey produced in 2012.
A middle ground between publicising ‘silly’ requests and trying to promote dry ones is to identify the stories that are in the middle ground: of great human interest, but with a serious point. Make the relevant requests yourself, if necessary.
As an example, a request such as the menus for food served in prisons can have an underlying political point if framed correctly.
7. Conduct outreach
NGOs and campaigning groups can find FOI a useful tool, and the fact that Alaveteli publishes out the responses can also help them with getting their cause known. A mail-out to likely organisations, or even face-to-face visits, may help.
Muckrock shared that they get users educated early, by conducting ‘FOIA for kids’ outreach (and FOI is also a subject in our own lesson plans).
Here in the UK, we have visited colleges to talk to trainee journalists. While most are aware of the FOI act, many do not know about WhatDotheyKnow and how it can be used not only to make requests, but to subscribe to keywords or authorities of interest.
However, such visits are fairly inefficient: they take time and only reach 50 or 60 students at a time. A better way may be to create and promote materials that colleges can use for themselves.
8. Paid ads
Although Alaveteli sites perform well in organic search, paid ads can give them an extra swathe of visitors.
Both Facebook and Google are potential platforms for ads, and you may be eligible to receive a Google Grant if you are a not-for-profit: these give you Google Ads for free.
mySociety are happy to share our experience in this area, and we will possibly put materials together if there’s enough interest.
9. Friends in high places
Some Alaveteli practitioners found it useful to partner up with a newspaper or online news source. The benefit runs two ways, since Alaveteli can be such a useful tool for journalists.
Dostup Pravda in Ukraine is a part of the country’s most popular news site, and perhaps one of the most expert Alaveteli sites at getting publicity. Pre-launch they ran a sophisticated campaign with celebrities hinting, but not saying explicitly what the forthcoming project would be. Their t-shirt was even worn by an MP on national TV.
For the solo activist, such promotional activity seems almost impossible, but news outlets have the contacts and resources in place to make it almost a routine task for them.
10. Create your own buzz
The press love lists and awards. One FOI site puts out an annual award for the best, the worst, and the most ridiculous requests made in the previous year.
This is a great idea for publicity, because as well as bringing the name of the site into the public consciousness, it also encapsulates a little lesson about how to use—and not abuse—FOI.
Now go and do it
So there you are: ten ideas to promote your site. Do feel free to add more in the comments below. And good luck!
Image: Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.