News and analysis
January 15, 2015

DoSomething Uses Trademark Humor to Say Sorry for Text-Message Error

You know that sinking feeling when you accidentally hit "reply all" to an email message? felt that in spades when it mistakenly sent a text message meant for a group of 4,000 members to its entire list of 2.1-million young people.

Employees at the nonprofit, which uses technology to encourage teenagers to volunteer, say that while dealing with the fallout from the gaffe was stressful, the incident ultimately helped strengthen its text-message program.

Signing up to receive text messages from an organization, "allowing us to be in their pockets," is an act of trust, says Marah Lidey, who oversees the group’s mobile messaging.

"We wanted to act very, very quickly and do something that was authentic and showed you that, ‘Hey, we recognize this. We’re sorry, and it’s not going to happen again,’ " she says.

During November, DoSomething teamed up with BBYO, an organization for Jewish teenagers, on a campaign to encourage young people to collect canned goods for local food pantries to fight hunger at Thanksgiving.

Early the following month, the organization sent a text message that was supposed to update participants on the results: "Hey Can-tributer! Together you donated 510,543 items! Wow! Want to meet Jewish teens who make a difference like u? You can w/ BBYO! Visit" But the message went to everyone on DoSomething’s text-message list.

More than 11,500 members responded to the text. Most of the replies were from young people who were confused or amused by the mistake. But a few of the responses were angry and anti-Semitic.

An ‘Apology Playlist’

DoSomething’s staff members faced three issues as they figured out how to handle the situation. Should the group remove the young people who sent hateful messages from its list? How should it acknowledge the mistake and rebuild trust with members? And what steps could it take to make sure the problem didn’t happen again?

Rather than take the young people who sent offensive messages off DoSomething’s list, employees at the organization reached out to them one-on-one, which started some important conversations, says Ms. Lidey.

DoSomething, she says, can have the greatest impact on kids who are confused and who may not feel like anyone is listening to them.

"We can’t assume that just because somebody said something hateful or hurtful, that they’re a bad person," says Ms. Lidey, "that they can’t be turned around, that they don’t want to do social change."

She says employees brainstorming about how to acknowledge the mistake weren’t happy with their initial ideas, which she describes as "super sad, apologetic" messages. Then the conversation turned to how the group could apologize with its trademark humor, and an employee came up with the idea of sending an apology playlist.

The resulting Spotify mix features "Apologize" by OneRepublic, Cher’s "If I Could Turn Back Time," and other musical pleas for forgiveness.

DoSomething sent a text with a link to the playlist to the more than 11,500 people who responded to the mistaken message about the food drive: "Alysha here. Proof I’m human: I messed up & sent u a text about being Jewish. To say sorry, I made you an "I F’d Up" playlist. Listen here:"

It had the highest click rate for a link sent by text message the organization has ever had. One in three recipients clicked through to the playlist.

"We didn’t want to take up more space on their phone without sending them something of value—even if it’s just entertainment value," says Ms. Lidey.

Testing Messages

To try to head off future mistakes, DoSomething made changes to its text-messaging procedures. The group decided it shouldn’t send messages to a segment of its list that it wouldn’t be comfortable going to everyone. And it put in place a series of checks so that more than one person reviews whether a transmission is set up correctly.

"We make sure that the onus isn’t just on one person," says Ms. Lidey. "That’s a huge red button to push."

DoSomething also decided that all broadcast text messages, no matter how small the group of recipients, should go through the process it had already set up for large transmissions.

The approach, which is adapted from the group’s email program, starts with a small group of employees from the mobile and content teams that together write roughly 25 possible text messages. The group then winnows the list down and picks the final message to send by running a series of four to seven A/B tests, which pit different pieces of content against each other to assess their performance.

Getting more people involved in generating messages hasn’t watered down DoSomething’s distinctive voice, says Ms. Lidey. If anything, she says, it’s made the group’s messages edgier.

Ms. Lidey attributes that in large part to the decision to generate 25 messages. "You censor yourself so much less" when compiling such a long list, she says. "You just feel like, ‘Well, I’m not going to get judged for putting this on here.’ And then you start to look at them and you’re like, ‘This is actually kind of great.’ "

DoSomething works to create a culture that is open about mistakes. Ms. Lidey wrote a frank, funny blog post about the text-message mishap. And the organization hosts quarterly Failfest gatherings where employees don a pink feather boa and make presentations about mistakes, what they learned from them, and what the organization can change as a result.

"You become more of an expert, more of an authority, when you are able to present at Failfest," says Ms. Lidey. "People want to know, ‘OK, what can we do better, what can we learn.’ "

Send an e-mail to Nicole Wallace.