How To Tell Whether It's Working
How does one determine whether or not an advocacy website is actually working? A firm conviction that benefits are created is all well and good, but that won't get you very far in circles where resources are allocated on performance. The objectives of Fight Aging! are laid out in one of my annual signs of incredulity that I've been doing this for yet another year:
I have sought to bring those who stop by, or who otherwise stumble upon my writings, around to a more productive way of looking at aging, longevity, science and human action.
Sometimes our conversation is hard to find, however. People who might have learned and contributed do not do so; opportunities to broaden the healthy life extension community are lost. ... someone has to be talking on topic to keep the conversation growing, to avoid lapses in which newcomers might miss the party.
A nicely nebulous set of goals upon which to pin metrics. We can look at web statistics (one step beyond damned lies), participation in the healthy life extension community, funds raised for specific goals ... but it's a real challenge to determine what contribution my efforts made to a dynamic community or process of many contributers. Never mind how it could have all be accomplished more effectively or efficiently.
Those of you with longer memories will recall that sometimes people turn up out of the blue, lay down a seven-figure check, and say "yup, it was because of this advocacy initiative that I chose to donate." But it's rare - you can't base an analysis of success on huge checks from the blue. If you have enough of those to start counting, you've already won.
That particular seven-figure check justifies Fight Aging! for a good few more years yet, but vindication isn't really the purpose of metrics. Good advocates are one step removed from fanatics - they'll keep at it until the rest of the world gives in and admits the advocate was right all along. Metrics are about improvement: how can you do better with the resources to hand.
The online metric of first resort is web statistics, the damned lies mentioned above. I'm not all that sure that anything of worth can be derived from web statistics with respect to the goals of Fight Aging!. It's not even clear that more links, more traffic, or more aggregation are necessarily better - this is where those folk who are simply interested in monetizing websites have a much easier time of it. At the end of the day they can look at the dollars and rate of conversions to sale. Meanwhile I ponder the nature of my most popular page for this past year and wonder what most of my page views actually represent.
For Fight Aging!, a "conversion to sale" might be someone who sets off to become a molecular biologist or organize a fundraising conference for the Methuselah Foundation. I might be able to claim partial credit for one or two of those. At the less radical end of the scale, you'll find people who donate to fund SENS longevity research, or discuss healthy life extension with a friend where they might otherwise not have done. You get the idea - and I have no idea as to how well I'm doing there. Realistically, I'm never likely to know. Contributing to the new zeitgeist is not an activity for those who need personal validation, nor those who enjoy a nice, clean balance sheet of expenditure versus result.
So: I'm fairly convinced my work produces a continuing net positive influence, but proving that to anyone's satisfaction - beyond the generous million-dollar donor - is quite another story. In terms of improvement for the future, I'm left with the same old unsatisfactory metric of bulk visits and mailing list membership; I must assume that more is merrier until conclusively proven wrong on that front.