Fail fast, learn quicker

John Quinn

Jon Quinn is head of campaigns at Shelter. Jon will be presenting at a workshop on Trends in digital and social media and what they mean for campaigners at NCVO’s Campaigning Conference on 14 September, exploring five lessons from Shelter’s digital campaigning at the General Election.

Every month at Shelter we celebrate failure. In our divisional monthly meetings, people fess up and say what hasn’t worked.


Because failing isn’t bad; it’s the first step in learning how to do things differently. It encourages calculated risks, which lead to innovation. And as long as you act fast when things go wrong, you’ll never stop improving.

This approach informs every part of our digital campaigning at Shelter. We’re always on the lookout for ideas to explore and things we can learn from.

The key to successful campaigning

Over past year, Shelter has tried a few times to surf on the wave of a reactive campaigning opportunity. Some attempts were okay; others were less successful.

But the key thing was that each time we learnt how to do things differently, and how to improve and prepare better. These experiences put us in a great place for the General Election.

By the time we hit January 2015, we had a reactive campaigning tool box ready which we could use for a range of different opportunities. That meant template web-pages, easy to build social graphics, and pre-agreed lines on the big issues we thought would come up.

More importantly though, we had internal agreement that reactive opportunities are golden, and that by capitalising on them, they can throw your issue into the spotlight in a way huge advertising budgets can’t.

All of this meant our response time for reactive campaigning was now down to just a few hours, and this meant we could handle anything that came our way – such as a high-profile statement from a controversial comedian.

One day in particular saw a major housing announcement from one of the parties take centre stage. Within the hour we had our media line out, and ended up with back to back national coverage. Within two hours we had our social media content out, which went on to reach over 1m people. Within three hours we had our email ready, and the timeliness of it led to extremely high open rates and thousands upon thousands of people signing up to our campaign.

In addition to the great metrics, this reactive activity made sure that Shelter’s messages were a part of the debate, and we shaped the narrative for the day.

Disciplined risk-taking

None of this is an excuse for sloppiness, needless risks or junking all sign-off processes. For example, we’d spent good time in advance making sure colleagues were very clear on our imperative to stay party-politically neutral. And in some instances we didn’t progress with an idea because ultimately it wasn’t actually any good.

But, our successes wouldn’t have been possible without an internal culture at Shelter of risk taking. Without an acknowledgement that new ideas should be tested and interrogated to see how things could be done differently.

Fail fast, learn quicker. Taking this approach helped us to hone our reactive campaigning ability – and the results were far greater than if we had never tried anything new to begin with.

To hear more from Jon on campaigning through digital and social media, join us at NCVO’s Campaigning Conference on 14 September.

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