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Principles and Best Practices in Online Advocacy

This blog post is part of Salsa's "Advocacy Rising" campaign. Learn more about how to grow and improve your advocacy program. This post is cross-posted on PowerThru Consulting's site.

Around the world, people are organizing and demanding change. From Arab spring to the recalls in Wisconsin to Occupy Wall Street, protesting and advocacy is on the rise. How can you harness this unprecedented energy to move policy and create change, while strengthening your organization? We’ll share some principles and best practices in online organizing that you can apply to your work.

First, consider that most online action does not exist in a vacuum. Online alone will rarely make the difference. Winning online campaigns usually have an offline component, even if it’s just a great petition delivery that then gets you earned media coverage. Don’t neglect your offline planning in favor of purely virtual actions, or you’ll be limiting your impact.

To make your online campaigns more effective, you should consider the theory of change behind each petition before launching. What a theory of change means, is that you can explain how taking an action will help you solve the problem the action is about.1 Think through all the steps to get from point A to point B, if point A is signing a petition and point B is achieving your end goal.2

As online activists get more and more cynical about actions that are purely list-building ploys, they’ll demand more than good intentions. Now if you are just purely list building, that’s one thing – but it’s best to be up front about that and not try to dress it up as an action.

An example of a missing theory of change is asking your members to email their Senators to do something like “end all war”. Good intentions, but not likely to work. Online actions need to be credible in order for people to want to take part, and to share it with their friends. So if this particular action is just a first step in a campaign plan, be sure to tell people that… and what’s next.

A good example of a campaign with a theory of change was PCCC’s Dollar a Day campaign against Norm Coleman. After the 2008 elections and once it was clear Al Franken won the Minnesota Senate seat, Norm Coleman still wouldn’t concede. The rationale for that was pretty obvious – preventing the Democrats from having 60 seats and control of the Senate for as long as possible. So PCCC came up with an idea to change the equation – make the Republicans pay some kind of price for their obstruction. By having progressive small dollar donors pledge to donate $1 a day until Norm Coleman conceded, PCCC (and the progressive movement) was getting stronger every day Norm dragged his feet. When the dollar amount raised got serious enough, Republican interests would then be threatened enough to start pressuring Norm to stand down. End result? Norm did eventually concede that summer (and PCCC raised a lot of money too).3

Need to figure out who the right target is. Somebody that can be moved, maybe it’s not the elected official but it’s someone who would influence them. The right target might not be the obvious one.

For example, the Stop Glenn Beck effort focused around getting advertisers on Fox News to stop advertising on the Glenn Beck Show. Does Fox News care if Glenn Beck is a racist? Well….hmm. Do their advertisers? Maybe, especially if they are mainstream consumer-focused companies with huge ad buys on lots of cable networks and shows. They may not even realize they’re advertising on Glenn Beck. Outcome – success. When the Glenn Beck Show was left with no advertisers but the gold sellers, the show got pulled.

Need the right message.

Make sure if you’re contacting Congress, you’re asking members to either co-sponsor (or stop co-sponsoring) an existing bill, or vote yes or no on a specific bill. When it comes down to it, as elected officials that’s all they’re likely to do. Asking them to “stop the war” or “work on clean energy” is a nice idea, but ineffective. And if you want to inspire them to write a bill, online advocacy is probably not the right approach.

Note that Salsa lets you do “multi content targeted actions” to set up “thank you/spank you” campaigns – so you can send a positive message to a legislator that supports you and a persuasive message to one who doesn’t. In other words, people in Vermont shouldn’t be sending Senator Sanders a message asking him to defund the war – he’s already a leader on this issue!

Also make sure you are allowing for customization of your message by your supporters. The idea of supporters going off-message may be scary – if you let people write their own email, who knows what they’ll say — but according to Congressional Management Foundation research, members of Congress and their staff are much more influenced by customized messages than mass emails (or mail for that matter).4 So letting your supporters speak for themselves will make Congress take their message more seriously.

Give your threats teeth, let elected officials know they’ll be held accountable for how they vote. Figure out what they care about, and you’ve found a good lever. Now all politicians need to eventually be re-elected. So they all care about votes, volunteers, and money. You could have your members (who happen to be their constituents) make pledges of support, or withdrawal of support, based on what they do on an issue.

Here’s an example of a good message: PCCC (Progressive Change Campaign Committee) last year wanted to get Obama to refuse to sign any bills that cut Social Security or Medicare. However, doing a straight up petition to Obama or the campaign isn’t likely to change anything. So they did a petition, but with a twist – asking people to pledge not to donate or volunteer for the campaign if he cut benefits. And they asked people to self-report whether they were a donor or volunteer in 2008, to show this threat had real teeth.5 In the end, Obama stopped talking about potential cuts and deals.

Need the right delivery of your petition.

Salsa has two types of Actions. The petition allows people to just sign their name indicating they support the issue. The other type is a targeted action that allows people to send a message (that can be personalized) to a designated target –their own state or federal legislator (done through matching their zip code/address with the district), or the President, or a “custom recipient” (if you have their email address).

Using a targeted action to send emails to your member of Congress means you’re joining the vast undifferentiated sea of all the other advocacy groups emailing on all the other issues out there. And It’s unlikely to make a difference.6

To cut through the clutter and get their attention, you need to have a great delivery planned for petitions and actions. The most effective online organizations deliver their petitions in person with great fanfare, and get video and photos to report back to their members. This way your supporters will know that you keep your word, and that their signatures are not going into a black hole. Also it’s an opportunity to get press, and use the power of earned media to increase the pressure on your intended target.

Consider softer targets than Congress.

They get bombarded with emails (on both sides of an issue) every day. And 2012 being an election year means substantive legislation is not likely to happen at all this year. Corporate targets are much easier to move. Consumer corporations are scared of losing business, so they listen to pressure. State and local elected officials can be more sensitive to online pressure too, because they see so much less of it.

For example, activist Molly Katchpole used the online petition tools via Change.org to get Bank of America to back down completely on their proposed new bank fees.7 Note this is an example of an online-offline activity, where they delivered the petition to BoA and got a lot of earned media on it, turning up the pressure.8 And Lowe’s unfortunately was scared into stopping their advertising on American Muslim with just a small amount of calls and letters.9

There are two ways to go about this in Salsa. You can either set up a petition and you handle the delivery, or a custom-targeted action — if you can get the email address of a high-ranking official at a corporation with influence over the issue (or their public affairs dept.) or the local elected official. Just be aware you might be sending thousands of emails to somebody that is probably not used to it! How they react to that is unpredictable. We have seen some corporate targets shut off incoming email from our IP address in the middle of a heavy campaign, so action-takers may start getting bounce backs. Have a plan for what you do if this happens.

Be up front with the details on your online action. Be clear in your emails and on the action page itself what your theory of change is (how signing the petition will actually solve the problem), what the deadline is, and what the delivery plan is.

Take advantage of an automatic redirect opportunity. With Salsa you can easily redirect people after they sign a petition to a “tell a friend” page with social media sharing and email options to spread the word – or maybe a fundraising page to help pay for the campaign. Just don’t let them be redirected to nowhere, or it’s a big missed opportunity. (Note this holds true for when people first sign up for your email list, or even when they donate – good opportunity to redirect them to a tell a friend page there too.)

Also take advantage of the auto-responder in Salsa. You can craft an email (usually with pretty similar content to the tell a friend page) that will be directly sent to the petition signer after signing. We’ve seen significant social media sharing coming from these autotriggered emails, so they do work.

Make the action step easy to find and appealing to take. Try to make the action page text short enough that the form part begins above the fold – so people don’t miss the petition part. Consider eliminating a lot of your website navigation (like menu bars) on action and donation pages to focus people on action as well. If you have someone on your team who’s good at CSS they can do wonders in making the action page look better than the standard format that Salsa spits out – check out this example.

Make sure your email has a call out box or a linked sentence encouraging action (“click here to tell someone to do something”) visible in the first 100 words of the email/ “above the fold." Shiny buttons work, and you can check out our blog for css tricks.

If you’re a multi-issue group, you should aggressively segment your list based on issue-preference to keep total mail volume down and open & click rates up. If someone cares about the environment, they may or may not care about ending the war. Try to send targeted emails, and then only if they perform really well consider doing a full list send. In Salsa you can use groups or tags for keeping track of interests, and you can set up your action itself to automatically tag or group people who sign it. Then just make sure you use that targeting when sending future email blasts.

You can also separate out your list into actives and inactives, or figure out what types of activities people like to do, by using scoring in Salsa.

Take advantage of every channel to reach supporters with your action. I.e. if you’re sending an email, are you also putting a link to the petition on the front page of your website? Are you posting on Facebook with a link, are you tweeting it out, as well as retweeting and thanking all the people who tweet your petition (you should)?

It’s important to make sure your online and offline efforts are integrated too. If you’re talking about one thing in your email, another on your website, and something else on the doors or phones or by mail, that may confuse your supporters and limit your impact.

Finally, report back: win lose or draw. If your supporters care enough to sign a petition, they want to know what happens next. This is also a good opportunity for fundraising or follow up actions, if that makes sense on your issue. It’s pretty easy in Salsa to use action-history targeting to reach only the signers of a specific petition for follow-up emails.


1. http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/theoryofchange
2. http://www.informationdiet.com/blog/read/how-to-be-a-better-activist
3. http://openleft.com/diary/12745/profiles-in-bad-online-organizing-part-1-dscc
4. http://www.congressfoundation.org/storage/documents/CMF_Pubs/cwc-perceptions-of-citizen-advocacy.pdf
5. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/15/progressive-change-campaign-committee-obama_n_900155.html
6. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jake-brewer/the-tragedy-of-political_b_773734.html
7. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/03/molly-katchpole-recent-co_n_1074481.html
8. http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/business/2011/10/bank-of-america-customer-delivers-153000-signatures-in-petition-over-fee/
9. http://www.cnn.com/2011/12/11/showbiz/all-american-muslim-lowes/index.html

Topics: Advocacy Marketing