Is ‘Online’ Increasing the Number of People Engaged in Campaigns ?

Chris Rose    @campaignstrat

Campaigns for good purposes must utilise the communications media of the time but it has become a pervasive, ‘default’ assumption that more ‘engagement’ or ‘mobilisation’ is automatically a good thing, and that means the more ‘online’, the better.  Is that right ?

So is this a stupid question ?  Well it’s a no-brainer: of course ‘online’ does – or maybe it doesn’t ?

Yes it is stupid because it can’t be answered literally: it all depends on what you mean, what you compare, and how you assess what’s important.  No, it’s not stupid, because we need to think about what’s effective.


At present the favoured ‘action’ generated by online engagement is usually some sort of petition.  So how do these compare with petitions done without social media ?

On 18 June 2012 Friends of the Earth announced ‘Over a million call on Downing Street to end fossil fuel subsidies’ (‘Downing Street’ being the home of the British Prime Minister and so standing for the British Government).  It sounds a lot and naturally in 2012, these signatures would have been collected mainly online but how significant is that million ?

I am not knocking FoE; for all their quirks I like Friends of the Earth and very occasionally they help pay my wages but on 29 June 1979, the same group handed in a Downing Street petition – paper of course, and carried on a stretcher – signed by one million people.  Subject: ‘Save the Whale’.

At the time, FoE in England and Wales had about a dozen staff and  10,000 supporters.  Now it has about 150 staff and 100,000 supporters.  Naturally not all of them were involved in collecting the one million sign ups in 2012, nor maybe in 1979, and nor are petitions the only or most important expression of campaigns but they are a convenient comparator.

While the 1979 petition seems to have a been a FoE effort, the 2012 one combined their efforts with those of others, including 350 and Avaaz.   These too are great organisations doing great things.  While 350 focuses purely on climate, Avaaz is an online phenomenon of its own, declaring ‘Avaaz is the world’s first and only multi-million member, high-tech, people-powered, multi-issue, genuinely global campaigning community’.  Some ‘16,000,000 people share!’ and it has carried out 98,000 actions (as of the time of writing, and on many topics) since 2007, in 194 countries.

Does this tell us anything about the relative significance of the pre- and post social-media petitions ?

Here’s another example.  In 2000, when ‘social media’ had yet to enter the mainstream,  Friends of the Earth, WWF and Greenpeace promoted (no longer ‘live’) as an electronic petition aimed at generating over 10 million messages of concern to governments meeting at COP6 in the Hague (the 6th Conference of the Parties of the Climate Convention in 1999).  It got about 11 million signatures.

In 2009, after a year or so of preparation, a much bigger alliance of environmentally concerned groups got together and created GCCA, or the Global Campaign for Climate Action, with a multi-million pound budget (aka ‘tck tck tck’).  Amongst many other activities they set out to sign up at least ten million people to a petition aimed at governments attending the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks (COP 15).   They succeeded and the petition handed in is variously described as 10, 15.5 or 17 million.  COP 15 was widely promoted as the make-or-break for climate, and some who took part see Copenhagen as something of a failure, rather than a success, in terms of effective ‘mobilisation’.  GCCA had maybe ten key major NGOs but included some 270-300 in total, themselves with a combined supporter base well in excess of the signatories.

Changed Circumstances

Of course an awful lot has changed from the 1970s to the 1980s to the Twenty-First century.  You could argue that things are more difficult:  the significance of petitions has changed,  the newness and novelty of campaigning itself has changed, and, as these are environmental-political examples, it’s relevant that the attention paid to the environment by governments has changed, as countless studies have documented.  On the other hand, things are also easier:  the funding, scale and support of environment groups has increased, and the ease of access, not least via social media and online has increased while the cost of ‘petition-signing’ type levels of engagement has vastly reduced.

An awful lot else has changed too, socially and politically.  Back in 1971 when Greenpeace consisted of one boat and a couple of dozen people, the group sailed towards Amchitka off Alaska, to try and stop a nuclear test explosion.  A photograph shows two people at the helm: Robert Hunter of the Vancouver Sun, and Ben Metcalfe of CBC, both working journalists.  It couldn’t happen now.

During that voyage some 177,000 Canadians put their names to a telegram protesting the proposed nuclear test on Amchitka.  Delivered to the American government, it took four days to arrive at Western Union and was reputedly the longest telegram in US history.  Mobilisation and engagement pre-internet style.

Two years earlier Hunter had written: ‘Politicians, take note.  There is a power out there in suburbia, so far harnessed only to charity drives, campaigns and PTAs which, if ever properly brought to bear on the great problems of the day, will have an impact so great the result of it’s being detonated (like the Amchitka A-bomb test) cannot be predicted’.

It is this strategic thought that inspires, or ought to inspire, any serious campaign to use ‘social media’ and online to address the ‘great issues’ that confront society.  The question is, whether that power is being more effectively mobilised thanks to online, or not ?

I Don’t Know – Do You ?

I don’t know the answer, only it seems to me that it’s important.  One way to try and look at it this would be to study the results achieved by campaigning groups.  Even then you have to try and normalise comparisons to eliminate any other differences than the presence or absence of online, to hope the detect any definitive ‘signal’ one way or the other.

Are campaign groups scoring more successes as a result of using social media ?  I haven’t seen any such analysis but one hypothesis might be that if they became good at it more quickly than other actors, and/or if those controlling social media were particularly sympathetic to campaigns, they might enjoy a boost or advantage, at least for a time.  That certainly happened with TV, where from the 1970s- 1990s, NGOs stole a march on corporate and political opponents through media innovation at many levels, often helped by a ‘Fourth Estate’ that was broadly sympathetic.

My suspicion is that it was a much shorter-lived advantage with ‘the internet’ and that the major players of ‘social media’ such as Facebook, Google, Apple and Microsoft, are, if anything, slightly more hostile than helpful.

Another way is to ask ‘who is being engaged ?’  Is social media making any difference or are these in fact, the ‘usual suspects’, the same individuals and, or, the same types and categories of people who were engaged pre-social media ?  When it comes to values I have seen some evidence for at least one campaigning group that this is the case: in so far as online activists look almost the same as those supporters not known to be especially active online, and both groups look very similar to the people actively supporting that group across a number of very different countries.

The main demographic differences within those groups of people seem to suggest that opportunity determines what other differences there are: those too old or young to spend most of their time at work for example, seem more likely to be responding to online campaign asks.

No surprise there, you might say, except that there is a pervasive assumption amongst commentators, and it has some traction in campaign groups themselves, that social media is the domain of, or a way to ‘engage’, “the young”.   The wish-to-engage-youth (try #OYW) is a huge subject in itself and the idea is espoused for many different reasons:  as a transfer of responsibility (“they will sort it out, we didn’t”, or “that way we won’t need to”), because it is consistent with a perceived need to be vigorous and the young are after all, youthful; because change requires innovation and new ideas, because the young are assumed to be less cynical, and so on.

Are young people more engaged in campaigns as a result of social media ?   Famous examples such as the Stop Kony project of Invisible Children discussed previously, show that predominantly young audiences can be mobilised in huge numbers on social media over very short timelines.  But while social media might be their default channel for ‘mobilisation’, are today’s’ young more engaged in campaigns as a result, than yesterday’s young ?

I’d be genuinely interested to hear about any evidence one way or the other, and whether there is evidence that social media have caused engagement to widen across values groups or other significant social categories.

It’s probably almost impossible to fully answer the question of whether social media or ‘online’ has actually produced better campaigning results, although it certainly makes some aspects of organising easier and cheaper (eg, and it would be realtively easy to see if it is reaching new and different audiences.  I’d be interested to hear of any evidence about that too.

What Now Are ‘The Media’ ?

A final conundrum worth mentioning is how ‘online’ is redefining campaigns by changing ‘the media’.

Nobody really disputes that the advent of ‘new media’ and ‘social media’ have changed society, and campaigns are part of that.   Groups like 38Degrees, GetUp!, MoveOn and Avaaz, which are children of an online world, blur the line between campaigns and media in the way that campaigning newspapers once did, only more so; and now, control of the medium lies with the campaigners.   The growth of Avaaz is undoubtedly spectacular – it has reached 16m supporters since 2007 – and looks like it might become the ‘Campaign Google’.

Once campaigns are proposed and ‘approved’ by supporters – as Avaaz et al now do –  the model is obviously very different from old, ‘conventional’ NGOs.  ‘Campaigns’ generated on Facebook and Twitter can be similar – check eg Malala Yousafzai – except that participants can see each other as individuals, or at least see their friends.

On 4 October 2012 Ricken Patel from Avaaz sent supporters an email entitled  ‘Avaaz becomes the media’.  He wrote:

‘Imagine if there were one website we could open with our morning coffee that felt like walking onto the global town square — a one-stop shop with reliable news, insightful analysis, and inspirational storytelling that for the first time offered solutions and a way to take action on the issues we most care about!

Now imagine if 16 million of us were behind this cutting edge site — that’s a bigger circulation than the Washington Post or the Times! It’s a bold goal, but we’ve spent months shaping the concept and recruiting an initial team of top journalists. Now the Avaaz Daily Briefing is nearly ready to launch.’

‘Earlier this year’, said Patel, ‘an astonishing 97% of the Avaaz community voted for this idea in our annual poll’.

In 2001, three years before Facebook was launched and six years before Avaaz,

Citigate PR in London asked me to give a talk about campaigns, communications and new media (presentation citigate IPR presn new media and campaigns 2001).  Some of it now looks rather quaint but I noted that things that had ‘not yet happened’ included:

•Re-design of mainstream campaigning to be engagement-led

•Re-design of (big brand) organisations to be open networks

•Establishment of an ethical-country on the web/ ethical space

Organisations like Avaaz do now run engagement-led campaigns.  In other words engagement leads to action leads to further ‘awareness’, rather than campaign groups first stimulating awareness, to lead to engagement, and then to action.  As discussed before in a Campaign Strategy Newsletter, this can happen because there is a ‘surplus’ of awareness, a deficit of agency, and ‘new media’ make ‘action’, albeit often limited (hence the ‘clicktivist’ debates) very easy to offer.

Big brand groups like Greenpeace and Oxfam are striving to become more like open networks – see for example the Greenpeace Mobilisation Lab –  and now Avaaz is bidding to be an ethically defined ‘town square’ online media space, although it seems to be Avaaz Square, not an ‘ethical country’.

It seems to me that this could be even better done if it were shared more widely than Avaaz.  In 2000, I suggested that with shrinking audiences for TV, ‘the golden age of pressure groups’ might be coming to an end, and that the loss of the ‘incidental’ communication caused by broad-casting, might give way in the online world, to easier, cheaper, deeper but narrower talking-to-followers but not reaching others: ‘The voluntary sector now needs to carve out its own sovereign space in new media, so it can continue its free conversation with society. Pressure groups now need to co-operate so that the ‘ethical sector’ can still communicate with the public, independent of business.’

Whether or not this social-media activity is simply re-bottling and re-channelling the raw human material of campaigning, and whether or not it has made it overall more effective, still seems to be an open question.

The Importance of Human Bonds in Campaigns

A practical question that faces campaign designers is how much effort to put into ‘real world’ campaign activity, and how much into ‘online’.  What might guide this apart from the internal competition for funds within NGOs ?

Back in the glory days of TV in the 1980s, many NGO executives got carried away with the idea that the more press coverage and media exposure you got, the better.  At Greenpeace UK in the very early 1990s we found that some people had come to conceive of environmental problems as existing ‘on tv’.  They had opinions about them but the problems existed in a virtual universe, which had many implications for trying to engage them in change that affected the real world, all of them bad.

Our response then was rather crudely, to try and increase what we called ‘direct communication, which meant getting out ‘on the street’ and confronting, talking to, recruiting or engaging people directly.  Now the equivalent executive default assumption is that social media provides “the answer” to almost everything.  This carries similar dangers, and as Johnny Chatterton ex of 38Degrees said in 2010, “you do hear people saying that e-campaigning is ‘the future’ and that campaigns will just be conducted online but none of them seem to actually work in e-campaigning”.

Analysts of networks and networking, contagion and the spread of ideas or behaviours often talk about the differences between groups and individuals in terms of their connectivity, and the nature of social bonds.  Some for example are almost unbreakable, and are ‘given’ rather than optional or ‘elective’, such as the bond between mother and child.  Others are much weaker, like the connection between the sender of a mass social email and the followers who receive it, or the retweeter who passes on a thought from one person they have never met, to others who may never even have heard of them.  It is of course an objective of those who curate brands, including social media campaign networks, to try and deepen those connections into relationships with emotional strength, and there are some attempts to measure this, or at least conceptualise it.

So perhaps this is a metric which could be of practical use to campaign designers ?  Think about the processes involved Friends of the Earth collecting their one million signatures to ‘Save the Whale’ in 1979.

With few staff, it relied mainly on voluntary effort.  With no electronic communication beyond radio and tv, it needed paper, print and post, which no doubt required teams of volunteers to put documents into envelopes and take them to the post office.  Then others in community halls, sitting rooms and kitchens, taking them out and organising themselves to go out and ask people for signatures, fact to face, mainly arranged via FoE’s network of local groups.  This cumbersome and time consuming process required a lot of effort.  It limited what FoE could do (leading to a lot of long and often tedious debates, themselves requiring more meetings) but it also built a ‘network’ of smaller networks, of deep and strong bonds.  Even the person stopping on a High Street and taking a minute to write out their name and address on a list, was probably putting in greater effort, and making a greater commitment to confirm their view (three ‘heuristics’), than someone ‘liking’ an action on Facebook or retweeting it on their smartphone.

That level of emotional investment doesn’t just produce a petition equivalent to an opinion poll, it produces commitment to the cause and idea behind it: the ‘bonds’ have an energy value, not just strength.

The arduous and emotionally charged process of the 1971 Greenpeace voyage to Amchitka and similar subsequent enterprises created another organisation with strong bonds.  The same no doubt went for the now nameless volunteers who put together the 177,000-author telegram.  Politicians, public and media intuitively recognize this ‘effort’ quotient in communications such as a petition, or the longest ever telegram, especially when there seem to be few resources behind it apart from individuals ‘putting themselves out’ to do it.  The significance of a petition is not simply the number of sign-ups, it is what it indicates about what else might happen if it is ignored.

When Social Flow analyzed how the 2012 IC Stop Kony mobilisation worked, they pointed to a series of dense hyper-connected and pre-existing networks, many of them geographically local religious groups but also IC’s own, mainly ‘youth’ network, as the key factor in the initial ‘boosting’ of the online campaign.  This was necessary to keep the ‘conversation’ going at a high enough frequency, and with enough emotional intensity for long enough, for it to achieve wider ignition.  (The second step of targeting celebrity ‘culture-makers’ via ‘attention philanthropy tactics’ acted as a turbo charger).

A lot of emotional investment had gone into developing those networks, much of it unconnected to the subsequent ‘ask’.  The same goes for networks of friends forged in the real world, and then activated when someone uses Facebook to invite them to act.

My suggestion therefore is that campaign groups should think about

– developing and sustaining their own strong-  and high-energy bond networks by involving them in high effort activities, with significant emotional investment (avoiding the mistake of trying to make everyone into the Max Activist)

– deliberately existing as an offline reality in some way involving as many followers or supporters as possible, not just as a presence online

– engaging the high emotional investment networks of others in specific campaign pushes (but aware that you are asking them to spend their valuable emotional capital)

– making part of any important campaign ‘actions’ in some way effortful, not easy, so that the offline part works emotionally, face-to-face, or in the street.  It does not have to be confrontational protest, it just has to be an authentic effort, which might involve as ‘little’ as talking to a friend or neighbour.

The capital that exists between people in the networks can be spent as ‘political’ capital when it is directed at others.   A million people signing onto a tweet or online email petition is not the same as a million who sign a paper petition and deliver it, and that organised by a full time paid staff of hundreds is not the same as a petition organised and delivered by volunteers.   These in turn are not the same as walking 240 miles to make a point, as Ghandi and his followers did on the Salt March.

Subsequent ‘easy’ social media actions spend the capital created in prior campaigning activity or donated by other relationships but they do little to build it.  If you go on doing that long enough, the ‘actions’ become less actions and more simply a test of ‘opinion’.  At that point, the question of who is saying this, and how many of them there are, becomes the only important factor.  16m Avaaz members sounds a lot but it is a drop in the ocean globally, or even compared to Facebook users.

Finally, the more NGOs make the public claim that they should be listened to because of what they can achieve in terms of online ‘mobilisation’, the more they invite others to evaluate their case solely in those terms.  This approach fits one philosophy of campaigning as a form of participative democracy but it can easily become a non-strategic belief system, and strategically naieve.    Ghandi did not try to ‘mobilise the masses’ during his 1930 Salt March, he used a disciplined cadre of core followers and generated crowds and media coverage along the route to show public support for his case and only finally, to inspire mass action and expressions of support, once he had defined its terms.

Download a presentation given at the World PR Forum based on this blog  Is Online Increasing Participation in Campaigns TW ver.


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5 Responses to Is ‘Online’ Increasing the Number of People Engaged in Campaigns ?

  1. Nick Gallie says:

    These are great questions and timely too. But to be able to formulate good answers would take a great deal of time and a deal of brain slog, neither of which I can offer right now! Perhaps that’s comment enough on electronic interaction!

    But consider (briefly) the idea of campaign effectiveness. Effective against what criteria? And effectiveness has implicit within it the idea of efficiency, so its not the same a success. Achievement of a pre-declared objective within pre determined budget and time constraints might be a fair definition of effectiveness. But the problem with simple measures like this is that in real life campaigning, goal posts shift as campaigns move forward. And there are usually multiple players operating in any significant field to further complicate matters. The whole business is dynamic and complex. As a result campaign managers are tempted to massage whatever results they can lay their hands on and lay claim to successes wherever they can. And who would blame them for that! But while this might be good for building support and giving an impression of effectiveness, it makes the business of genuine appraisal even harder. Campaign groups like to wield big numbers as a proxy for influence and “success” -and to keep their stakeholders happy. Greenpeace recently claimed a million signatures in record time for their latest Arctic petition – by way of example.

    Does light touch campaigning work? How long does it take me to sign an Avaas petition? 30 seconds max to scan the issue, enter my email address and hit send. Can a million trivial encounters add up to significance? Your question is important and I for one don’t particularly want to hazard an answer other than to say that perhaps big numbers are like a foot in the door these days. Without them, you have no standing. But in campaigning, standing is never enough on its own. It’s a necessary but not a sufficient condition that might, if you’re lucky, inch you a little closer to what you are ultimately trying to achieve. But no way can a big number ever be the whole story. Especially one that is easily achieved.

  2. Good, heady stuff.

    Consider this, when we look at the numbers game: the anti-SOPA actions in January put every one of our climate petition efforts to shame. Compared to the 17 million delivered to Copenhagen after a couple years of concerted effort, the Anti-internet censorship forces generated 100 million signatures in a matter of weeks. Somewhat tongue in cheek, I have suggested that the key to making climate change matter to the online community is to make it about LolCatz instead of Sumatran Tigers. Millions of people interact with the YouTube treatments of of nature every day, Sumatran Tigers not so much.

    Of course, those 100 million were an elective or weak bond as you describe it above, but I see an additional value in those kinds of easy, simple actions — and this I would put in answer to Nick’s valid above. Low-bar asks that simply get people to act are a gateway drug. We all know that we adjust our self-image to be consistent with our behaviours, and for some the mere decision to sign a petition is enough to put them in a new space where they see themselves as, if not activists, actionists — people willing to engage the status quo. The really hard work is creating those high-bond networks Chris describes above by applauding, acknowledging, aggregating those efforts, starting a conversation, and offering a menu of escalation that finds a sweet spot with the actionist — the highest potential contribution that the individual is willing to give time, energy, creativity, professional skills, or connectivity to. Very few groups do that really efficiently, and that’s a massive waste. If you’re not using easy asks in this way, and those easy asks are not delivering results, you’re not doing mobilisation, your doing clicktivism: creating what I call “Santa Clause asks” — letters written asking for more than can ever be delivered, sent to addresses where they will never be read, furthering a fiction whose only value is keeping hope alive. And that sole value, important as it is, will be diluted quickly if Santa Claus never delivers, the letters get no response, and people don’t find themselves invited into a shop where they can make their own toys.

  3. social media, is it explained in the secret book published by “Christian Voice” in the US with the title `Church Networking Guide`? I can`t get hold of a copy but to answer the blog question would be nice to know the theory first.

  4. Marc-Antoine Dunais says:

    One recent campaign with a solid online component is the one waged by RAN to stop deforestation in Tripa’s peat swamp forests, in north Sumatra. The governor had issued a license for a palm oil company to clear the orangutan habitat, in blatant disregard of the national moratorium on deforestation. Eventually, after Walhi (FoE Indonesia) sued and the RAN campaign followed, the license was pulled and the company may have to discontinue its operations (after considerable damage). Curious to know to what extent the online petition by RAN contributed to this success, and how.

  5. Pingback: Sex Slavery, Scotland and slacktivism « The Washington Coercion

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