Digital Campaigns

Waves of online petitions are a sign of how digital campaigns can mobilise masses behind a cause.

Messages spread quickly, cheaply online – with a bit of luck they can even go viral. So organisations are paying more and more attention to digital campaigns. Using centralised databases means they can communicate more directly with their supporters. Involving the target groups in the campaigns means the process of forming opinions becomes more democratic, because target groups are involved in developing the campaigns.

It’s never been so easy and so cheap to mobilise a large number of people and maintain a dialogue with them. 39 percent of the world’s population now uses the internet. In developed countries the International Telecommunications Union (2013) puts the figure at 77 percent. Of those, a sizable majority – 72 percent in the USA, for instance – are active on social networking platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. These channels of communication means petitions can be signed and forwarded very quickly and easily – it no longer needs somebody to stand with a clipboard on the high street collecting signatures. Digital campaigns are better adapted to today’s way of communicating. Whilst professional campaigns previously mostly came from large organisations, now there’s a growing number of opportunities for even small NGOs to set up e-petitions, or complete campaign websites:,, SignOn or freely available campaigning software such as Krautbuster which break the monopoly of bigger groups on setting the agenda. Even highly specialised concerns can be heard.

The International Olympic Committee won over by a digital campaign

On the largest petition platform,, the Sudanese marathon runner Guor Marial started a petition because the International Olympic Committee had excluded him from entering the marathon at the 2012 games because Sudan wasn’t officially recognised as a country. Over 3,000 signatures later, Marial was allowed to compete. Shanene Thorpe, a single mother who felt victimised by the journalism of the BBC’s Newsnight programme was able to force an official apology from the corporation. And only after two million people signed a petition was the killer of Trayon Martin, a 19-year-old African-American, put on trial in Florida (albeit ultimately to be cleared).

However, professional campaigning doesn’t stop at petitions and social media. For the video campaign Kony2012, Invisible Children spent a year gathering contacts before they released the video. With a database of 200,000 supporters the initial multiplication potential was enormous. This principle of propagation is tried and tested. A week before the protest against the SOPA legislation to regulate the internet, SalsaLabs compiled a database of over 400,000 contacts who were sent tailored emails according to their region encouraging them to write to their senator. The take-up was so high that up to 60,000 new contacts were added every day and a total of 1.7 million emails were sent to senators.

But mass-emailing campaigns directed at politicians aren’t always a brilliant idea. For example Campact, Germany’s largest online petition platform, established that mass emails to politicians on national level often have a negative effect. Local and regional politicians, on the other hand, tend to react positively and take seriously the demands of their constituents.

Getting through to Nestlé, with the aid of lorry-mounted tweets

Although many things work more efficiently online, successfully riding the wave of online communication still presents some challenges. It’s important to realise that communication on the internet flows in both directions and it takes considerable effort to manage the dialogue with supporters. Particularly for small organisations, people can quickly find themselves working overtime just to keep up with it all. But the advantages normally outweigh the disadvantages – potential supporters feel a sense of belonging and being valued, and existing supporters stay around for the same reasons. Because simply clicking does not have a binding effect, digital campaigns should also flow into offline engagement and have offline components.

For one thing, photos from events in the “real world” make for better press releases. For example, in 2012 after Nestlé had declined to react to criticism about rainforest clearing (the grisly Kit-Kat video), Greenpeace erected a live Twitter-wall on the back of a truck outside Nestlé’s headquarters in Frankfurt. This meant consumers were able to send their own messages by tweet directly to the company’s management. Two months later the company accepted partial responsibility for the forest clearing.

Whilst NGOs manoeuvred, Avaaz collected $1 million in donations for Burma

Small-scale online engagement has long been labelled rather scornfully as “clicktivism” or “slacktivism”. Just clicking on a campaign’s website or forwarding it to friends isn’t really proper engagement, so goes the argument trotted out at academic conferences. Ricken Patel of the large petition platform Avaaz (20 million members in 194 countries) thinks this notion of clicktivism is nonsense. Gandhi didn’t engage in walkivism simply because he used marches as a tool of mobilisation.

The experience of Avaaz shows that online activism acts as a catalyst, leading to people donating more, or taking to the streets, or joining a local initiative. After large swathes of Burma were devastated by a cyclone in 2008, Avaaz members donated over a million dollars within a week, which they sent directly to Buddhist monks. This agility demonstrated by new, digital organisations is an important feature distinguishing them from older, relatively unwieldy organisations like Amnesty International. Further differences between new and old are that online organisations:

- no longer define their membership as paid-up supporters, but rather people on their mailing lists, which naturally makes for far higher membership figures.

- have small teams, which they scale up only when necessary. MoveOn has just 20 or so full-time staff, and for certain campaigns they have a large pool of short-term workers they can activate.

- have low overhead costs. MoveOn for instance operates with a radically decentralised model: there’s no head office and all employees work from home or a café. Staff communicate with one another using Google-Chat, email and mobile phones.

- have an engrained culture of testing. Alternative emails are initially sent out to test groups; the versions with high opening and click-through rates are then selected to send to the entire mailing list.

Does clicking get boring? Don't neglect the importance of going out on the streets

On the one hand it’s clear that every time somebody clicks on a petition or forwards a link to a website or a blog, this increases the reach of a campaign. On the other hand, there’s a desire from some quarters for deceleration. It’s all fine and well, they say, that there’s a range of ways for people to participate, but, according to Matthias Fellner from campaign consultancy Firmament “increasingly people are looking for ways not to ‘quickly chip in’ but engage more intensively. People want to feel truly part of something, not just used as a passive resource.”

Chris Rose, author of “How to Win Campaigns” told us it’s not a question of people’s limited attention span, and that the amount people will engage online will remain limited, it’s a zero sum game. “In the 80s and 90s campaigners noticed that intensive reporting within conventional media channels only had a limited impact. Similarly, after the initial enthusiasm for the internet, there are increasing calls for direct action in the physical world.”


The internet can be used very effectively for wide-scale mobilisation. The challenge for foundations, NGOs, CSR departments or individual activists is to use central contact databases effectively to forge a deeper connection with their supporters. In future a few large organisations will still be capable of mass mobilisation, but in parallel to this a large number of small organisations will manage a deeper level of engagement. The crucial point is to generate as many opportunities to participate as possible, and to strike a balance between professionalisation and bottom-up mobilisation. If campaigns morph into social movements, then the origin organisation loses control over it and can no longer measure it’s direct success, but it has succeeded in awakening passion for change in the broader population.