Online Campaigning Part 1: Big and Evolving

Let Target employees spend Thanksgiving with their families,” says Justin Mills from Selah, Washington. “Save Pakistani mother sentenced to death for blasphemy,” implores Emily Clarke from Malmesbury, United Kingdom. Some 100,000 people are supporting Justin’s efforts and 430,000 are backing Emily’s on petition giant

More than 100 million people are engaged in these and other online campaigns, with thousands of ‘wins’ attributed to them. So after a decade and a half of digital democracy, where do things stand? This three-part blog series begins with a look at online activist sites like Part two will explore government run petition sites and part three their impact.

Online Campaigning Sites

A good place to start is MoveOn. It began in 1998 as an email group by a couple who wanted President Clinton censured rather than impeached. It has since grown to some eight million members and is hailed as the inspiration behind many of the other online campaigning sites.

While MoveOn was the early mover, the behemoth in the online campaigning world today is Started in 2007, it now claims more than 70 million users in 196 countries. It also boasts a large and global staff, with over 170 employees in more than 18 countries. Close behind is Avaaz, with a ‘movement’ of over 40 million people operating in 15 languages across six continents.

Another large U.S.-based online campaigning group is Care2, which has over 27 million members, 50 employees and dubs itself “the world’s largest community for good.” The Heritage Foundation has also grown considerably in recent years. Heritage Action for America—a “government relations team and dedicated grassroots activists that advance conservative policy”—has 400,000 “activists” and the Heritage foundation Facebook page has grown to over 1.7 million.

There are other overseas online groups too like the U.K.-focused 38 Degrees, which reports nearly 2 million members and the Australian-based GetUp! with 630,000 members.

As their sizeable staff numbers suggest, online campaigning organizations often attract considerable resources. The Avaaz Foundation reported revenues of $11.6 million in 2012. Heritage Action for America reported revenues of $8.8 million in 2013, and MoveOn Civic Action $4.3 million for 2012.

The Online Campaign Appeal

The stock-in-trade of online campaigning sites is the online petition, where an individual adds their name and email address to a petition such as the one above asking Target to let its employees have Thanksgiving off. In early years, campaigns were primarily initiated by the campaigning groups themselves. Increasingly, however, there has been a shift towards these organizations simply hosting the platform that allows any member of the public to start a petition (in addition to often running their own campaigns).

Some online campaigning sites also use the petition as a springboard to offline campaigning efforts. GetUp!, for example, has raised funds from its members to launch legal actions, run advertisements and skywrite over the houses of Australian Parliament. In one campaign, it reached out to members who were also shareholders in the company it was targeting and convinced enough of them to use their shareholder rights to force the company to call a hugely costly extraordinary general meeting.

Another noticeable feature of online campaigning has been its progressive political focus. Most of the major online campaigning sites mentioned either openly describe themselves as progressive or hint at it in other ways, such as in their job advertisements. Heritage is the exception, advocating on a range of conservative issues. However, more recently, has also tried to distance itself from an exclusively progressive focus. Towards the end of 2012, it caused an online storm among progressives when it announced amendments to its advertising policy. Previously, it only accepted advertisements from groups with similar values. Now it allows all advertisers.

Not All Online Campaign Groups Are Nonprofits

Interestingly, not all online campaigning groups are nonprofits. Despite the .org in its name, Change is actually a for-profit certified B Corporation. It is distinguished from an ordinary company by the fact that a social mission is written into its by-laws. By November 2012, Forbes magazine reported Change had “300 paying clients, including Sierra Club, Credo Wireless and Amnesty International, and its revenue so far this year [October 2012] is $15 million.”

Change’s business model is built around charging groups to promote their campaigns to its massive membership. When you sign a sponsored petition on the Change site your details go to that third party organization, which will then use your contact details to keep you informed of their activities and/or hit you up for a donation.

In a 2010 marketing presentation, Care2 (another for-profit certified B corporation) demonstrated the potential value of paid promotion on its site. In one example, an organization paid it $42,800 to recruit 19,935 new donor leads (i.e. email addresses and names). Ten percent of these leads were converted to donors by the organization, which raised $54,461 from them in the first 12-month period and $94,835 over a 24-month period for a return on investment of 122 percent.

In a decade and a half online campaigning groups have emerged as substantial new actors in the political landscape. They command enormous memberships and attract significant revenue streams to sustain their operations. They also raise contentious questions. What mandate do the people who run online campaigning organizations have? The multinational membership of online campaigning sites means it can sometimes be hard for decision makers targeted by their campaigns to know whether the petitioners are nationals. And should citizen participation platforms be run for profit?

Read part two in this series, Governments Get into Online Activism.”