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The end of online organizing as we know it? Going beyond the petition-email list bundle


The landscape of digital activism is at a crossroads. Recently, several leading online organizing groups approached me to share insights on potential new organizing and impact models beyond 2024. These organizations are grappling with a changing digital environment and seeking ways to evolve beyond the online petition and email list model that has been the backbone of their work for the past 15 years.


This model, pioneered by MoveOn in the late 1990s, spread globally with national groups like GetUp (Australia), 38 Degrees (UK), and Campact (Germany), among others (often catalyzed and supported by the Open Network). The ecosystem further expanded to include global organizations like Avaaz and Eko (previously SumOfUs), issue-specific groups such as Color of Change and Ultraviolet, and distributed organizing platforms like Change.org, Care2, and ControlShift. Despite their diverse focuses and scales, these groups all - at least initially - relied heavily on online petitions and email list-based outreach to both build power and campaign for specific policy changes.


The memo below is not meant to be perfect or comprehensive, it simply summarizes some of my thoughts on the challenges and opportunities facing these organizations. Initially written for a specific organization, I've since been asked to share it with several others, prompting me to make it publicly available here with light edits for broader consumption.


While I don't claim to have all the answers, my perspective is informed by over a decade of experience at Change.org, where I served as global campaigning leader, Chief Product Officer, and CEO until early 2023. These roles, combined with my work as an advisor and collaborator with leading online organizing groups across the US, Australia, Europe and Asia, has given me a birds eye view into the sector's challenges. Recent conversations with leaders in these organizations have only reinforced my belief that the trends I've observed are widely felt across the industry.



 

Why new impact models?


So why does this question even need to be asked? Most strategy fails because of a failure of diagnosis, rather than a failure of problem solving. It’s essential to start by getting clear on why this is important and what problem actually needs to be solved. It’s essential this diagnosis is shared by everyone working on it, as otherwise we’re talking past each other with solutions to unrelated problems.


I would diagnose the problem as: 


Online petitions and email list based distribution are less effective than they once were as both impact and power building tactics, and likely to decline further in effectiveness over time. Any group that continues to rely primarily on these mechanisms for their impact or sustained power will a) hit a hard ceiling on what they’re able to achieve, b) risk a cycle of inevitable slow decline.


Where are we coming from?


Historically online petitions and email lists were a relatively simple mechanism to achieve a bundle of separate outcomes, all of which were essential for the groups relying on them. In many ways online organizing in the 2000-2020 era was enabled by the simple realization that an online petition could serve both as a powerful one time action AND as a sign up for ongoing involvement. The “Jobs to be done” by online petitions and email lists were/are:



Online petitions

Email list distribution

For Campaigning Groups

  • Influence policy makers by demonstrating popular support or interest

  • Catalyze public attention on issues; often via media.

  • Grow power by collecting emails.

  • An owned and durable audience that could be predictably reached for whatever the group chooses.

  • Legitimacy with decisions makers and partners because of # of people that could be predictably reached / mobilized.

  • Fundraising outcomes for power and sustainability 

For Members / Supporters

  • An easy to take but meaningful action that allows me to contribute to solving a problem I care about.

  • An easy to take but meaningful action that allows me to express my values on something I care about.

  • A way of feeling connected to other people who share my values. Not alone.

  • A way to discover compelling, specific and timely issues, problems or opportunities to act that align with my values.

  • Super easy and convenient; I spend time in my inbox already, and it’s free and interesting content.

  • The trust I build in the sender over time makes it simpler for me to trust the information and action I receive.


This is a remarkably large number of quite important jobs that are bundled together in a very small set of simple tactics. 


So what's the problem?


I said earlier in defining the problem that online petitions and email list based distribution are less effective than they once were as both impact and power building tactics, and likely to decline further in effectiveness over time. There are a number of things driving this:

  • Petitionflation: The number of petitions, groups using them to organize, and people signing them has grown significantly in the last 10 years. At the same time decisions makers have become used to and more familiar with dealing with petitions. This has a double negative effect; it devalues any single petition or signature in the eyes of a policy maker, making it a less useful impact tool for the group. It also undermines the member job of feeling like signing is a meaningful action they can take, making people (in particular younger audiences) less likely to take the action. 

  • Channel decline: Email is becoming a harder and harder channel to succeed in. As the law of shitty click throughs takes its course, members' inboxes are increasingly full, leading ISPs to increasingly tighten deliverability rules, and introducing features like auto filtering / sorting that makes it harder to cut through.

  • Competition for member jobs: the information and technology landscape is shifting such that ALL the jobs that members/supporters hired any groups petitions and email list for can be done in a more compelling way by others. 

    • TikTok, Instagram, and private messaging groups on WhatsApp, SMS, etc are much more compelling ways to discover compelling, specific and timely issues to engage with. They’re more convenient than my inbox as well as I’m spending more time there, and more likely to come from a trusted messenger (a real human I have a relationship with!).

    • Sharing or liking a video is definitely easier and may feel more meaningful to many people than signing a petition. It definitely does a better job of making me feel connected to other people.


While I believe these trends were essentially inevitable as the internet evolved, it’s not lost on me that Change.org - and my work specifically - almost certainly accelerated the problem of petition-inflation, and as a result shortened the window in which the online petition / email list bundle punched above its weight as an organizing tactic. I'm deeply uncertain about alternative pathways that might have been better, a question I continue to grapple with.


It’s also worth noting that these drivers will in all likelihood get worse over time. While I don’t expect petitionflation to continue forever (the tactic will remain, but I’d guess will eventually reach some equilibrium where it still can work, it’s just a much higher bar than it has been in the past), email channel decline will keep getting worse forever, and trends in attention online suggest that competition for member jobs will get worse.



 

Exploring solutions


I think there are some exciting and promising pathways that could provide an answer to this challenge. None are easy though, and all are uncertain. We should treat this as an urgent and important problem, pursue the most promising opportunities with optimism and determination, but be clear eyed that there may not be easy solutions. So what are some different ways we could think about solving it?


What would an online organizing group look like if it was founded today?

One way to think about paths forward are to consider what an online campaigning organization would look like if it was founded today. Here’s one hypothesis.

  • It would meet the audience where it is; which largely means being incredibly present on TikTok and Instagram. That means having followings in the millions, and being hyper present in the trends, stories and zeitgeist of conversation in those platforms.

  • It would be unmistakably video native in brand, skills and way of reaching an audience. Short form video content production would be valued far higher than writing on the internal team. 

  • It would be human/messenger centric. Audiences are increasingly connecting with individuals whether they’re activists like Greta, individual influencers or staff of institutions putting a human face to the brand.

  • It would be strategic. In a world of vapid trends and thoughtless activism, this organization would be known for bringing impact and smarts to what it works on and talks about. Seamlessly bridging popular culture and what works in the halls of power.


What might this look like in practice?

  • Imagine a core, central team, responsible for identifying campaign opportunities, campaign strategy, partnerships and organizational sustainability. This team would have skills in campaign strategy, video communication / social media, and fundraising.

  • Imagine a large network of influencer partners. For each issue the organization works on, there’d be 15-20 influencers with large followings who have formal 12 month (or more) paid partnerships with the organization… they’re like staff, but more independent and at arms length. As part of being a ‘partner’ they commit to a minimum # of videos/views per year, including at least X fundraisers or mobilization actions, with bonuses for raising more $ or actions than forecast. In exchange they get a) paid money and, b) campaign strategy support to help them be more impactful c) get to be part of a network of other influencers who they collaborate with on the issues they care about.

  • To make this work economically the central team might need to be smaller, as a significant % of the cost base would shift to 3rd party influencers. However overnight you could put your operating and impact model on the cutting edge of social media trends, and at the center of where people are spending more and more of their time.

  • This has the potential to create a virtuous cycle, where the central branded account (which the influencer would collaborate / post with every time they do a related video) would grow and benefit from every collaboration, increasing the organizations own following and reach, making it a more attractive account to collaborate with over time.

  • This approach would likely give the organization much greater reach than it currently has. However CTAs would have much lower conversion rates (from within walled garden social video platforms), and the organization would have lots of algorithm dependency in the same way that influencers experience.


A portfolio of solutions: unbundling the jobs to be done


Another way to think about paths forward would be to acknowledge the petition-email list bundle is going to decline in efficacy, but not search for a single approach or solution that re-bundles the same jobs… instead separate them out and replace them one by one or with a totally different bundle. What this might look like:

  • Treat impact and distribution as separate problems to be solved. 

    • Lean into lobbying, advocacy and media campaigning as impact tactics that do not require mobilizing large numbers of people. 

    • Stop trying to manufacture reader focused theories of change, and instead shift the focus of your communication to members to be about 1) building a large audience, 2) deepening affinity and trust for the organization, and 2) fundraising. 

  • Focus on solving distribution without trying to connect it to impact.

    • Invest in top of funnel distribution: aim to reach large audiences on all the top platforms, with two simple objectives. 1) Increase # of people reached, and 2) convert some of those people to an owned channel.

    • Diversify owned channels. Maintain email as a channel, but invest in other owned channels that you can use to reduce risk on any one distribution channel. This means Whatsapp, SMS, Signal, etc.

  • Under this model the organization would likely be divided into two divisions with separate mandates that work fairly independently of each other.

    • Division 1 - Campaign: Get policies passed on the organizations focus areas using lobbying, media, research.

    • Division 2 - Power: Build the organizations reach (people) and resources ($) using video, social, email, msg’ing, tech, fundraising etc.

  • This might not seem like a revolutionary shift, but I think disentangling the two goals and teams, while letting go of a popular mobilization theory of change is fairly significant.


I’m not confident that these are the best or right solutions, and I’m very confident that there are better options out there, and those will be built by the people on the front lines of communicating with, mobilizing and engaging with people on the critical issues of today.



 

Challenges to overcome


There are many challenges that need to be overcome, but a few stand out to me, and both options above will definitely fail unless these challenges are acknowledged and confronted head on.


  • Leadership: For leaders and boards of online organizing groups, the path forward is fraught with uncertainty. There are no clear-cut answers, and every potential strategy carries inherent risks. The temptation to cling to familiar tactics and proven methods is strong, especially when they've delivered results in the past. However, the organizations most likely to thrive in the long term will be those with leadership willing to confront the changing reality head-on. These leaders must have the courage to initiate significant changes, even when the outcomes are not guaranteed. I believe that acknowledging reality, calculated risk taking, and managing the anxiety that comes with uncertainty is preferable to staying overly attached to an existing operating model that may be more comfortable in the short term but which long term is likely to fail. It's a daunting task, but one that's essential for the continued relevance and impact of online organizing groups in our rapidly evolving digital landscape.


  • Economics: The economics of each of these options simply may not work as efficiently as email lists, petitions and email fundraising has. The analogy might end up being like newspapers; the same number of people (or more!) kept reading them, but the monetization rates of online advertising is simply radically lower than with the hard copy bundle. Replacing the economic efficiency of the old model simply may not be possible, and the faster that’s admitted the better.


  • Team: Organizations that depend on the petition-email list bundle risk being Blockbuster Videos while the world shifts around it to streaming. A team that’s both very familiar with, and professionally and personally incentivized to hold on to the status quo (because it’s what they know, and what they’re good at) will find it very hard to make the shifts necessary to successfully adapt. Something significant will be required to make space for what’s new, without constraining it with the approaches, attitudes, assumptions, or skills of the past.


 

Concluding thoughts


The landscape of online organizing is at a critical juncture. While the petition-email list model has been surprisingly effective for the past two decades, I think it's clear that new approaches are needed to maintain and increase impact in the future. No organization or sector is immune to a changing world, and for online organizing groups the world is very much changing.


I share these thoughts not as someone who solved these problems, but as someone who lived them, made many mistakes in grappling with them, and learned valuable lessons along the way. My hope is that by openly discussing these challenges, we can collectively work towards more effective and sustainable approaches to digital organizing.


Organizations that can successfully navigate the transition to new models – whether through social media-centric approaches, unbundling of services, or other innovative solutions – will be best positioned to sustainably drive change over the long term. The challenges are significant, but so are the opportunities for those able to adapt and innovate.


Happy to discuss further with any groups grappling with this, please reach out.

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