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Here’s a story of two online petitions.
These petitions were both sent out by Democrats running for Congress to their email list of supporters recently. They both had to do with the recent Republican vote to end Medicare in the House of Representatives. And they both called out the Republicans in the race for supporting the vote.
The email linking to the first petition read like this:
This week House Republicans unveiled their budget, and it holds the same toxic provisions that would turn Medicare into a voucher program even though more than 1.8 million Illinois seniors rely on the popular program.
[my opponents] voted for nearly the same budget proposal last year.
Sign our petition telling them to oppose the plan and show independence from Washington GOP leaders >>
And the second read like this:
On Friday, Paul Ryan said he was ‘excited’ about cutting Medicare, and that the Republicans are “just going to keep doing it and doing it, to show that we’re serious and we’re committed.”
As budget talks bear down on us and Ryan is about to announce a new 2012 budget plan, I am asking my Tea Party Republican opponent to make a choice. Will he join Paul Ryan and the Republican Congress in forcing seniors to give up their Medicare guaranteed benefits to pay for tax cuts for millionaires?
Click here to add your name to this petition before my delivery to [my opponent] on Wednesday.
What’s the difference? Take a few moments to read closely, see if you can find the answer.
On the surface, these emails are very similar. Both link to petitions about Republicans wanting to end Medicare. Both hit a Republican opponent for supporting this plan. If you clicked the bolded link in each email, you would have been taken to a petition page where you could sign each respective petition. In fact, tactically, these emails are almost identical — they’re asking you to do pretty much the same thing.
But strategically, they’re very different.
The first email is slacktivism — it’s asking you to take a meaningless online action, for the purposes of perhaps making you feel good that you “did something.” But more likely, the campaign is hoping you’ll share it with your friends, who will sign themselves and grow the campaign email list, so the campaign can ask more people for donations.
Why is the first email meaningless? Because there’s no indication of what will happen to that petition after you sign it. And that probably means nothing will happen after you sign it.
In the first example, we’re being asked to sign a petition to “tell [the republican opponents] to oppose the plan and show independence from Washington GOP leaders.” Given that call to action, it’s logical to ask the question, “In what way will my signature tell them anything?” Will the campaign collecting the petition signatures deliver the names to their opponents, to make sure these names “tell” them something? Will the campaign inform the media of how many signatures they got, to “tell” the opponents through the press? Will the campaign make each name into a form letter, make little paper airplanes from them, and throw them at the opponents during debates? How exactly will the message get through?
We’re being asked to go from point A (signing the petition) to point C (sending a message) without a point B (the target actually getting the message in some way). Without point B, there’s a disconnect. This email has a theory of change that’s broken.
The second email, however, tells you directly about point B: “Click here to add your name to this petition before my delivery to [my opponent] on Wednesday.” (emphasis added)
Here, the theory of change is intact — if you click on this email’s link and sign this petition, it will be delivered to the Republican opponent, so your message will be received.
Having a strong theory of change can make the difference between success and failure. If you clearly communicate to the online activists you talk to your theory of change (and then you do what you say you are going to do and report back to them with the results), you build up immense credibility. People will want to take action, because you have a track record of being honest, effective, and powerful. And of course, a strong theory of change means you make an actual impact in the real world, too. A petition delivered to nobody is a waste of time and clicks, but a petition delivered in the real world, in front of the media, with a crowd of supporters to hand over the stacks of paper to the target can create actual pressure, and help win your demands.
At Netroots Nation in Providence this year, I’ll be leading a training entitled “How to Make Clicks Mean Something: Strategic Planning for Online Campaigns.” There, I’ll present the method I and others at the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) use to plan our campaigns. I’ll be discussing theory of change, but also the other pieces that go into making an online campaign impactful and successful — setting good goals, coming up with a strategy, reporting back, and using momentum moments to drive forward. And I’ll be presenting a case study of one of the PCCC’s successes as an example.
Come join me on Saturday, 6/9 at 10:30am and learn more about how to prevent slacktivism and start winning your online campaigns. And in the meantime, make sure every campaign you launch has a strong, clearly communicated theory of change!
Click here to register now for Netroots Nation, June 7-10, 2012.