E-Mail Advocacy In the Blink of an Eye
Previously, we talked about the potential downside of conducting advocacy campaigns via e-mail. If you look beyond the spam, however, you might also see an increased opportunity for advocacy campaigns to be conducted by both traditional established organizations and individuals concerned and motivated enough to become an engaged around an issue.
Almost anyone today with access to technology has a potentially powerful range of advocacy capacity. Enhanced technology capacity, however does not negate the need for public policy capacity. The latter capacity assumes a base of knowledge that includes elements like:
- communication and message development skills
- organizational and media contacts
- distribution networks for messages and advisory alerts
- volunteers and supporter base
- institutional knowledge and credibility around a given set of issues
The advocacy landscape has a new dynamic at work, namely online efforts driven by groups that are not categorizable by the rules of traditional advocacy organizations. These newer types of efforts, in some cases, are spurring activity on the part of established organizations. Rebecca Fairley Raney discusses some examples of the trend in a June 1999 New York Times article. The interesting slant in this article is that while traditional organizations have used campaigns in times of crises, now online "flash" campaigns can be developed by anyone around any issue at any time, providing an opportunity to be proactive rather than reactive. Although the article itself does not make a distinction, there are at least two basic types of flash campaigns highlighted.
The first are e-mail based campaigns, such as:
- MoveOn.org started as an online petition calling for Congress to censure President Clinton and "move on" to other things during the impeachment proceddings. It started with a list of 100 e-mail contacts to whom messages were sent, and swelled to 500,000 names in a few months. The folks behind the campaign claim that 90% of the names added came through e-mail referrals.
- The Libertarian Party's March 1999 campaign through which 171,000 people sent e-mail messages to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) in opposition to a proposed rule that would grant banks license to monitor the financial transactions of their customers. Raney cites this as a particularly significant example in that the mail from this campaign represented approximately 83% of the total e-mail sent to the agency during its consideration of the rule, which was subsequently dropped from consideration.
The second type of online "flash" campaigns are those that use "electronic word of mouth" to encourage potential and current supporters to visit a site, where they can both learn about an issue, and then send an electronic message to an elected official or government agency:
- The Libertarian Party also launched an anti-war site in late April that, during the first week, allowed approximately 1,000 people a day to send e-mail to Congressional offices in the first week, and over 15,000 messages since the site was launched.
- The E-rate campaign on behalf of a number of education groups in support of the "E-rate" (a federal subsidy used to bring the Internet into libraries and schools to the Internet). Between April and late May, some 11,000 visitors generated letters to their elected officials through the site.
So which is better, you might ask?
Conventional wisdom might suggest that an e-mail campaign can be most effective in reaching a potentially high volume of people in a short amount of time, especially if your intent is to educate people and spur activity around an issue. They can also be useful for alerting a defined base of supporters to an issue.
Web-based campaigns, on the other hand, can serve as a powerful tool for engaging a broader audience, by educating site visitors and then giving them a means through which to act upon the information they are given. This might include interactive features such as a system that allows visitors to communicate electronically with their elected officials via pre-written letter, or customizable letters, the ability to participate in a poll or survey, or to send an alert postcard to friends and colleagues. Well-crafted web campaigns can also help organizations assembling a base of supporters that can be approached to participate in future activities.
Both do have potential shortcomings. As stated before, e-mail campaigns run the risk of (1) losing crucial details-- including facts, the original contact, and "freshness dates"-- or of (2) acquiring extraneous or inaccurate information the more times a message is forwarded.
Web-based campaigns, meanwhile, usually require users read a message, click (or copy and paste) a web link, review content on a web page and then take the next step and follow through on what they have learned. Even if the site is well designed and accessible, people might be discouraged to act if too many steps are required.
The added risks for both "flash" campaign models might include:
- seeming too impersonal and mechanical in their quest to reach a wide base of potential supporters. Many web sites and e-mails encourage people to customize messages that are forwarded to others. In certain instances, however, the messages appear to be generated by a machine, versus an individual with concerns and thoughts expressed in their own words.
- encouraging the most minimal amount of public policy participation on the part of the target audiences. An e-mail campaign or online petition that only encourages recipients to send a note to others, without providing reference information on an issue, or a call to action encouraging citizens to contact an elected official or agency, might not accomplish a great deal. A web-centered campaign that provides a great mechanism for hooking an audience's attention, but that lacks any follow-up mechanism to marshall the interest it generates for further activity can also have a similarly low return on investment for an effort.
So, maybe at its best, the Internet can be an equalizing force for anyone with a message to convey their thoughts to a pretty broad audience. Of course, the same might hold true for the Internet at its worst.
Links Cited (in order of mention)
"Flash Campaign: Online Activism at Warp Speed"
(6/3/99) New York Times, Rebecca Fairley Raney
[free registration required]
The Libertarian Party's March 1999 FDIC campaign
The Libertarian Party Anti-war Site