Sizing up your options & strategies for being effective with your online petition drive
Target audience: Nonprofits, social change organizations, educators, foundations, businesses, individuals. This is part of Creating Media, our ongoing series designed to help nonprofits and other organizations learn how to use and make media.
By Julie Katz
Political and social activists have a lot of choices these days when launching a petition campaign. But not all petition sites are created equal.
What options do you have to wage an effective petition effort? Here’s a breakdown of what you need, where to go, what to do and how to make an impact. (You can add Change.org and Causes to the list below — we covered them in our roundup of fundraising sites.)
First, you need a cause. Make sure your cause is clear and concise. Have some background information available to buttress your case, including links and citations. Supplement it with media: a video, photo or story that personalizes the issue.
Here are the major petition sites that you can choose from:
The Petition Site
1Care2’s first-rate The Petition Site offers a simple online form letter that makes it easy to sign and send off. Making a petition takes three easy steps on this site: Start the petition page, add your information and create a “petition promo” (how it will appear on the site). Viewers will find the petition statement or letter directly next to the form they will be signing on the petition’s page.
The nonprofit marine conservation group Oceana recently posted a petition asking Congress to save bluefish tuna, a fish rapidly facing extinction because of unmonitored overfishing. The petition has received 10,600 signatures toward a goal of 15,000.
2Petition Spot, run by Gigenet, offers a twist on online petitions: You receive micro-payments for signatures you collect. After filling out a quick and easy form for your petition, start promoting through easy links to all your social media websites like Facebook and Twitter. Once your petition is posted, set up your PayPal account, because every signature on your petition puts a penny in your pocket. Petition Spot and PayPal offer one cent for every signature.
Though it would be nice to pocket some change, this is also a great tool for promotion: Let each supporter know that each signature collected provides not only increased awareness but financial support for a cause. Some petitions are a bit silly, frankly: the nomination of Michael Jackson for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize has more than 58,000 signatures. But there are more serious issues here, too. A recent popular petition asks President Obama to stand in favor of marriage equality for the gay and lesbian community.
3Petition Online offers a slightly more intricate process to posting a petition. First, you can choose to have individuals’ names hidden, which can help gain signatures but lessens impact, in our view. Second, more information such as comments or zip code can be displayed next to the signature. The site’s most impressive feature is the ability to enter tags and targets for search engine optimization and community outreach. However, we don’t like the fact that you can’t see how much support a petition has gathered beforehand.
As a bonus kick, PetitionOnline’s Twitter account offers updates on recent petitions. The site claims it’s collected more than 87 million signatures with tens of thousands of active petitions. Here’s an example of a petition against the slaughter of horses. PetitionOnline is a branch of DesignCommunity, owned by Artifice, Inc.
4Go Petition is an independent site boasting petitions from more than 75 countries and a No. 1 ranking from Google. What makes GoPetition a bit different is its claim of working with non-governmental organizations and government patrons.
GoPetition also offers filtering options such as the ability to filter profanity and duplicate signatures as well as SEO capabilities. Typical petitions call for stopping the killing of Cape Town’s baboons and one that calls on Denmark to repeal a law banning certain breeds of dogs.
5And now for something completely different. Act.ly is a Twitter-based petition site that couldn’t be more simple: Type in the target’s Twitter name, type in what you are petitioning them to do, and there you have it! A petition is created and, as anything goes in the world of tweeting, you can start spreading it like wildfire. A page comes up with the direct tweet and the full message. Act.ly will display an area to show whether the target has responded or not.
Here’s an example asking Whirlpool Corp. not to close a refrigerator manufacturing plant in Evansville, Ind., that would put more than 1,100 people out of work. People have created 2,100 petitions on the relatively new site so far.
6Online Petition, another independent petition site, is pretty straightforward: Like the other sites, it lets anyone start, promote and sign petitions. It also helps you learn how to maximize your reach to gather thousands of signatures.
Online Petition offers a way to attach blog posts to your petition so that people can see the progress you’re making. Here’s an example of a petition I just created asking Rollins College to to reconsider its contract with a catering company.
7If you’re going to use mass email or a blog format, you can create a petition form through Google Docs. Simply log into Google Docs, go to Create New and choose the Form option from the drop down menu. After saving, the document can be emailed or you can get the HTML code to embed it in your blog.
8Download the WordPress Petition Plug-inand a petition form goes straight into your blog post. After a user submits the details, she receives an email to confirm her signature. Once the petition is complete, the creator can export the full details.
9iPetitions, a site run by RemoteIT, an Internet business service, has collected more than 17 million signatures for causes ranging from wildlife to business reform, from political campaigns to religious issues.
We’re not fond of this site. More often than not we’re met with this message: “The petition you tried to access has expired or has been taken down by its sponsor.”
How to be effective with your petition drive
Targets: Make sure to have links to the websites, blogs or profiles connected to the issue you are petitioning for or against.
Presence: Don’t leave your petition waiting to be noticed! Your petition should be unavoidable to be effective. Use social media outlets to their greatest potential. Create a Facebook Page or Group for the petition with links, information and space for people to share their personal stories. Personalization gets more attention than a form letter.
Social bookmarking: Consider e-mail to be the digital age equivalent to being hassled by petitioners with clipboards on street corners. Indiscriminate e-mail blasts are considered spam. Instead, spread the word on Twitter, Facebook and your blogs! Interlink as much as possible to spread the word. You can link the petition site back to Facebook and your blog to give it more heft.
Pros and cons to online petitions
Pros: The major upside is this: Here’s an easy way to get the word out about your cause and perhaps make a difference. Online petitions are particularly useful if you are mobilizing opinion on behalf of a cause while on a deadline. Demonstrating strong public opinion in mass quantities is especially useful if you’re racing the clock to a major vote or decision.
Cons: A few drawbacks come with petitioning online. First, there’s the “good deed syndrome,” sometimes called slacktivism: the notion that by filling out an online petition, a user considers that an “accomplishment” rather than becoming educated and involved. A second drawback is the “click and send effect” among petition gatherers: the notion that quantity beats quality. While the number of signatures is important, the quality of the petition and the input of the people signing it — eg., people taking time to write a message — proves more persuasive than raw numbers.
Last, consider your social capital. Author Clay Shirky writes about social capital in his books “Here Comes Everybody” and “Cognitive Surplus.” Social capital is what we gain from interacting within our community. The “I-do-for-you-and-you-do-for-me” ideology presents a social contract between individuals, and petitions play an important role in our civic space.
Have you ever created an online petition? What has worked — or not worked? Have we missed any sites? Please leave a comment below.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.