Tips for Online Activists from the Creators of Act.ly
This Wednesday, Industry Minister Tony Clement confirmed via Twitter that the CRTC would be forced to overturn a recent decision to allow usage-based billing. If you read my last post, you’ll know that OpenMedia.ca, a non-profit advocacy group, has been orchestrating a highly successful online campaign, urging the MP to take action against the decision. Four days ago, their petition stood at 190,000 signatures—today over 416,000 Canadians have signed. Likewise, close to 10,000 users have asked Minister Clement to “stop the meter on Internet use,” using act.ly, a Twitter petition tool.
Impressed by OpenMedia.ca’s campaign, I wanted to learn more about act.ly which allows petitioners to target one Twitter user—a la @TonyClement_MP—with their key message. Instead of sharing a cause-related tweet with followers and trying to drive action through RTs, act.ly provides activists the opportunity to lobby one decision-maker (think: politician or corporate executive). Drive enough tweet traffic to that account and you may get a response—in this case, the reversal of the CRTC’s decision. To learn more, I emailed the tool’s creators, Jim Gilliam and Jesse Haff, who launched act.ly in June 2009.
Q&A with Jim and Jesse on Act.ly
Q1: When you launched, you indicated that act.ly was created in response to Clay Johnson’s post on Twitter and the future of email marketing. His post focused on using Twitter to “out-raise” donations, but you created a tool to drive petitions. Why take this direction?
A1: The dirty little secret of online activism is that signing a petition almost always comes before making a donation. It’s just math. Asking someone to sign a petition will spread faster than asking someone to donate because it’s easier to sign a petition. Signing a petition can lead to donating, and we saw a campaign like that go instantly viral when Rep. Joe Wilson yelled “YOU LIE” at President Obama during the 2010 State of the Union address. The act.ly petition spread insanely fast, and the act.ly page had the ability for people to donate on ActBlue to his opponent, who ended up raising over a million dollars in like 24 hours.
Q2: Who did you hope would use the tool? Who is actually using it?
A2: We built this as activists, and we’re quite outspoken in our own political views, but we wanted everyone to use it. It’s quite exciting when someone does something we never anticipated. We certainly didn’t expect a 15-year old girl to petition Justin Bieber for a date, but she got nearly 2000 tweets. What matters is that people are empowered to make their voice heard. That feeling of empowerment gives you confidence to make a difference in the world.
Q3. What are the most memorable responses received from those targeted by an act.ly petition?
A3: The most memorable response for me was from Senator Claire McCaskill. Over a thousand people tweeted asking her to co-sponsor a bill on repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. She was flooded with mentions, and got visibly upset on Twitter. She never responded to the petition directly, and dismissed it all with “Warning, if you’re from MO & want to tweet me on any issue, I’d advise waiting till tomorrow. Hard to weed thru many form tweets I’m getting.” Never mind the fact that some of those tweets were coming from Missouri, as is quite evident on the act.ly map. When it came up for a vote recently though, she did vote in favor of repeal.
The biggest surprise has been that politicians don’t respond particularly well to act.ly, but corporations, particularly the more sophisticated ones with social marketing departments, tend to be fairly responsive.
Q4. On the site, there are petitions created to advocate for the public good alongside those created by TV fans hoping for a celebrity guest on a talk show or a DVD. Will a time come when you decide that, like PetitionOnline, only “public petitions for responsible public advocacy” appear on act.ly?
A4: No. The @actly Twitter account regularly tweets the newest #1 petitions, and they are frequently things we don’t agree with. Some folks don’t understand that and get mad at us, but we are committed to staying as unbiased as possible in operating the service. And as biased as possible in our personal accounts.
Q5. In Canada, OpenMedia.ca has launched an act.ly petition to Stop the Meter on Internet Use directed at Minister Tony Clement. Why do you think it’s caught fire, eliciting almost 10,000 tweets and now the #1 act.ly petition of all time?
A5. Cause it’s terrible! And it’s about the Internet. Petitions about online services like Google Maps, or when it looked like Yahoo was going to shut down Delicious, tend to do enormously well. They also tend to get responses from the companies. Yahoo is no longer shutting down Delicious, and Google Maps has made at least two additions I believe based on act.ly petitions.
Q6. What advice would you give to someone about to launch a petition?
A6. The single biggest piece of advice is don’t plan. The best act.ly petitions are the ones based on something happening in the news right this second. So just put it out there, it either takes off or it doesn’t.
Q7. What would you tell the target of an act.ly petition?
A7. Don’t be afraid. Any organization focused on customer service knows that when someone is upset, just showing them some respect can go a long way to flipping them into a fan. And on Twitter, even if you don’t convert that person, since it’s so public, you’ll probably win a lot of others over.
Q8. When you launched the tool in June 2009, you hoped to provide analytics in the future. What’s the status of this feature?
A8. We started work on a pro version of act.ly called, wait for it…. “pro.act.ly” over a year ago. As we talked to all the activists, non-profits and campaigns that we hoped to be our customers, we found that they had two major problems. Managing all the different channels whether it was Facebook, Twitter, email, text messaging, or whatever the new hot social media service that they absolutely had to be on right now was getting totally overwhelming. And all the existing options were complicated and very expensive. So we decided to go big and build an affordable set of tools to bring all that together and make it as simple to set up and manage as a blog.
We changed the name to NationBuilder, and are in private beta testing right now. Folks can get on the invite list to be notified of when it’s available.
Inspired to try act.ly? Share your cause and your experiences by posting a comment or leaving an email.
While researching this post online, I was streaming a movie via Netflix in the background—something that’ll cost me a lot more given Tuesday’s ruling by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).
And that’s precisely what Steve Anderson, National Coordinator for OpenMedia.ca is fighting: usage-based billing by Internet Service Providers (ISP) that dings consumers who exceed their monthly data limits.
“People want more Internet, not less,” says Steve. “Usage-based billing runs explicitly contrary to the principles of an open Internet and to consumer choice.”
He also argues that big telecommunications companies like Bell, Shaw and Rogers have a vested interest in curbing consumers’ access to on-demand services like Netflix and iTunes. These corporations also provide TV programming—a service that is increasingly obsolete when you consider that we can download, stream and view content whenever and wherever we want.
So how are Steve and the dedicated crew at OpenMedia.ca campaigning for change?
They run a website where Canadians can call on decision-makers in Ottawa—namely, Industry Minister Tony Clement—to “stop the meter on Internet use.” Within 24 hours of launching the petition on Monday, November 1, 2010, over a thousand people signed. Three months later, over 189,000 have signed the petition.
Plus, citizens can tap Twitter and Facebook to spread awareness and prompt others to act. The Twitter version of the petition is organized through act.ly, a clever tool launched in June 2009 by Jim Gilliam and Jesse Haff who believe people can harness the power of Twitter to “tweet change.”
Like the web version, Minister Tony Clement is the target of OpenMedia.ca’s act.ly petition, meaning every tweet sent appears in his @Mentions stream. Close to 7,000 Twitter users have sent him the tweet, making it the top petition on the site at the moment and second over all time.
On November 3, 2010, Minister Tony Clement sent the following tweet in response:
In spite of the outcry, the regulation has gone forward. But the movement continues to grow strength—a model of modern advocacy in a digital age. Two days ago, the online petition stood at 107,000 and the act.ly version at almost 5,000; today, the former is closing in on 190,000 signatures and the latter on 7,000 tweets. In this specific case, I admit there’s symmetry to using the Internet to safeguard access to the Internet.
Who would you @Reply to see change? Post or email me your suggestions!
Yesterday, I received a new twist on the traditional holiday greeting by Karo Group, a strategic branding agency based in Calgary, AB. Instead of either a traditional printed card or even a simple e-card with a generic message, I received a gift from Karo—a donation made on my behalf to the charitable organization of my choice.
Donations to worthy causes on behalf of someone aren’t new. But here’s the clever bit—Karo asked me where I’d like to see the $10,000 go. I was able to select from a list of ten organizations, ranging from local groups like the Union Gospel and nationwide causes such as the Boys and Girls Club to international outfits, like a project to reduce the effect of poverty on women living in Ghana.
I applaud Karo for recognizing the growth of online voting competitions for social good like Pepsi’s Refresh Project and Aviva’s Community Grand Fund and then adapting the interactive features for their holiday message. They didn’t just produce another card, but got me engaged enough to visit their site and then vote. Now, I’m part of the process.
But I’m going to be a little picky about the messaging once they got me to their site. Since Karo is well-known for their rebranding work, their message was to rebrand me from “Naughty” to “Nice” via the donation. Okay—I like how they hit their key message while working in the holidays. But from a user design perspective, they didn’t tie the Naughty/Nice buttons from the first screen closely enough to the rebranding message on the next screen—in other words, it took me a couple of times to pull it altogether. Don’t make visitors work that hard!
Overall, I think Karo Group showcased real creativity with their holiday gift to me. Nice work!
On Saturday, I attended Wiring the Social Economy, an unconference designed to highlight how techies and social entrepreneurs can work in tandem to advance community economic development. I love these events precisely because they’re not one-way, top-down affairs where the experts broadcast information at me. Rather, all participants are encouraged to pool their collective knowledge and skills, because each of us has something valuable to share.
So here are the top three lessons I took away from Wiring the Social Economy.
Lesson #1 Fear of technology still holds us back—and that’s okay. There were three keynote speakers who kicked off the event (watch now via Livestream). Each of them expressed some level of fear or reluctance about using technology. Twitter user @wazaroff aptly summed up my initial reaction: “The spirit of the event should be how these worlds come together for progress not argue whether they should.”
But perhaps I was naïve to expect that everyone would be in the same frame of mind to skip the skepticism and jump into discussions of tactics, strategy and software.
We can’t judge, ignore or balk at people’s fear of technology—it’s real and bridging the digital divide requires us to acknowledge it.
Lesson #2 You’re safe to expand your comfort zone at an unconference. I met Bonnie Sainsbury about an hour before we co-pitched a session (Owning Technology—Not Getting Owned) at Wiring the Social Economy. Without Bonnie, I would never have done it.
When no one showed up at first, I was more than happy to put the “law of two feet” in action by joining another discussion in progress. But then a few folks stopped by, sat down and asked questions. One participant had even left after the keynote speakers and returned specifically for our session. We ended up having a good, frank discussion and even ran over time.
I discovered that this was a safe place to try something new. You don’t have to be perfect—just willing to share what you know or think.
Lesson #3 People are hella committed to their communities. I met or listened to laudable citizens who are passionate about a wide range of topics from how to redefine multiculturalism and animal rights to the state of childcare workers. Spending a day with these folks is both humbling and inspiring.
Wiring the Social Economy will be held for the first time this Saturday, December 4, at W2 Storyeum, bringing social entrepreneurs and techies together to share challenges and best practices that move community economic development forward. I had a few questions when I first read about the event so I emailed Leah Nielsen (@LeahLink).
She looped in a few of the other organizers so now I can share answers from Leah, Steve Williams (@Constructive) and Tom Kertes (@tomkertes) with you. Sincere thanks to all three for providing thoughtful answers to my questions.
I’m also a big fan of unconferences and helped put on Vancouver ChangeCamp this year and last year. It’s important to break down barriers between groups and bring out the knowledge from all attendees, not just “the experts.” Behind these events is a commitment to engage people in discussions around change, make those conversations as inclusive as possible, bring together diverse groups, and link these discussions to concrete change—social, economic and environmental.
@LeahLink: I like the unconference movement in Vancouver. I appreciate the foundation behind these events and the open, intelligent, feel-good vibe they carry. I wanted to see what the organizing side of things looked like and the people behind this event were an excellent group that I wanted to work with more.
@tbains: One of your goals is to educate the social media and technology community about challenges faced by social change agents. What specific challenges come to mind? @Constructive: A big challenge is access—how to ensure that technology is inclusive for all and not only those with iPhones. For example, in social services there is already a big perceived barrier between those controlling access to housing, etc. and those in need of services. How can technology break down rather than contribute to that barrier? Also, how can we go beyond social media into technology that helps organizations run, manage services and optimize finances?
@tomkertes: Challenges include having the technological knowledge to implement wired solutions and new technologies, having the resources required to implement solutions (and how to budget for costs and benefits), and understanding “paradigm shifts” that occur when deploying new technologies that fundamentally challenge existing operating models. Also, social change agents must understand the limits of adoption, including how to avoid pitfalls or mission shift that could occur with poorly executed adoption.
@tbains: Another goal is to help these agents see where technology can play a positive role in their work. Are there any specific areas of interest to attendees? @LeahLink: I believe attendees will be particularly interested in how technology can be used to spread awareness about an issue or campaign and, related to this, how it can help with group mobilization and fundraising efforts. Another area of focus will likely be how technology can be used internally to help coordinate staff and volunteer efforts within organizations, keep records, communicate among a selected group, and more.
@tomkertes: I think another area of focus will be how to conduct strategic planning and analysis with technology. What can be appropriately and usefully measured using new technologies? How do new technologies shift the overall ecology of social change? How can decision making be streamlined and optimized using new analytic tools?
@tbains: The registration form lets individuals identify areas that they may wish to discuss or learn more about during the event. Are there any trends that you see?@LeahLink: One theme that has been mentioned a number of times during registration is bridging the digital divide and building the capacity of non-profit organizations to use technology.
@tbains: What outcomes are you hoping to see following the event? @Constructive: From my side, a big goal is understanding between groups. There are lots of people with good intentions that may not fully understand the needs and challenges of community organizations. Conversely, groups may not understand the potential that technology can offer and—in fact—are outright scared of it. Creating a space for open dialogue and shared understanding is key to creating partnerships and collaborations that will truly make change happen.
@LeahLink: One of my goals for the event is for people to form partnerships with other individuals or organizations that they may not otherwise have contact with in their day-to-day lives. I think this is an important element of bridging the digital divide. More specifically, I’d like to see someone from the tech/social media sphere connect with someone from the non-profit/social enterprise world and have them collaborate on a tangible project that benefits both parties.
@tomkertes: There is a need for social change agents to have access to the powerful tools and opportunities provided by new technologies. There are lost opportunities when these tools are not implemented. But implementation also involves risks, which are best managed when social change agents understand new technologies.
A couple of weeks ago, Leah Nielsen (@LeahLink), Fairware’s Online Communications and Project Manager, alerted me to Wiring the Social Economy, an event aimed at “integrating community economic development, social enterprise and technology.” The event grew out of Vancouver ChangeCamp, an unconference held earlier this summer and where—incidentally—I first met Leah.
Why attend? In the words of the organizers, this first-time event “is a day of discovery and connection…for getting out of our silos and comfort zones.”
It’s an all-mighty mixer where the social media and technology community meets the community of causes to sort out where and how we can work together to move social change forward.
Who should go? Geeks of all shapes, sizes and causes. Really.
If you’re code is flawless, then there’s a social change agent in need of you. Crafting tweets that trigger actions? Share your best practices. Struggling to build awareness for your cause? Kindly turn to the techie on your right.
Basically, if you’re an expert or are in need of one, go to this event.
Organizers are also looking for volunteers to help out on the day of the event. Attend for free if you can help with event logistics, facilitation or note-taking.
What should I expect? Wiring the Social Economy is a hybrid event that combines traditional conference features–such as Keynote Speakers Carol Madsen, Tim Beachy and Irwin Oostindie–with those of an unconference, including an opportunity to pitch your own session.