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.