Fired Up? Start a Twitter Petition

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.

Jim Gilliam, co-creator of act.ly
Jim Gilliam
Jesse Haff, co-creator of act.ly
Jesse Haff

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?

OpenMedia.ca screenshot of act.ly petition

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.

NationBuilder screenshot

Inspired to try act.ly? Share your cause and your experiences by posting a comment or leaving an email.

Resources

How Act.ly is Helping Canadians Stop the Meter on Internet Use

Advocate for Change One Tweet at a Time

OpenMedia.ca Logo
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?

Online petitions.

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:

Minister Tony Clement's Tweet in Response to OpenMedia.ca's act.ly petition.

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!

Top 5 act.ly petitions catching fire this month:

  1. @TonyClement_MP Stop The Meter
  2. Biz Stone: Open Twitter Translation to Catalan and other languages
  3. Oprah Winfrey: Do A Show On Childhood Cancer – #1 Disease Killer of Kids!
  4. Sarah Palin: Accept Responsibility for Her Role in Rep. Giffords’ shooting
  5. Warner Bros.: Create a Special 10th Anniversary DVD for Smallville