How Change.org Is Mastering the Science of Micro-Activism

The petition website is gaining over two million users a month, but what makes a campaign successful?

FE_PR_120907ChangeSS.jpg
By SHARE

This clustering effect has been noticed and capitalized on by activist organizations. Occupy Homes Minnesota now incorporates Change.org petitions into nearly all of its projects. Its first major win was on behalf of Minneapolis homeowner Monique White, who faced foreclosure on her home by U.S. Bank. After seven months and 6,784 signers, the bank agreed to restructure her loan.

"[Change.org] has been a great tool to engage with a broad audience and get their stories out there," says Nick Espinosa, a member of Occupy Homes Minnesota. "The petitions send a strong message to the banks that not just this one neighborhood is watching but there are people all over the country following the case."

Occupy Homes Minnesota engages in a multi-pronged approach to fighting foreclosures. It first publishes a petition to Change.org (often with an accompanying video documentary) and then blasts it out to its growing list of email, Twitter, and Facebook followers, sparking a groundswell of support that quickly gains momentum. For many of these campaigns, Change.org staffers reached out to Espinosa to help refine the strategy, and as a result of those conversations Occupy requires that all the homeowners write all their own petitions to increase the emotional impact.

Over the past few years, Change.org has developed an increasingly sophisticated E-mail marketing system to promote its petitions. As the site has grown in scope and power, it's seen an opportunity to perfect its algorithms in an attempt to E-mail only those who would be most likely to sign a particular petition, just as Amazon and Netflix have heavily invested in their own suggestion features to push sales and video views.

Jenna Lowenstein works on the campaign innovation team that's in charge of experimenting in this realm. It is this team that constantly mulls over how to automate the email targeting so that the company can promote more petitions at a quicker pace. After all, having individual staffers work with petitioners is extremely labor intensive and prevents the company from keeping up with the sheer magnitude of petitions submitted to the site each month. "The tool we're working on is a user-generated E-mail tool that takes out the staff voice from that E-mail process altogether," says Lowenstein. "And this is our attempt to send a whole lot more E-mail to a whole lot more people about our campaigns."

Each petition is targeted based on a number of factors, including geography and the subject matter. So, for instance, if a person launches a petition to save an art museum in Portland, Ore., Change.org might target users who had previously signed art-related petitions who also hailed from a Portland-area ZIP code. The granularity of this kind of targeting becomes all the more honed as the site amasses more users with a wide diversity of petitions.

Part of the challenge for the innovation team is to refine the tagging system so it's more fluid and specific (right now its tags are extremely broad). But it's also developing a better user experience for the website, tweaking it so a user visiting it sees petitions tailored to his past behaviors. "Right now the site is customized in 13 countries," explains Lowenstein. "So if you land on the site and live in the U.K., you're seeing a different site than you're seeing in the U.S., obviously. But the end goal is to make it hyper-localized in a very specific way."

Change.org is still in the early test phases for many of these features, but Lowenstein says her team is seeing just as much engagement in the automated, user-generated E-mails as it regularly sees with staff-crafted messages. It hasn't escaped most of the staffers that the company's ultimate goal is to innovate them out of a job. Though how a computer algorithm will determine which users are most likely to feel sympathy for rattlesnakes is anyone's guess. There are some battles, it seems, that will always need a personal touch.

Simon Owens is an assistant managing editor at U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on TwitterFacebook, and Google+. He can be reached at sowens@usnews.com.