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?

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How do you elicit sympathy for a rattlesnake?

That was the question a dozen or so staffers of Change.org aimed to answer on a recent summer afternoon around a conference table in the online petition company's D.C. office. The staffers had gathered for a daily call in which they discuss how best to promote the most promising petition campaigns submitted to the company's website. This team, many on staff for less than a year, are responsible for nurturing and refining individual petitions so they can achieve maximum virality and impact--in other words, increasing the petitioners' chances of enacting change. The company's success hinges on how well this group can distill and replicate the most successful campaigns, allowing them to scale across thousands of petitions and dozens of countries.

Often, Change.org works directly on a rewrite with the petitioners, cutting out superfluous content and expanding on points the company thinks will have emotional resonance with potential signers. When it was her turn to speak, staffer Stephanie Feldstein pulled up a petition onto the main screen that featured a photo of a rattlesnake, the image altered to add in a cartoonish grin and the words "Thank you!!" in a dialogue bubble beside it.

"Animal Planet," Feldstein began, "which is known and loved for celebrating animals and educating the public about animals, has recently taken a more sensationalist turn, and we've seen a lot of petitions started in the past couple years around different shows that involved killing animals." This petition, started by an herpetologist, a scientist who studies reptiles and amphibians, called for an end to the show Rattlesnake Republic, which takes place in Texas and, according to the petition, "follows around a group of rattlesnake hunters that collect the snakes to sell for slaughter."

After a few laughs at the daunting task of generating emotional sympathy for an animal considered by many to be dangerous and repulsive, Feldstein's coworkers immediately began to provide input. "I guess I just wondered what are the environmental benefits of rattlesnakes?" offered one woman. "I mean, that's how you could pose it as opposed to saving cute animals." Another person agreed: "I was going to say the same thing. I think this might be better for people who are environmentalists rather than animal lovers." After everyone fielded their suggestions, Feldstein thanked the group and it moved on. Over the course of the meeting, which took place in only 15 minutes, staffers highlighted campaigns ranging from cancer patients denied insurance coverage in Idaho to a little girl's quest to stop Jamba Juice from using styrofoam cups.

Over the past year, Change.org has quickly become one of the most influential tools for online activism, gathering millions of signatures and reversing what many would consider regressive policies in large corporations and governments. Founded in 2007, the company spent much of its early life as a progressive blogging platform, but in late 2010 it shifted its focus to online petitions. Today, users can visit the site, compose a message asking signers to endorse a particular viewpoint or position, and then publish it. The site is constantly optimized so that a compelling petition can then, through advocacy on social media and E-mail, call widespread attention to an issue so that its targets are pressured by public sentiment into agreeing to the petitioners' terms.

Change.org now boasts 17 million active members, with a growth of over 2 million new members a month. Its users publish around 20,000 new petitions every month and generates over 10 million page views during that same time period. The company boasts a staff of 144, with offices in the U.S., United Kingdom, Spain, Indonesia, Canada, and Australia and individual staff members in about a dozen other countries. Though you may not have realized they first originated on Change.org, you've likely heard of some of its most successful campaigns. The most famous, perhaps, was a call for justice in the shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin; it gathered over 100,000 signatures in its first 72 hours and propelled the story to widespread news coverage, leading to the arrest of Martin's killer, George Zimmerman. Another popular petition, launched at the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement, was created by 22-year-old nanny Molly Katchpole demanding an end to a newly instituted $5 monthly debit card fee from Bank of America. The company bowed to pressure and removed the fee after the petition gained 300,000 signatures.