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.
But while these campaigns received worldwide attention, Change.org has championed hundreds of petitions that achieved success without attracting major media attention or more than a few hundred signatures--everything from getting a fired, small-town librarian his job back to pressuring a school in a conservative district to allow the formation of an LGBT alliance.
So what makes a campaign successful? Or, put another way, what did all the campaigns highlighted in this daily staff meeting have in common?
They all focus on what can be called "micro-activism." With thousands of petitions submitted every week, most gain little notice and languish on the site with a handful of signatures. But even a campaign that amasses thousands of signers doesn't guarantee success. After all, the petitions carry no legal weight and so act solely as public awareness tools aimed at pressuring their targets into change. Petitions with broad goals like "end world hunger" and "legalize gay marriage" are common and in some cases even attract many signers, but goals aimed at large institutional bodies like Congress, which is entrenched in partisan divides and prone to gridlock, tend to have little effect.
"I think a lot of times the campaigns I see really take off have to do with the story," says Mark Anthony Dingbaum, a senior campaigner at the company. "If a person's personal story is incredibly compelling, a lot of times signatures will follow." Katy Butler is a Michigan high schooler who came out as a lesbian when she was only 12 and spent much of middle school being harassed by classmates. When she found out that the film Bully, a documentary on the rising epidemic of bullying in American classrooms, was going to be rated R, she started a petition to pressure the Motion Picture Association of America to change the rating so more kids and classrooms could view it. But rather than beginning her missive by addressing the MPAA, Butler told her own story:
When I was in 7th grade, a few guys came up behind me while putting my books in my locker. They called me names and asked me why I even bothered to show my face at school because no one liked me. I ignored them because I was scared of what else they might say and who else they might tell if I stood up to them. When I went to shut my locker, they pushed me against the wall. Then they slammed my locker shut on my hand, breaking my fourth finger. I held back tears while I watched them run away laughing. I didn't know what to do so I stood there, alone and afraid.
The petition spread quickly, generating over 500,000 signatures, including those of celebrities and congressmen, and received widespread news coverage. Eventually, the MPAA changed the movie's rating to PG 13. "You have people who really connected with her story, not because it's like her campaign was unique or that her story was unique," says Dingbaum, "but it's symptomatic of a larger issue, a national issue that she was able to tap into in a very local and personal way."
Often, micro changes have macro effects, in that a successful campaign can create a chain reaction in which people who face similar situations are inspired to take action. "If we've seen one homeowner start a petition to stop a foreclosure on their home to Citibank and it worked, there's another homeowner out there that receives a signal that it's winnable," says Tim Newman, another senior campaigner. This is why Change.org puts so much weight on keeping a petition's signers updated on its progress--often it's after the company sends out a victory E-mail announcing a petition's success that several similar ones pop up on the site.
A good example is a campaign launched by Californian Sean Chapin asking the San Francisco Giants baseball team to produce a video for the It Gets Better campaign aimed at supporting young homosexuals and other bullied teens. Shortly after it gained attention, new Change.org petitions spread across the U.S., with sports fans calling for their local teams to follow suit. In another example, Target employee Anthony Hardwick of Utah calledfor his company to close its stores on Thanksgiving Day so that workers wouldn't have to take off time from their families to prepare for the mad rush of Black Friday. Soon, employees at other retailers produced their own petitions, and though none was successful, the effort brought attention to the workers' rights issues that often get overlooked during Black Friday news coverage.
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.