What is best practice online campaigning (and why is it so difficult)?

A week ago, The Guardian’s Global Development Professionals Network held a live-chat with a panel of global digital campaigners to talk about “best practice”.

On the panel included campaigners from highly regarded outfits like Avaaz, Change.org and Kony 2012 creators Invisible Children.

The entire article is worth reading, as it covers from pretty essential “dos and don’ts”. Top of the list is the notion that the criticism of digital campaigning as “clicktivism” is nonsense, that digital campaigning’s chief contribution to campaigning in general is real-world mass-engagement and recruitment, and that targeting the right audience is crucial.

I think Noelle West from Invisible Children hits the nail on the head when she says:

Don’t forget offline: most people thought the Kony 2012 campaign was only an online campaign. But it was the culmination of over eight years’ work raising awareness about Kony and building relationships with key influencers. Two weeks prior to launching it online, we screened the film at 50 locations across the US.

The real-world element is the primary thing I talk about in my book Guide to Online Campaigning for Unions, and my various other e-books. If you can’t easily draw a line between your online campaign activity and how it contributes to your real-world campaign, then question why you’re doing the online activity.

Another excellent piece of advice is from Saira O’Mallie from the ONE Campaign in the UK. (ONE is about tackling extreme poverty, primarily in Africa.) Saira writes:

Target the right people: the petition tactic typically falls short when it is not directed specifically at the right people and it is not accompanied by the necessary actions behind the scenes to make sure the target of the petition knows it exists, why and that people in their community will sign it.

Targeting, and its close sibling segmentation, is crucial for online campaigning. Digital campaigning tools now significantly reduce the barriers that previously existed with campaigns that meant we just used to broadcast our message to a mass audience. Most digital volunteer/supporter management systems (like Nationbuilder, Votebuilder or Salesforce) have “list cutting” tools and other segmentation tools that let you send specific messages to specific audiences.

All the professionals I’ve spoken to, especially in the USA at unions like the SEIU, AFL-CIO and at organisations like Organizing for Action (the Obama campaign) emphasise the importance of segmentation. At the most basic level, segmentation allows you to target a message that (should) improve the likelihood the recipient will take action.

There’s good advice in the article, so read the entire thing.

I’ve written a lot about “best practice” for digital campaigning and communications.

Something I’d like to touch on is why “best practice” is so hard to achieve in reality.

I’ve spoken with leading campaigners at some of Australia’s largest campaign organisations (NGOs as well as unions) who’ve all confessed frustration that they struggle to reach “best practice”. Many of these organisations are looked at and emulated. If it’s so hard for them, what hope do smaller, less resourced groups have?

There are, in my view, a few reasons that campaigners can struggle to implement “best practice”, despite the vast amount of advice on the Internet.

Firstly, best practice is a formula or process, not a magic set of words. The best example I can think of is to do with email campaigning and subject lines. “Best practice” is relentless A/B testing and segmentation. Best practice is not a shopping list of magic words that will ensure that recipients will open the email or click on a link.

Secondly, best practice is really time consuming. The challenge is that lots of A/B testing and segmentation is time consuming. Splitting lists and writing separate slightly different emails for three, four or ten slightly different audiences can quickly fall into the “too-hard basket”. For organisations traditionally used to broadcast and mass-communications, it can be tempting to write just one or two emails and blast it out to a list. Similarly, if you’re under the pump and have a million other tasks to do, then spending the extra hour to write one or two separate, distinct emails and cut the segments, can be a bridge too far.

Thirdly, best practice is mostly incremental improvement. The net effect of best practice is can unfortunately be mostly seen around the edges. For example, sending five different emails with different subject lines, can see open rates all within one or two percent of each other. The net effect of potentially hours of work can see open rates not much different to if you’d just blasted out the one email. Of course, the cumulative effect of this one or two percent can be big if you’re dealing with tens (or hundreds) of thousands of supporters — and can be a lot of money if you’re sending fundraising emails.

Best practice is a lot of “common sense” that falls down when you’re under time-pressure. Almost all campaigners are under time pressure most of the time, and that, in my experience, is the chief barrier to effectively implementing “best practice” digital campaigning.

2 responses to “What is best practice online campaigning (and why is it so difficult)?”

  1. Stephen Avatar

    Clearly activists on the Left have done a lot of thinking and experimenting about campaigning. Which is good… but we don’t seem to be getting good results. We win some battles but are losing the war (think climate, refugees). All our efforts seem to be missing something vital. I think the problem is that we don’t link our campaigns into a broader Left narrative about the society we want to live in. I would be interested to know how well you think the Left is doing?

    1. Alex Avatar

      Thanks for the question Stephen. I think talking about “the Left” is too broad to comment on. There’s a lot of difference between people who are left and are Marxists and people on the left who are social democrats.

      In Australia, there is a big difference between the Greens party and Labor for example, and both have different campaign strategies and tactics, and communications objectives.

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