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To petition or not to petition

One of the fun parts of my job is that occasionally people come to me to ask for advice about the best campaigning tactic to use. (Let me know if I can bring my campaign advice clinic to you – I’m serious).

A few months ago, an organisation approached me asking if they should launch a petition for their latest campaign. Its a good question, in the days when petitions with 200,000 names in hours feels like a regular occurrence, where to start can appear daunting.

Here are a few thoughts that I shared.

1. It’s not simply about the numbers – Over the last few years we’ve been experience an petition arms race. Some groups are able to rapidly mobilise 100,000s of people to sign a petition. Looking at those numbers it can feel intimidating to start a petition, but when it comes to petitions, size doesn’t always matter.

Instead its about being clear about what your looking to demonstrate with the petition, a well targeted petition with a few thousand names can also be effective, or adopting a more creative approach which Scope have used brilliantly. Having said that, petitions that linger on a few thousand names probably aren’t the most effective way of influencing change.

2. Remember a petition is just a tactic – campaigning isn’t just about getting more names on a petition, its about change and other tactics are available. Identify and be clear what role your petition is going to have in delivering your change outcome. Saying, we’re doing it because we’ve always done it, isn’t an especially good reason.

Be clear are you looking for your petition to put the issue on the agenda by showing public support, or providing a target with a public mandate to do something (‘over 20,000 people have called on me to’) or demonstrate solidarity with those impacted by a policy change, or something else.

Remember opportunity cost, I’m yet to find a campaign that isn’t resource constrained. So if you decide to do a petition then you need to consider what tactic or tactics you can’t deploy as a result. Check you can’t achieve your outcome through other means.

3. Be clear on how long you want to run the petition for – I think you get two types of petitions at the moment, the ‘short-term and focused’ petition which is linked to a specific moment or policy change that your looking for (this is the bread and butter of platforms like and will be most effective if it can highlight a particular individual your looking to target, or the ‘long term and broad’ petition which can run over several months, which can have a wider policy ask, the One Campaign use these really well.

Both can have a role, the later can be repackaged to respond to different opportunities, while the former probably has a much tighter shelf life but can help to provide a opportunity for people to respond to something in the news.

4. If you do it, do it well – There is a not-so-secret source behind the formula that 38 Degrees, Avaaz and use. They show a clear link between the petition and the result your looking for.

So be specific and realistic in what your asking for, make the most of an crisistunity (that might mean holding back launching your petition until a moment when the media is interested in your issue), and have a compelling reader focused theory of change (if you do this, then we can do this, which means this will happen). The model of ensuring a strong personal narrative from the petition starter is also a brilliant approach.

5. Make it easy to sign – remember not everyone is going to sign on to your petition from a desktop computer. Make sure your petition is mobile friendly, or go old school and have it available as a paper petition as well. Check that you’ve thought about the supporter journey after they’ve signed your petition. Can you use the signer to be a multiplier? When will you feedback to them about the impact it’s having? Can you invite them to take another action on your behalf? But please, and I’m a purest on this, don’t just run the petition to collect names for your next fundraising push.

6. It’s what you do with it that matters – Think about how you use the petition to leverage more profile for your campaign. The approach ensure that the petition has at least 3 media moments, the launch, when it hits a significant number and then the handover. Make sure your plan a handover that will lead to a great photo which you can use in the media or with supporters, or use hitting a sigificant number to launch a policy briefing off the back of it.



Mark Pack

That’s really good advice.

One extra tip I’d add: think about what data you want from the petition. That’s both a matter of what do you ask for when people sign the petition, and also what petition platform you use as some of them are rather parsimonious with what data they let you take away about your own petition signers.

Ross Bailey

Great blog Tom. I would just encourage you to reverse the order of #1 and #2. Petitions are useful but they are incredibly over used and in so many cases, seem to be the first order of business rather than the last.

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