Do 50,000 signatures still make a big petition in the UK?

A new Parliament Petitions Committee has just been appointed, and the petition site will resume service again, so as it does that I’ve taken a revisit the analysis I did in the summer of 2018 on what makes a big petition (see original post here).

Back then, I used the data from the 170 or so petitions that had been created since the 2017 General Election to August 2018 analysis and drew the conclusion that any petition over 50,000 could be considered a BIG petition. Now I’m looking at all of the petitions that were started between July 2017 and December 2019 taken from here.

So, 18 months later, has anything changed? Well yes, but also no.

Since my analysis, another 300+ petition has reached over the 10,000 thresholds to get a written government response, including the 6 million strong petitions to revoke Article 50 that got so much coverage at the start of last year, and can comfortably hold the record for the biggest petition in modern campaigning – I’ve argued the Chartists still holding the record given they got up to 1 in 3 of the population at the time to sign.

That means the long tail that I wrote about back in 2018 has got even longer – with 8 petitions getting over 250,000 signatures, and 4 over 500,000. The graph when you include the 6 million strong Article 50 petition looks a little like this – not very instructive at all!

Take out the biggest petitions, and you can see the distribution of those that got over 10,000 signatures – the threshold for a government written response.

I find interesting there isn’t a single petition that got between 90,000 and 100,000 signatures – you either get over that 100,000 line which affords the opportunity for debate in Parliament or you fall at least 10,000 short.

The biggest difference since I last looked – Brexit.

There has been an observable Brexit effect over the last 18 months – head back to the summer of 2018 and the Department for Exiting the European Union had responded to 12 petitions at an average size of 54,000, fast forward and it’s now 45 with an average of 250,000, with 17 of them having got over 100,000.

As a result, the mean average for all petitions over the time has gone up to 62,500 (from 39,932 in 2018), but take out those petitions focused on Brexit and the average size of a petition goes down to just over 41,000 (so just a 1,000 or so increase).

The median average has gone up by just 1,000 from 18,189 in 2018 to 19,658 now.

Below is the breakdown by department (you can also view it here) – you can see some real difference when it comes to volumes that departments are having to respond to and I think that’s important when you’re talking about why will influence the department you’re working with;

A few other observations;

  • I’m assuming that the significant number of petitions towards DEFRA has some link to the growing concern about climate and the environment in general over the – some of the biggest petitions that DEFRA has had to respond to focus on banning single-use plastics and non-recyclables.
  • It’s also interesting that departments like Health and Education get a large volume of petitions they have to respond to (67 and 33 respectively) but compared to others relatively few of them go onto reaching over 100,000 – perhaps that speaks to the size of communities who are energised around those issues so they don’t get wider traction?
  • Of course, as I mentioned last time, this is just data from the Parliament site, and of course, many petitions are set up with 38 Degrees or, as well as on agency-owned platforms, so it may be that those sites, with tools that make sharing and gathering more signatures even easier drive the overall number higher.

So what makes a big petition?

I‘d suggest that overall, not much has changed since I last looked at this, and thus anything over 50,000+ can claim to be considered a big petition to the government. It’s a clear milestone that most petitions don’t get over (about 22% of those over 10,000 make it) so it’s hard to be easily be dismissed as an ‘average’ number, and should I imagine get tracked by those in the department responding.


The emergence of the huge petitions on Brexit in the last 18 months could indicate that the reality is that it now feels like a small figure both in the mind of those signing – the sense that if 6,000,000 individuals could sign a petition on stopping Brexit and it didn’t work, why would 50,000 on something else have an impact, but also for those receiving it comparing it with the huge petitions of recent years.

What happens if you don't open any campaign emails for a year?

Last year I started an experiment, to sign up to a bunch of campaigning organisation, and then find out what happened if I said ‘yes’ to every request they sent to me.
So for a month, I did that for every email I got from 38 Degrees, Avaaz, Sum of Us and We Move. Over a month I signed petitions, emailed targets, donated, participated in surveys and RSVPd for events.
The plan was to continue to do this into 2018, but then an election was called, and my inbox took a backseat. In fact, I didn’t open a single email from any of the above organisations for a year, but then I got interested again.
A year later, would I still being treated like a very enthusiastic campaigner or a lapsed one, would anyone just stop sending requests to me, what might happen as a result of GDPR and would I see any effort to re-engage me?
So, in late May, I open that inbox again, to be welcomed by 431 emails – sent between 14/5/17 and 14/5/18 – so well over 1 message per day, which broke down as follows;

# of email Frequency
Sum of Us 179 every 2 days
We Move 58 about once a week
Avaaz 100 every 4 days
38 Degrees 103 every 3 days

Digging into the results it’s really interesting to see how the different platforms – which are often lumped together as ‘campaigning first’ organisations take some very different approaches to campaigning, for example, the frequency of fundraising emails and the fact that most aren’t using community surveys to power what they focus on as a platform, to some of the more subtle testing of different templates
I was expecting to see more stewardship as I moved from an active to dormant supporter who hadn’t taken action for over a year, but only 38 Degrees got in touch to ask if I was still interested in hearing from them – all the other platforms just continued to serve up a very similar digest of emails.
I also used the arrival of GDPR at the end of May to send a request to each organisation to provide me with the information they held on, which you’re meant to provide within 28 working days, as you’ll see below that’s something some, but not all organisations have been able to provide.
Sum of Us
Sent me 170 emails which broke down as follows;

Action Sign a petition, etc 69
Community Join a community event or protest 8
Donate Give money 69
Share Amplify via social media 10
Survey Share my views
Report back Feedback on activities  14

That works out as 1 email every 2 1/2 days, although sometimes Sum of Us would actually send me up to two emails every day, and as many fundraising emails (each asking me to chip in a few pounds) as action ones – something that is clearly working as according to their 2017 annual report they raised $3.8m from donations in 2016.

Typical Sum of Us donation ask

The only change in the types of emails I got was any of the more community focused requests stopped coming from June 2017 – for example when I was really active I was invited to webinars on data security, and probably as a result of volume of messages sent, but more Sum of Us emails ended up in my promotions Gmail inbox than any other organisation. Sum of Us responded to my information request with a big ZIP file of what information they held on me on their database.
The themes of the emails were a real mix, some campaigns like those on the Bayer and Monsanto merger, and bees coming regularly across the year, with others being far more opportunistic – an email on train privatisation at a period when railway delays were prominent in the news here in the UK – but overall looking back across a year of campaign actions from them it felt like some threads emerging.
I’d written before that I’d been impressed by the approach that Sum of Us took to fundraising and campaign innovation, and that has continued across the year I’ve been away – from actions focusing on a range of targets – for example, I really like the targeting of Liverpool FC when they accepted sponsorship from Tibet Water, and really excellent stewardship emails reporting back at the end of the year, making me feel like a valued member of the Sum of Us community (even if I was rather inactive).
Sent me 100 emails which broke down as follows;

Action Sign a petition, etc 58
Community Join a community event or protest 3
Donate Give money 27
Share Amplify via social media 1
Survey Share my views
Report back Feedback on activities  11

Despite sending almost two emails a week, everyone ended up in the ‘primary’ inbox in my Gmail – which matters as I’m much more likely to read those first when, but I also I found that sometime Avaaz would send me identical emails a few days apart, presumably working based on the knowledge I’d not open then!
As you’d expect with a platform which works on global issues they topics for emails – a few themes that picked up for a while, for example on Gaza, but it’s hard to say that there were campaigns that they were sustaining across the year. Having said that some of the smartest fundraising emails came from them, at a time they were being threatened by Monsanto they asked me to chip in to help support their legal fees – and stand up to.
Like Sum of Us they were also really active at writing regular report back emails – often entitled ‘what happened after you signed that petition’, perhaps an indication that people are sceptical of what indeed does happen when they sign a petition. Oh, and also loved the inclusion of gifs in some of the emails, and variety in action templates.

I’ve not had anything from Avaaz about changes to their privacy policy – and as of the time of writing they’ve not come back to me with my request on GDPR, despite regulations suggesting that they should reply within a month of receiving the request.
Sent me 58 emails which broke down as follows;

Action Sign a petition, etc 34
Community Join a community event or protest 2
Donate Give money 12
Share Amplify via social media 2
Survey Share my views 5
Report back Feedback on activities 

WeMove also sent me 5 emails about privacy ahead of GDPR
WeMove is less well known in the UK, but it’s a pan-European platform focusing on decisions at an EU level, and perhaps because of that I’ve heard nothing from them since GDPR came into force, and most of the emails from them in May where about opt-in.
I’d have argued these weren’t necessary as I voluntarily opted in at the start of the experiment last year – so I was surprised that they’d not opted me in on their database. WeMove as of the time of writing still hasn’t responded to my information request.
The platform early on relied on using surveys to get a sense of what their members are looking for, but that seemed to drop off in my journey from October. Their emails were generally longer in length than the other platforms, but featured a bunch of interesting innovation in approaches, for example, the email below where they asked me to react on the Facebook page of Frans Timmermans, Vice President of the EU Commission on banning single-use plastics.

The big campaign they’ve been running has been on banning glyphosates – harmful weedkillers that appear in many foods, where they’ve been successful at getting their movement to arrange an EU Citizens Initiative, which requires collecting 1 million petition signatures from at least 7 member states(s).
38 Degrees
Sent me 103 emails which broke down as follows;

Action Sign a petition, etc 60
Community Join a community event or protest 11
Donate Give money 12
Share Amplify via social media
Survey Share my views 15
Report back Feedback on activities  5

That works out at an email every 3 days – but I’ve actually heard almost nothing from 38 Degrees since December 2017, with the vast majority of messages in 2018 ending up in my spam folder. Something that 38 Degrees appears to be aware of as many of their messages ‘Please add 38 Degrees to your contact list so that you never miss an email’ so the volume could have been much greater than that.

Unlike the other platforms, 38 Degrees still use lots of quick surveys – asking me to answer just a single question in the body of my email, presumably as a way of getting my attention to take action as opposed to a way of shaping the priorities of the platform.
They also offer longer surveys when they’re looking to get member input into their plans, especially following key external moments like the June 2017 General Election.
They were the only organisation to send me an email asking if I kept wanting to hear from them – referencing the fact that they’d not heard from me in a while, and asking me if I wanted to stay in touch, and were one of the few organisation to send me an updated version of their privacy policy and responded really quickly to my request for my information under GDPR.
Lots of the actions I was invited to take were around the key campaigns for 38 Degrees on protecting the NHS and Brexit, although there was , they’re also the only platform to use lots of personalisation in the subject lines of emails, often mentioning my constituency or MP in it – a subject of some personal frustration if I’m honest as my MP, Rosena Allin-Khan is still a practising doctor so I find the ‘can Rosena Allin-Khan MP save the NHS’ subject lines a little lacking in political smarts!
Oh, and the asked me if I wanted to buy some Christmas Cards from them – which I wasn’t expecting!

What happened when I said 'YES' to every email from an online campaign platform?

What would happen if I just said YES. Inspired by Glyn Thomas who signed up to 100 charity emails and finishing reading Analytical Activism by David Karfp, which looks at the approaches online platforms use, I set myself a little experiment.
What would happen If I signed up to the email lists of some of the biggest campaign platforms and just said ‘Yes’ to whatever landed in my inbox?
I’m doing this because I want to learn from the best. My hypothesis – getting very scientific here – is that because the online platforms have the most resource and they rely most on emails to mobilise their supporters that they’ll be at the cutting edge of how to get me to take action again and again!
But I’m also interested in how quickly could I ascend to a super user status, who is making the user experience the easiest, what would I be asked to take action on, what’s the welcome journey like (as Glyn points out ‘The first 8 weeks are crucial to building a relationship with a new supporter, even someone who has just signed up to receive emails’) and what else I’ll discover.
The rules I’ve set myself are simple. Sign up to join the campaign via their website not via a specific action, say yes to anything that comes into my inbox that I can do, donate the smallest amount when asked, don’t do the share asks following taking action, but do everything else.
So 3 weeks ago I signed up for Sum of Us, Avaaz, 38 Degrees and WeMove.EU – the four big online platforms if you’re based here in the U.K.
So what have I found in the first few week?
1. Signing up – Really easy to do for Avaaz, Sum of Us and WeMove. Boxes on the homepage just needing key information (name, email, country) from me. 38 Degrees was more difficult – actually really difficult. The homepage had a video about Bees it wanted me to watch. Fine. I did but at the end no ask to join or take action. In the end, I found the first petition being promoted on the site (to George Osborne to only have one job!) and signed that.
2. Welcome journey – I got instant automated welcome emails from all the platforms. All with a variety of request to share via social media.
But Sum of Us was the only platform that felt like I was taking me on a ‘welcome journey’, and it was super smart. An email welcoming me and asking me to hit reply so their emails would always come into my priority inbox (see below) arrived about 2 hours later – sensible because as Glyn found that ‘there was a roughly 50/50 split between emails ending up in the priority inbox and ending up in promotions’, then another about 12 hours later welcoming me to be part of the movement.

3. Frequency of Emails – It took a couple of days for the first emails to come into my inbox but 3 weeks later I’ve received the following;

# of email Frequency
Sum of Us 20 almost daily
We Move 4 every 5 days
Avaaz 3 every 7 days
38 Degrees 2 every 10 days

Since starting the experiment we’ve had a General Election called in the UK, but Sum of Us and 38 Degrees have been the only platforms to mention that.
My sole emails from 38 Degrees they asked me to complete a survey about my priorities for the election. It’ll be interesting to see if that affects the future emails I get from them. As an aside despite ‘winning’ the campaign on George Osborne and his jobs I’ve not had any feedback that my action helped.
Avaaz went hard early on with 2 emails in 3 days, both on animal welfare campaigns, but then went dark for 2 weeks before asking me to donate.
WeMove haven’t actually asked me to take an online action yet – and to be fair to WeMove they are a whole lot smaller than the others in the test – but sent me a neat report back email, a donation request to support a day of action in May, and then invited me to get involved in that day of action in my community.
Sum of Us has definitely sent me the most emails, almost one every day of the experiment. Most have been linked to their campaign against Bayer and its merger with Monsanto – a bunch have had a focus on bees again linked to the merger. They also invited me to a webinar on the Snoopers Charter, and encourage me to register to vote (an action I didn’t take as I’m already registered to vote).
4. Types of Action – Online platforms are often criticised for focusing too much on getting people to sign petitions, but I’ve been surprised at the breadth of actions I’ve been asked to take over the last 3 weeks.
The breakdown looks like this;

Action Sign a petition, etc 12
Community Join a community event or feedback on activities 7
Donate Give money 6
Share Amplify via social media 1
Survey Share my views 2
Welcome journey Introducing me to the platform 1

Sum of Us have definitely been the most active at asking me to be a donor – within 2 days I got my first ask, then after my third action I got asked to consider becoming a regular donor – which suggest some impressive database automation. Although there was also a time when I got two donation emails within 15 minutes of each other, but they’ve also made it really easy to keep donating now I’ve signed up with 1-click giving.
We Move are the only platform to have provided feedback to me via email, and as I mentioned above they’ve been most active in getting me involved in offline activities pushing a day of action.
Sum of Us offered this really nice page telling me how my action is part of the wider campaign after I took one of the bees actions;

Sum of Us have also repeadetly asked me if I’ve got any more connection with the corporate targets I’ve been taking action towards;

While I’m intrigued by the share numbers that Avaaz throw up after an action. I’ve no idea if they are real or randomly generated;

What next? I’m planning to keep the experiment going for the next few months, I’m interested to see if I get to a point when I get an action a day from every platform. I might also throw in a few other organisations – feel free to make suggestions of who – but I really recommend anyone signs up to a few email lists. I’ve definitely seen a few things I’d like to borrow for my own campaigning.

Email your MP – where next?

It’s a truth, almost universally acknowledged, that MPs don’t like ‘email your MP’ petitions.Listen to MPs talk to campaigners, and they’ll tell you they find the annoying and a burden on precious staff time, but they’re a staple in most campaigning toolkits.
Most MPs will tell you that the volume of emails means it can be hard to distinguished between the signal and the noise? Don’t believe that? While this image is a little out of date (it’s from ECF2014) it was Stella Creasy sharing what, on average, comes into her inbox during a week in Parliament;

Now, I’m not suggesting that we should head calls from some MPs to stop petitioning them – they’re our elected officials so we should petition them. I’m also realistic that any ‘cross Parliament’ solution is unlikely to be adopted – MPs they say, have to be seen as 650 small businesses, so rarely do they all-adopt the same technology, unless they’re told to.
Plus I’m not going to dive into a debate about the quality of some campaigns, except to add that some email to MP campaigns don’t appear to have thought about what the theory of change is – and that has an impact all of us (all campaigners should read this on what makes an effective petition).
So what could replace them in our toolkit? Or if not replace improve how we use them?
1. Phone calls – Unlike the United States we don’t have much of a culture of calling your elected official – perhaps it’ll catch on? Even then it will still  be likely to frustrate MPs as much as emails do as they don’t have the staff capacity to deal with the calls, or effective mechanisms to collect the information from them.
2. Parliament petition site – I’ve suggested before that the frustration of MPs could be channelled towards suggesting that they’ll only accept petitions via the official Parliament petition site. While the site has been improved, it still has lots of limitations – not least when it comes to supporter data which is held just by Parliament, that it’s a closed site (so it can’t be embedded on another website) and doesn’t allow for any personalisation by the signer.
3. Focus on a specific MP rather than all MPs – At the NCVO Campaigning Conference, Jess Phillips MP suggested that one of the most effective petitions she’d seen during her time in  Parliament had been the petition on the Tampon Tax, which had worked directly with Paula Sherriff MP to help to provide her with the evidence of support for the issue. Strikes me that most issues can find a Parliamentary champion or two, so perhaps this is a way forward?
4. Require your own message – MPs complain that too many emails are identikit, but while many of us try to persuade supporters to personalise the messages they send, have we tested what the drop off would be if we required supporters to come up with their own subject lines, or add in a reason why your signing? It wouldn’t solve the volume question, but could mean that MPs couldn’t accuse of us of just sending ‘identikit’ messages.
5. Better integration with casework software – many MPs who have large amounts of casework use software to track the requests that are coming in from constituents. How many of us are looking to see how we can incorporate our actions and messages into these?
6. Email to letter – Given I have an app on my phone that can turn my photos into a personalised postcard that can be sent in the post to a friend, could the same technology be developed to turn my email to an MP into a letter. It’d place a cost on the organisation behind the campaign, but it’d present the opportunity for delivery via another channel.
7. Snapchat – I can’t pretend to understand Snapchat – which probably means most MPs won’t either) but opportunities do new communication channels like Snapchat or WhatsApp provide new ways to communicate with MPs?
8. Bots – Florian from MoreOnion wonders here if the rise in the use of AI means that we’ll be able to design bots that will be able to automatically capture and engage in a campaign action – could that help MPs respond to our requests.
I’m sure other solutions exist , as well as examples of where petitions are having an impact – in the same presentations that I took that image from Stella Creasy talked about the importance of ensuring a petition is part of wider advocacy strategy – she specifically mentioned Friends of the Earth Bee campaign.
Either way what strikes me from the list above is that organisations have to be prepared to adapt and change rather than just defaulting to ’email your MP’. I look forward to hearing thoughts from others of how we make this tool work to have the maximum impact.

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.

Beware the Twitter echo chamber – Graph of the Week

One Direction (don’t pretend you don’t know who they are!) supported the Action/2015 campaign a few weeks ago. The engagement on Twitter was amazing, I’ve never seen so many RTs so quickly but you didn’t see any of that action on my Twitter feed (follow me at @MrTomBaker).
That experience and this article on the role of social media in people thinking that Labour would win the election got me thinking about how Twitter is a big echo chamber with lots of political people talking to each other but often few campaign cutting through beyond that.
I’ve not seen any similar research from this side of the Atlantic, but this graphic, which looks at what those inside D.C. Beltways (the US equivalent of the Westminster bubble) posts on Twitter versus what everybody else in the US posts on Twitter is instructive.

Remember Kony2012?

It was less than 6 months ago that everyone was talking about Joseph Kony.
The result of the unprecedented success of Invisible Children’s Kony2012 film that was viewed by millions. Now the dust has settled what can we learn from the success of the film?
The International Broadcasting Trusts report, ‘Kony 2012 – Success or Failure’ is one of the first pieces of research that I’ve come across that have spoken to those behind the film and looked at the reasons for its success.
I was able to attend a presentation by the report’s author Sophie Chalk earlier in the month.
Here are few reflections.
1. Know your grassroots, know your message – Invisible Children did up to 3,000 presentations to colleges, churches and youth groups in the year leading up to the release of the film. It provided a huge grassroots already motivated and prepared to share the film.
Repeated over the last 7 years, it means that the organisation had a very finely tuned message, a result of speaking to over 3 million people face-to-face and knowing exactly what would work with their target audience.
How many other organisations have that level of knowledge about their audience built over such intense engagement?
2. Word of mouth matters – Sophie shared figures from SocialFlow, who found that in the first week of the video being launched that the ‘average’ viewer was a 14 – 18 year old girl, but by the end of the first week it was men over 40. Her theory is that this was the result of daughters sharing the film with their parents at the weekend.
Sophie also suggests that one of the reasons for its success was that sharing and talking about the film was seen as a ‘cool’ thing to do, as Ben Keesey from Invisible Children says in the report it got ‘hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of young people around the world having conversations about international justice’.
3. Follow up matters – Given the success of the film, the follow-up action to ‘Cover the Night’ on 20th April was a flop. 300,000 people registered to go out into their communities and make Kony famous by putting up posters in their communities, but in the end this hardly happened at all.
I was in Washington DC at the time, expecting to see hundreds of posters on the Saturday morning, but in reality only encountered a handful of them.
The report shares firsthand some of the challenge that Invisible Children faced. That they found that they couldn’t maintain electronic communications because their servers literally went into ‘meltdown’ as a result of the number of requests that they received.
As a result, they weren’t able to keep even some of the momentum behind the film going, sending out only a handful of communications in the weeks after the film was released. A stark demonstration of what happens when you can’t keep following up with those you’ve got interested in your campaign.
4. Keep innovating – Sophie concludes that one of the lessons behind the success of Kony 2012 was tactic of getting people to ask celebrities to send it round. It was one of the first time this tactic had been used. But as the report points out it really worked, for example on the day that Oprah tweeted the film the viewing figures jumped from 600,000 to 9 million,
Karin Brisby who was interviewed for the report says ‘It was not only sharing with friends but also with online celebrities… people like sending things to celebrities on Twitter, it’s like “I’m talking to this person”…..It’s not something NGOs do a lot – like send this message to a particular celebrity because that gives the power to the celebrities.’
5. Save the surprise – Kony 2012 was the only major film that Invisible Children planned to release in 2012, they spent over $1 million in producing it, but saw it as central to their campaigning strategy for the year, thus justifying the investment. They hoped that 500,000 people would watch it by May 1st.
Benjamin Chesterton quoted in the report suggests that others could learn from this selective approach warning of social media fatigue suggesting ‘I don’t think NGOs have an understanding and respect for audiences and they don’t value properly social networking in the way they should…..In the social media sphere you just create noise and people are trying to get away from noise. They are trying to decide whose information they want to receive. So NGOs need to be careful.’
6. Unleash the passion – Sophie mentioned in her presentation that after spending an hour on the phone with Ben Keesey she came away with a new appreciation of the campaigns passion and enthusiasm. Can we say the same in our organisations?
It’s something that is very evident in the film, as Benjamin Chesterton says in the report ‘he (Jason Russell, Co-Founder of Invisible Children who features in the film) is really passionate about this and that is what comes across and very rarely do NGOs allow individuals within their organisations to become so powerful as spokespeople.’
What else can we learn from Kony 2012? What other reports or blogs are worth reading about learning from the campaign?

Happy Birthday to the Government e-petition site

The Government e-Petition site celebrated its first birthday last month, and the team at the Government Digital Services released figures about usage in its first year.
In short;

  • 15,600 petition were opened, but a massive 47% of petitions submitted were rejected.
  • 6.4 million signatures were collected from the 13 million unique visitors to the site.
  • Only 10 petitions reached the 100,000 target that allows them to be discussed in Parliament, and all have been or are due to be debated by members of the House of Commons.
  • 97.7% of e-petitions receive less than 1,000 signatures.

I had mixed feelings when the site was launched a year ago, so a year on has the site proven to be a good addition to the campaigning landscape?
Here are a few observations;
It’s got people signing petitions – I’ve not been able to find any figures for the number of individuals who’ve signed a petition and I suspect some significant duplication, but even with that included getting millions of people used to taking action has got to be a good thing.
If you’ve signed a petition here, I think it makes you much more likely to sign a petition sent to you from 38 Degrees or others. Anecdotally I’ve seen a number of the petitions shared on my social media channels beyond those who normally express an interest in campaigning.
It’s provided a clear outcome to those petitions that reach their target. Their was some concern at the launch of the site, that Parliament wouldn’t have time to debate all the petitions that reached the 100,000 signature target, but until the recent rejection of the petition launched by Virgin Trains against the loss the franchise to run the West Coast mainline, it has.
Whatever you think about the topics that have been debated as a result, its good that they’ve been debated by Parliament, and in the case of the petition to get ‘full disclosure of all government documents relating to 1989 Hillsborough disaster’ helped to push an important issue that had been largely forgotten by much of the media back into the public consciousness.
However as the Hansard Society point out ‘the system is controlled by government but the onus to respond is largely placed on the House of Commons’ and many people might be disappointed to learn that the majority of petitions are debated in Westminster Hall, where votes cannot take place and are therefore held on non-votable ‘take note’ motions. As the case of the Virgin Train petition shows, it’s an especially ineffective tool when Parliament isn’t sitting and a petition responding to a current issue gains traction quickly.
It’s disempowering for the majority who have signed a petition. A handful of petitions have been debated, but many more have fallen short. At present there are 12 petitions with between 30,000 – 80,000 signatures on them, perhaps a few of them will make the 100,000 target but most won’t. My Campaigns Totals research has shown that 50,000 actions is a significant number, but the e-Petition site doesn’t provide those who create the petition with many tools to keep those interested in the topic engaged.
They get to send an email at the close but that’s it. I’m concerned that for most they sign a petition hopeful that it’ll actually change something, but that when that doesn’t happen they’ll start to question if other forms of campaigning actually work. As the Hansard Society point out ‘if an e-petition does not achieve the signature threshold but still attracts considerable support (e.g. 99,999 signatures) there is no guarantee of any kind of response at all’. The rigidity of the system means that many are going to be disappointed.
Most campaigning NGOs haven’t launched petitions on the platform, looking through the petitions that have reached the 100,000 target they’ve appeared to have provided an opportunity for individuals or very small campaigns with fewer resources to generate support for their issue . This has often come on the back of an effective social media campaign but the number of ‘failed’ petitions should add a note of caution that this is a high-risk strategy for organisations with limited resources.
Other successful petitions have been those backed by media organisations, for example the ‘Make financial education a compulsory part of the school curriculum’16 was backed by Money Mail, a sister paper of the Daily Mail, and the ‘No to 70 million’ petition on immigration has been heavily mentioned in some parts of the media.
So what next?
The Hansard Society has some good recommendations about how the procedure of dealing with the petitions in Parliament could be improved, for example;

  • The creation of a Petitions Committee with staff which would tasked with sifting petitions that secure lower levels of support to ensure that, where appropriate, relevant petitions are, for example, still tagged to debates, that MPs are made aware of their existence, and petitioners receive some form of feedback.
  • The Petitions Committee and its staff should respond ambitiously and flexibly to petitions, embracing the full range of parliamentary processes for consideration of them.
  • Using petitioner postcode registration data to develop heat maps on the website to help MPs and others identify issues of specific concern to a community.

I’d also suggest that while the site has seen some innovation to it since it was launched, for example the inclusion of a ‘trending petitions’ section on the homepage to help you identify those that have been most active in the last hour, lots of other changes that were suggested at the launch haven’t been included which would help to make the site more engaging for petitioner to use.
Finally, I think as a sector we need to be doing more to help provide those looking to take action with information on if this is the most effective tool to use, this is in part being done by organisations like and 38 Degrees who allow people to create their own petitions, but others can do more to help inform these decisions and support the many campaigns that don’t actually need 100,000 signatures to deliver change.

Looking beyond the usual corporate suspects

I was struck by this comment in a great post by David Ritter on campaigning trends that corporates need to be ready to respond to in the coming year;

NGOs are increasingly looking beyond the usual corporate suspects for campaign targets.

Ritter goes on to cite the example of ‘the global management consultancy McKinsey has been targeted by Greenpeace and the Rainforest Foundation for its ‘bad influence’ on deforestation. In McKinsey’s case – and to be brutally frank – for a global management consultancy that makes its living telling other people what to do, they’ve made a real mess out of how they have responded to being a campaign target.
Another great example of this approach, has been the campaigning that Sum Of Us have been doing toward the corporates that support the work of the Heartland Institute, a US think tank that has spent millions promoting climate scepticism.
The online movement has  focused on those corporates that fund the foundation and seen a number respond as a result putting real pressure on the ongoing funding of the Institute. It’s a great campaign, using an innovative approach which exposing the large sums that corporates spend rather than simply opposing the activities of the Institute, which would likely be futile.
I think campaigners could learn from both examples. What other examples of  campaigning beyond the usual corporate suspects have impressed you?

Why has Kony 2012 been so successful?

The Kony 2012 campaign is everywhere….if you haven’t heard about it you soon will!
Since releasing their latest campaign film just days ago it’s had millions of views (the statistics on the Vimeo dashboard show the way that views of the film have grown and grown since its release on Monday), been trending worldwide all day on Twitter and was filling up my Facebook wall last night, although many of these are comments which are rightly questioning the approach of the organisation and the campaign.
In short, the campaign is about introducing the ‘world worst war criminal’ the leader of the Lord Resistance Army Joseph Kony, and calling for the US to provide troops to help arrest him in Uganda and bring him to trial at the International Criminal Court.
Both the message and organisation are proving controversial, as a development advocate I agree with many of the concerns about the approach the campaign has taken, not least as this blog describes it that ‘they take up rhetorical space that could be used to develop more intelligent advocacy’ that will lead to long-term peace in Northern Uganda and the portrayal of the solution as being delivered by an outsider alone.
But regardless, as a campaigner I also have to admire the effectiveness with which they’ve got out the message out in such a short period of time, and reflect on how I might be able to use similar approach to get what I hope to be more intelligent advocacy solutions. Here are my thoughts on why I think they’ve done so well.
1. Built and nurtured a community – I’ve not really been aware of the work of Invisible Children until today, but it seems that over the last few years they’ve been slowly building a huge online community on Facebook, with a million+ people ‘liking’ the campaign over the years as the result of showing previous films on campuses across the US, presumably much of the traction that the campaign has got is because many of these supporters have been sharing it. Cheap but effective mobilisation in action.
2. Demand the engagement of the viewer – There is a line at the very start of the film that says ‘the next 27 minutes are an experiment, but in order for it to work you have to pay attention’. At 29 minutes the film is very long and you’d expect to get board quickly, but the presentation is very engaging, well produced, fast-moving and doesn’t feel like it’s dragging at. It’s got many (all) of the elements of what a good campaign film should include, a story, a call to action and it’s emotive.
3. Communicated its theory of change clearly – It’s evident how the campaign thinks that change is going to come about and this is explained to the viewer. For them its all about demonstrating public support for action to a small group of political leaders, which interestingly doesn’t include President Obama. You may or may not agree with this approach but it’s simple and clearly communicated throughout the film.
I like the idea of influencing 20 ‘culturemakers’ who they identify as being able to spread awareness of the issues. I’ve not really seen this done in such a systematic way before, and it’ll be interesting to see how these ‘culturemakers’ will respond to the call in the coming days, presumably some of them have already indicated their support for the campaign.
4. Made it clear what they need you to do – The call to action at the end of the film is to do more than send a message to the selected targets, but it’s also an invitation be involved in making Kony known. The campaign is building on the knowledge that it’s an election year in the US and focusing on a night of action in April where supporters. It’s a bigger and bolder action, asking you to buy a kit full of posters and resource and make Kony know. It’s also again shows the high value that the campaign on individuals as multipliers of the message.
5. Put creativity and social action at the heart of the organisation – It’s interesting that the organisation isn’t one that was started by humanitarian professionals, but instead by filmmakers who were moved to respond on their first trip to Uganda back in 2003. They describe their mission as ‘using film, creativity and social action to end the use of child soldiers in Joseph Kony’s rebel war and restore LRA-affected communities in Central Africa to peace and prosperity’. You can see this approach is evident throughout the film, and it’s different to what you might expect from a more traditional NGO.
Thoughts? Comments? What have you learn’t from the success of the Kony 2012 campaign?