eCampaigning Models: Email-to-Action

What do Oxfam, the Obama Campaign and Greenpeace have in common? They all use(d) the email-to-action e-campaigning model as a major part of their campaigning activities online.
The email-to-action e-campaigning model is only one of many models for e-campaigning. The campaign strategy should determine the appropriate model.

The email-to-action e-campaigning model has been the dominant model for the last decade. It involves emailing supporters (plus promoting in other ways) to ask them to take a campaigning action usually on a website. It parallels the traditional tactic of petitioning and letter-writing, but makes it easier, more accessible and higher volume than a paper-based approach. When people talking about e-campaigning don't specify a model, they are usually thinking about this email-to-action model.

What people can be asked to do with this model is only limited by creativity, but some action examples include:

  • petitions
  • messages to politician / targets
  • join online group
  • make a video (or other content photos, poems, voice message, etc.)
  • donate
  • phone a politician / target
  • attend or organise and event
  • volunteer to undertake some research for the campaign
  • facilitate people to self-organise

Why and When to use it

The email-to-action e-campaigning model should be used when the campaign research and strategy identifies that:

  1. Mass participation is needed to undermine opponents, enhance allies or convince undecided targets
  2. The supporter base needs to be built-up to have more influence
  3. The campaign will be multi-stage and thus people need to be mobilised more than once
  4. Digital channels lower the barriers to participation and can help attract and mobilise more support than is possible offline
  5. A large proportion of supporters will occasionally need to be mobilised within hours
  6. Mass media (TV, newspapers, radio) are unlikely to cover the campaign and thus it needs to bypass mass media and go directly to people.
  7. It scales-up extremely well: it takes almost as much effort to email 100 subscribers and 100,000 subscribers.

How does it work?

It's power is its simplicity:

  1. Subscribe: People provide their email address to get action alert emails (the biggest weakness and strength of the model)
  2. Compose and send: Emails are sent to subscribers with simple instructions (using one thing) to do something, usually requiring clicking on a link to a webpage
  3. Receive and decide to act: People follow the simple instructions and:
    1. Complete the action
    2. See a completion page and receive an email acknowledging their action. Both of these can prompt them to take further actions.
    3. For message-to-target actions, the message is automatically delivered to a target via email or webform
  4. Spread the word: People can optionally forward the email to friends, family and colleagues in their email address book in a familiar, simply and safe environment: their email tool. Other 'secondary

Why the dominant model?

There is a good reason why the email-to-action model is dominant: it provides good results for the effort required.

The more specific reasons are that:

  1. Global standard: 1.6+ billion people have email addresses and the standard stays stable and reliable
  2. Few constraints: Email is a flexible format (unlike mobile phone SMS texts or Facebook messages)
  3. Convenient: Emails arriving in people's inbox prompt them to act since they already check their email for other things.
  4. Cost: From the campaigning side: the cost-per-sent-message is lower than alternatives in terms of money and effort
  5. Connected: Most people have immediate access to the web when reading their email
  6. Effective: good emails get higher participation than other channels
  7. Sharable: email is still the way most people share content with their friends, family and colleagues.
  8. Everywhere: people use it at work, home, school, on their phones or in libraries and Internet cafés
  9. Fast: it arrives within seconds or minutes and is waiting for you when you check email

No other tool offers this crucial mix of success factors and no realistic alternative is on the horizon (social networks and Google Wave are not realistic alternatives right now). Spam is a nuisance, but is minimised by modern anti-spam tools and services.

Success Stories

A conservative measure of what email-to-action model can achieve is what others have achieved with it. Yet so much more could be achieved with a wider vision. Organisations have different success from e-campaigning depending on objectives, priorities and luck. Examples include:

  1. Drop Haiti's Debt (2010):
    Days after Haiti's catastrophic earthquake in Jan. 2010, the links between high poverty-levels, poor building standards and government debt became apparent. Massive worldwide attention was on Haiti in terms of humanitarian activities and related fundraising and political leaders were working towards a coordinated response. Raising the issue of Haiti's debt (a call some had been making for a decade and on which there was an agreement in principle) thus appealed to the public, the media and political leaders: it was the right time. Within three weeks, political leaders agreed.
  2. Obama Campaign (2007-8):
    Used the Internet to recruit and mobilise 13 million online supporters, gather 60% of total donations and establish new records for US political campaigns in repeat giving. It put tools in people's hands to go out and campaign for Obama in all 50 US states. Other factors helped, like Obama's charisma and message, and the economic crisis, along with having positive ads nationally and negative ads locally.
  3. Green My Apple (2006):
    Mobilised the Apple user community to apply pressure on Apple Corporation CEO Steve Jobs. The website was the main focus point since Apple users are technically and design savvy, but offline activity such as stunts at MacWorld conferences and the Apple Annual General Meeting also contributed. The campaign was off the back of an annual report card and league table of electronics companies for their environmental record. Apple conceded to many point within a few months.
  4. Make Poverty History (2005):
    The UK part of the campaign recruited 500,000 supporters online in 12 months, 95% of which was in the 6 month lead-up to the G8 meeting in Scotland. It was helped by blanket media coverage and celebrity endorsement. When this stopped after the G8 meeting (July 05), recruitment dropped dramatically. It also stimulated national campaigns around the world and left a global coalition as its legacy.
  5. Oxfam GB (2001-2004):
    Grew from 5,000 supporters online to 200,000 in the UK and 400,000 worldwide. Growth was steady, driven by regular actions through the year, Chris Martin's (Coldplay) support, online advertising, offline recruitment and a story arc that engaged people.
  6. Amnesty International UK (2008):
    Asked people to "Send a Mothers Day card to the Tiananmen Mothers" (mothers of those massacred in around Tiananmen Square). Everyone who completed the action was asked to donate. 0.5% (some tests have achieved 2.5%) of action supporters donated and the average value was £16. 42% of those donating were new, 46% of those donating were lapsed and the remaining 12% were existing donors.
  7. (from 1998) / (from 2006) / (from 2007) / (from 2009):
    Variations on the model of being member centred rather than issue centred. They have significant membership within each of the three coverage areas and, as their members fund them, they are self-financing after the initial few years. They use the same email-to-action cycle that others use but get more return due to their ability to mirror the news cycle and/or the popular concerns.

What Tools Are Needed?

At its simplest, only a emailing tool is necessary since you can ask people to email in to subscribe and can email out with it. This assumes what you ask people to do doesn't require a form on your site as it could be a form on another site (like a government contact-your-political representative system) or an action requiring them make a phone call, attend an event, etc.

However these minimum requirements quickly become cumbersome if a campaign is growing. Thus the minimum for any scalable campaign would be:

  1. A mass emailing tool (with tracking and reporting)
  2. An e-action tool (page layout including petition form / message to target form / other form , data storage, completion email and page)
  3. A web tracking and reporting tool

Specialist e-campaigning tools do the best job as they are made for this model and integrate both the email and the e-action tool. However many organisation have a separate tools for emailing and e-actions. If you have multi-lingual needs, only a few tools can handle this properly (most claim to do it and then have major gaps).

Increasingly important in these tools is connectors to social media. 

Beyond Email

Email is the key to starting and maintaining an on-going relationship with large number of supporters. However the actions that emails ask people to participate in can also be promoted via other channels such as blogs, social media, advertising, communities, etc. If the campaign actions gets media coverage, people searching online will also find the action. 

All of these efforts are higher effort and/or cost than emailing. Thus emailing tends to be the core activity in this model with the other activities broaden the reach by getting the attention of people not subscribed to the email list and attracting some of them to become subscribers.

Beyond On-site eActions

The most common approach to using the email-to-action model is to email your subscribers to go to your site to do an action online.  Yet since political and corporate targets increasingly have online presences (and not just an email address), there is the opportunity to direct participants to those presences. This means they could be contacting a politician via Twitter or Facebook instead of just email. The advantage is that it is more public. Actions could also involve participants to do something for the campaign like researching political opinion or expressing a point via video, a poem or photos.

Furthermore, actions don't even need to be online.  They could involve phone calls, visits to a politician, organising/attending a local event, introducing neighbours to the campaign and many other ideas.

Beyond The Email-to-Action Model

There are also other ways of these email, the web and social media that are not in the email-to-action model but use the same channels and tools in different ways. I'll write a post about those other models another day!

Your thoughts?

Please add your thoughts, additions and challenges below.

by Duane Raymond published Mar 15, 2010,