A New Tool for an Old Art
In 2006, as politicians went to enter the Australian parliament to vote on a controversial asylum seeker policy, an airplane wrote 'vote no' in the cloudless blue sky. The politicians knew ordinary Australians had contributed small amounts over the last days to fund the stunt (via GetUp) – and that suggested Australians were against the bill. An hour later, the bill was defeated, despite the fact that the government had a majority .
While this is a typical tale of campaigning stunt, it was organised entirely via the Internet: everything from attracting and mobilising supporter to getting them to fund the skywriting stunt. And while this particular stunt was organised by GetUp! in Australia, similar tactics are increasingly being used by campaigning organisations around the world.
eCampaigning extends campaigning
Campaigning via the Internet (and other communication technologies like mobile phones) is known as e-campaigning. It is not a replacement to traditional forms of campaigning, but an extension. It is speeding up campaigning mobilisations, expanding campaign reach, creating new possibilities for pressing for change and enabling supporters to participate as never before. While it can reduce the costs of campaigning, in practice it is used to do more than was previously possible with any given budget.
While in 2008, Barak Obama used online strategies and techniques pioneered by campaigners to help him become US President, the use of e-campaigning isn't just limited to English speaking countries or wealthy countries. Enterprising individuals are using it in a wide range of conditions.
eCampaigning is relevant globally
Zuhal Sultan started a campaign for form the first National Youth Orchestra of Iraq. Not only is most of here communications with fellow musicians via email, instant messaging and monbile phones, but they get world-class musicians to tutor them via webcam! Her efforts have won her many high profile supporters. She recently sent a Twitter message to the Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq. Less than an 90 minutes later, he had replied, offering to meet. Two days later they met and he had pledged $50,000 to support her campaign.
Gene Hashmi has shown that mobilising supporters via email in India is viable in his work with Greenpeace India. In less than 12 months he and his team recruited tens of thousands of new supporters online to try and stop the Tata company from building a port on one of the last Ridley turtle breeding grounds. While they haven't stopped it yet, they have certainly got Tata's attention.
"Fish" Yu Xin is using a gentler approach with Greenpeace China to raise environmental awareness and encourage action. The 'chopsticks' campaign aimed to get the Chinese to use re-usable chopsticks to reduce the amount of wood used for disposable chopsticks. They used the Internet to provide information and actions suggestions and had both restaurants and diners across China organising parties to switch to using disposable chopsticks.
While political factions rioted in Kenya after the December 2007 elections, Tonee Ndungu and his colleagues were collecting and distributing advice and money using mobile phones. A year later, they started to use the wireless "Bluetooth" feature of most mobile phones to wirelessly distribute information on the political process at bus stops, and thus raise the political literacy of thousands of Kenyans.
In Argentina, Greenpeace is giving mobile phones to people in remote communities – but near forested areas. When illegal logging is spotted by the villagers, they can simply send Greenpeace a text message and Greenpeace Argentina sends in its 'Jaguar' team of motorcycles and a Helicopter to harass and stop the illegal logging.
From broadcast to social
Common to all of these is that e-campaigning is about using new tools and channels to engage and mobilise real people in real ways online and offline. Some organisations do continue to treat it solely as a broadcasting tool like they used radio, television and print media. However they are finding that this can be costly in terms of wasted effort with little benefit. A few recognise e-campaigning as a way to establish and deepen relationships with supporters and for supporters to build relationships with each other.
While social networking (e.g. Facebook, MySpace) and social media (e.g. YouTube, Flickr, Digg, Delicious, Twitter) have had significant growth and media attention over the last few years, what they do has been done for decades on the Internet and they've just made it easier. The key to their success, and that of the Internet, is that they enable a basic human need: being social.
Traditional campaigns are social too. They start between friends or a shared event. They grow through relationships and as they get bigger, they enable people to build new relationships while people are organising, mobilising and demonstrating. Yet over the past decades – as campaigners came to depend on mass media (print media, radio and television) – many forgot this social element of campaigning and instead adopted a military-style approach to message control and dissemination. So the Internet and mobile phones are simply forcing a return to traditional campaigning based on relationships while adding the power of wide and rapid dissemination.
This change is starting to force organisations to rethink how they campaign and how they relate to supporters. Strategies and practices perfected in the last 60 years still work, but some are declining in their effectiveness – partly because new generations don't respond as well to them.
No single model for everyone
The appeal of e-campaigning spans all generations. Email and the web is used by people of all ages. Each generation responds differently to different communication and issues, so personal networks and relevance to a generation is more important in engaging them than is their age.
Many commentators point out that the proportion of Internet users in the least developed countries (LDCs) is much lower than in the most developed countries (MDCs). They suggest that mobile phones are more important for campaigning there. While it is true that the proportion of Internet users is much lower in LDCs, it doesn't necessarily mean that campaigning via the Internet can't be effective. The problem with mobile phones is that there is no known repeatable mass campaigning models yet. However for LDCs, the most educated and/or influential people are likely to have Internet access, so campaigning via the Internet can still be effective despite low relative access.
Integrated campaigning and fundraising
In the meantime, the strategies and practices for e-campaigning are evolving rapidly, adapting past practices pioneering new ones. For instance where as most organisations are structured around functions such as fundraising, campaigning, media and Internet, e-campaigning is forcing people from all these disciplines to work closer together than ever before.
One of the most critical areas of this trend is fundraising. My experience is that fundraisers and campaigners have a mutual distrust for each other. However since they need each other, they tolerate one another. Yet new generations of supporters see things differently. They see taking a campaigning action, donating or volunteering all as desirable activities if it supports the issues they care about. Internally, the ability to fundraise from campaigners strengthens the need for investment in campaigning. While GetUp uses it to fundraise for a sky writer stunt in Australia, Amnesty International UK (and US) successfully used it to recruit new donors, re-engage lapsed donors and get additional donations from existing donors.
Greenpeace Spain's approach has been to integrate online signup with telemarketing. When someone first registers on the website, they receive a phone call within 24 hours. What are finding (like GetUp and Amnesty amoung other have found) is that asking people to do more when they have first engages with the organisation is the best time to get new supporters more committed.
Fundraisers have been constant innovators in finding ways to encourage people to donate. The last decade has seen the rise of the 'gift' catalogue which encourages people to pay for the cost of a goat or an efficient stove for people in the least developed countries. Integrating fundraising with campaigning has been slow but is now starting to occur.
Yet the expertise to plan and deliver integrated e-campaigning is still in extremely short supply from the senior manager level through to the practitioner level. Learning on the job can take years and result in costly mistakes yet training is still non-existent in most countries.
Re-thinking and re-inventing campaigning NGOs
So while "Web 2.0" may be the buzzword of the last few years, the reality and challenge for civil society is more complex than using new tools and channels: it must rethink and reinvent itself. Civil society faces tremendous opportunities by using the Internet and mobile phones, but it also faces significant internal obstacles and risks for those who continue to underestimate and misunderstand the real potential of new communication technologies.