What's happening in campaigning and the Internet

eCampaigning might not be new - I've been working in this field for nine years now - but the last two years have seen two important breakthroughs. More non-profits are moving into campaigning, and the Internet has gone mainstream.

A more crowded campaigning space

What's happening in campaigning - Crowd image
The Make Poverty History campaign in the UK used new media to mobilise offline action, including 225,000 campaigners attending the G8 summit in Edinburgh. Credit: Make Poverty History

More non-profits have been taking on campaigning, and in the last sew years since 2005, this trend seems to have picked up speed. In the UK, this is primarily due to the success of Make Poverty History UK in 2005 and its global parent coalition, and the momentum of the Climate Change movement e.g. Stop Climate Chaos coalition in the UK.

I experienced this trend in two ways:

  1. established campaigning organisations started to feel it was harder to acquire and retain supporters (the bulk of what clients ask me with help on).
  2. Organisations new to campaigning were both hiring staff for new campaigning roles, and were asking for help in areas of developing their strategy and plans and implementing these.

But there was also a continuation of the trend that started years ago: the establishment of new campaigning organisations:

  • MoveOn mobilises millions of individual Americans around liberal and progressive political issues. It has continued to grow, fuelled by the 2006 US election and its ability to continually improve by constantly split-testing, analysing and surveying to inform the effectiveness of innovations and their ability to listen to and involve their participant base.
  • This model was successfully replicated in Australia with GetUp which only launched in Aug 2005. now GetUp has more supporters than all the political parties combined and (I think) any other single Australian NGO (unions might be an exception).

Anyone who dismisses these initiatives as 'Internet' is still Internet illiterate: they are not about the Internet at all, they are about engaging with people and encouraging people to engage with each other. The Internet merely makes it cheaper and easier to do that.

MoveOn and GetUp also get tens of thousands of people on the street and taking real action - and have inspired a new generation of people to have hope for their country and world.

Another organisation, Avaaz is successfully taking this model global, with well over 3 million members in its first year, taking action on issues such as climate change, global justice and conflict in the Middle east.

The Internet becomes mainstream

The 2006 US election demonstrated how far the Internet had come. Both parties and almost all candidates used the Internet (in conjunction with more traditional approaches) to fundraise, promote their message, undermine their opponents and mobilise their supporters. The rapid growth of social networking sites in 2007 and their use for campaigning has further led to the mainstreaming of the Internet in daily use and for campaigning use. The was further reinforced by the success of Barack Obama in 2008 in his bid to become the US Democratic party nomination for US President.

What's happening in campaigning - DNC site image
In the run-up to the presidential elections, the US political parties are using social networking tools to enable their local activists.

Blogging networks and video were important to this, as were custom social networking tools such as those used on the major party websites MyGOP, The Democratic Party. Furthermore the Democrats started using modelling (aka micro-targeting or segmenting) - just as the Republicans have for years - to tailor their messaging for specific audiences. This is likely to have been one the reasons why the Democrats made such significant gains in 2006.

Non-profit campaigners are also increasingly experimenting with blogging, posting campaign videos, podcasting, using wikis, making mashups, etc. All these activities are not necessarily new, but they have become more mainstream in terms of media reporting and public usage.

The use of social networking sites (e.g Facebook, MySpace) and social media sites (e.g. Digg, Del.icio.us, YouTube) for campaigning generated a new surge of activity and experimentation in 2007 due to the potential of attracting large numbers of new supporters. The hopes of using these sites for effortless recruitment were unrealistic. However they helped change non-profit directors' and managers' minds on the issue of online message control: before 2007 a top concern was how the messaging can be controlled, while from 2007 non-profits realised they could not control the messaging and they needed to trust and engage supporters and potential supporters. However it also wasn't always about using third- party social networking sites, as demonstrated by the success of custom social networks like MyActionAid and MyBarackObama.

In my own work I saw and heard non-profit directors and senior managers increasingly expressing that the Internet is an essential part of achieving their organisations' campaigning objectives. A few years ago, the Internet was an afterthought for these same people. This is an important breakthrough since part of the challenge for years has been finding people in these roles who see the larger potential for the using the Internet beyond just publishing, email updates and fundraising. However most senior managers still do not yet know how to use it effectively and what using it effectively requires.

However the Internet becoming 'mainstream' in the non-profit world does not mean that non-profits are yet effective at using it for campaigning. What it does suggest is that directors and senior managers may now be clearer about what they expect it to deliver. They may start to demand a better return from their investment in using the Internet for campaigning, may be willing to allocate more staff and budget and may be willing to take more risks.

Duane Raymond is a campaigning strategist and analyst, and director of FairSay. duane.raymond@fairsay.com

by Duane Raymond published Sep 15, 2008,