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Live From SXSW: Activism That Drives Supporters

Perhaps one of the most asked questions at SXSW Interactive has circled around effective online engagement. How is it possible to establish meaningful relationships to create and mobilize for change in this noisy digital age?

In a discussion led by Sara Thomas from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), panelists from PETA,, and shared key elements behind some of the most successful campaigns that their organizations have been a part of, and the personal and emotional connections behind the scenes that have resulted in real impact.

Campaign strategies should be based on a consistent set of criteria. At, an organization that motivates people to take action around social change campaigns, Hilary Gridley explained that all campaigns are based on the same template: “Know it. Plan it. Do it. Prove it.” This formula goes full circle: informing the audience about the issue, offering up a solution, encouraging them to take action, and following up and asking them to prove they took action.

As an example, Gridley shared the Comeback Clothes Campaign to encourage young people to help save millions of tons of clothing from going into a landfill by recycling.

Gridley shared more about the work of their VIP (Very Impactful Person) Engagement staff member, Chris Harbur, “to engage with young people in our audience, he’ll [for example] email the first 300 people who signed up for a campaign, and invite them to an exclusive competition. After a week, he’ll follow up with a short email that says, ‘How’s it going? Need any help?’ – its just him starting that relationship and making people feel like they have someone to answer to.”

The personal follow up and coaching is a similar tactic taken by the animal rights organization, PETA, that employs full time staff just to respond to people personally online, and offer one on one coaching to people who are working on their first protest or phone call.

“We receive a lot of good feedback that coaching is so useful,” explained Painter. “For example, people can find support for questions such as ‘how do I tell my parents that I want to go vegan?’ People can ask these questions via text message and receive personal responses.”

“Even if you don’t have full time staff,” said Painter, “just take the time to respond and listen, that’s the way to build relationships.”

Petition sites such as, the world’s largest petition platform, also offer a lot of opportunity for grassroots organizing. Pulin Modi, senior campaigner at, explained, “there’s been a change in the balance of power where individuals can have their voice heard in a way like never before. Companies are used to hearing from traditional advocates and nonprofits…the interesting thing about this [platform] is that it activates communities and grassroots groups. In addition to that, we have a decision maker program where we want to facilitate conversations with decision makers, and give them a chance to respond to petitions if they want to.”

Modi shared the success of the petition against the GoDaddy Super Bowl ad spot, which was deemed for its insensitivity towards puppy mills and adoption after GoDaddy shared a preview of it. More than 42,000 signatures were received, and the company pulled the ad from the Super Bowl, in addition to issuing a response on the site directly to petitioners.

“It’s validating to people who signed the petition that their voices were heard,” explained Modi.

Maintaining your audience’s attention requires communications tactics to sustain their interest. “Campaigns can be around for a few hours, and some for years,” shared Painter. “Segmentation works. It’s the only way to not burn your list out. When we need to get a high number to take action, we segment based on past action and interest. With long haul campaigns, we go by channel.”

Painter shared more about their campaigns against the National Institutes of Health (NIH) facility in Maryland. “We sent this message to people that would be interested in this topic and would act on it immediately, so we sent it to people that took 10 actions in the past month on related issues. We saw a high action and response rate, upwards of 47 percent.”

PETA also conducted a text campaign where they placed ads on local buses in Maryland to encourage people to text a message to the campaign target [NIH] and had them opt into a mobile list. Over 1,500 people opted in and sent a text.

“Does relationship building matter?” asked Thomas. “Spoiler alert, it does. It’s where your moneymaker is. It’ll tell you who your activists are, how they respond to your materials and messaging, and help you see if it’s authentic.”

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