Special Report: Election Action Networks

Think globally, act locally: it’s a virtual mantra among many environmental organizations. But it also has a firm hold in getting things done in cyberspace. Viral marketing and good old-fashioned communication have made electronic action networks one of the flashpoints of the Web for nonprofits of different stripes.

While the focus is still on generating grassroots activism, via emails and “tell a friend” buttons, the hopes of converting action into dollars is definitely on the minds of nonprofit officials. When it comes to advocacy, electronic tools are helpful, though they will not be the only means of conveying grassroots viewpoints.

There’s pretty much universal agreement that the genesis of the marketing of electronic action networks was a 1997 streaming video put out by the Environmental Defense Fund (now known as Environmental Defense) for Earth Day.

The online video short stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who makes the pitch: by zipping off three emails to political representatives (senators, a congressional rep, or the president), email activists become members of the organization and forgo having to make a monetary donation. The video clip is a little jumpy when compared to what is used today, but the idea is clear.

Andy Goodman was president of Los Angeles-based Environmental Media Association when he helped get Julia Louis-Dreyfus, then an EMA board member, involved with the e-video. ”

At the time, RealPlayer for video on the ‘Net was the only game for live downloading and playing of video,” said Goodman, now an independent communications consultant and author. “(Environmental Defense’s piece was) one of the earliest uses of RealVideo.”

According to data from RealImpact (the piece’s Seattle-based designer, then known as WebActive) the clip was watched more than 101,000 times. It garnered 2,600 new activists in just a couple weeks to boost ED’s activist network at the time to roughly 10,000, which was considered fantastic back when streaming media was still relatively new to the Web’s mainstream.

Recently, ED sent out an action alert related to the Bush administration’s planned arctic drilling. The alert came from Paul Newman.

“That alert got us a 17 percent response rate,” said Ben Smith, ED’s action network project manager. “(And it recruited) another 2,600 activists.”

To generate action, online activism campaigns need several factors in place. “It has to be compelling,” said Eileen V. Quigley, general manager of RealImpact, which is a service of RealNetworks. “Either funny or short and pointed. Or (include) a … celebrity who has currency, who people will go to and people trust.”

It also helps for an organization to have a list of emails to segment from which to start. The American Anti-Slavery Group (AASG), based in Boston, has been able to generate interest in its activism program through its action network. Dave Moore, the managing editor of the organization’s iAbolish Web site, said that it primarily recruits and gains email addresses through its speaker’s program, in which a man who escaped enslavement in Africa and an organization official go out and talk to groups about modern-day, ongoing slavery. From there, the organization sends an email, and those who sign onto the action alerts are encouraged to get friends to sign up: viral marketing.

“In the long run I think it’s a lot cheaper. It’s also easier,” Moore said. “We can also send an automated fax (to congressional representatives), and a fax is a little more effective than email.” But AASG has not had much success in converting activists to donors. “We’re in the process of exploring that,” he said. “We raised a couple thousand dollars. … I think it was well worth it.” In conjunction with another group, AASG’s activists emailed frequently enough on the issue of chocolate makers using slave labor to cause the recipient’s server to crash, Moore recalled. “That wasn’t our intention,” he said. “We’re not email vandals. But they called us,” thereby pointing out that the activists’ organized efforts could make a difference and discourage companies from supporting slave labor.

Moore said that with its list of roughly 30,000 email activists, the action alerts often get a response rate in the low double-digit percentage. “The response rate is not as high as we want,” he said. “(But) I’ve been told I shouldn’t sniff at those response rates.”

Today, animation and flash technology are among the new wrinkles in online activism that catch people’s eyes. Animation works well because it uses less memory than streaming video and people often are viewing these items at work, where they don’t feel comfortable downloading large programs. “What’s more important is the length,” Quigley said. “I try very hard to have my clients do everything in streaming under two minutes. … Attention span is very limited.”

Direct mail is not endangered
Video and animation are nice, but email is still the first choice when it comes to prioritizing electronic avenues. Email should be part of a wider method of recruiting and utilizing online activism. And while making donors out of these activists is certainly an attractive goal, conversion takes time. “It has always been about emails,” Quigley said. “If you’re talking about online activism and compelling (people) to do something online, by far email continues to be the killer app.”

She added that if an organization is considering action networks as a fundraiser, the jury is still out.

“When I talk to nonprofit organizations about using streaming media and animation and all these interactive tools to try to tell (their) story, they’re extremely effective at telling the story and they’re very good when you’re not trying to raise a lot of money. I find them far more effective in trying to get people to take an action (than to give a monetary gift).

Given the concerns about mail terrorism and anthrax, as well as the current recessionary economy, the time may be ripe for attracting activists electronically. “Online activism tools are free for the user,” ED’s Smith said. “I don’t think the state of the economy impacts these sort of tools.”

Smith said ED still requires its activist network members to respond to at least three alerts per year. “These people are not by rule financial supporters of the organization,” he said. “(The activist network) is really a relationship building tool for us. … It also helps us keep our lists fresh.”

Moving forward, ED in January launched studentactionnetwork.org, a multimedia site targeting younger activists and utilizing more animation and streaming video. “Any time we can use multimedia on the Web,” Smith said, “that will make the action alerts more tangible and exciting for Web users, who are getting more sophisticated.”

ED has also begun using co-branded local events to get its message to areas related to specific issues, such as oil drilling off the Florida panhandle area, in regions seeing specific legislative battles on the environment, or where its field offices are on the ground and can support the cyberspace message.

For example, ED is working with a Florida Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) on PIRG’s attempt to block oil drilling of the outer continental shelf. Though it had 9,000 or so email activists in that area of Florida, ED wasn’t doing much on the issue until it joined with the PIRG, according to Smith. “Essentially we are posting the action alert on our system, with our logo at the top and their logo at the top,” he said. “We are lending our email activism muscle,” and it allows their activists to act locally as well as on the national issues ED tends to focus on. “We’re interested in doing more of these.”

Sherazz Haji is chief executive of GetActive, in Washington, D.C., which sells software to manage sophisticated action networks. He said organizations are finding success not only through emails but also through faxing letters designed online to elected representatives. Too many emails can cause server problems on the recipient’s end, and they aren’t always identifiable to representatives as constituents.

“There was a little bit of dreaming along with the rest of the Internet craziness,” he said. “You might get a big spike when you get started. In order to maintain that growth it takes a lot of hard work.” Not everyone is sold on electronic action networks for advocacy at this stage, however, even within an organization actively pursuing it. Tom McGuire, vice president of member programs for the Reston, Va.-based National Wildlife Federation, said emails from concerned citizens are nice, but they’re not nearly as effective as a written letter from a constituent. “Clearly, a letter postmarked from a constituent,” he said, “is always going to have more impact than one from who knows where. In the end (a postmarked letter from a constituent) is what we really want to do with our activists rather than spamming our (congressional representatives).”

He acknowledges the costs can be a fraction of direct mail, though he has not heard of anyone who’s been able to cost-effectively recruit true activist donors when looking at all the costs involved. “I don’t want to sound like I’m a doubter,” McGuire said, “but I worked in Silicon Valley and was an investment banker. I’m used to seeing wildly enthusiastic investment plans. That’s what we’re seeing here.”

He didn’t scoff at the place of electronic action networks in the nonprofit toolbox. “It has some unique attributes that direct mail doesn’t have,” he said, particularly speed and the lower costs. “By itself it’s not a robust tool,” he said. “It’s part of a set of tools. … The people who use this well will use the mail, email, fax, telephone, magazines and all the tools to communicate.”


NPT staff writer Jeff Berger also contributed to this story