Useful Tools: Online petitions

Photo credit: Archives New Zealand via Foter.com / CC BY

Every month I’ll be highlighting a free or low-cost tool that community groups and not-for-profits can use to improve their marketing and communications. This month’s focus is on online petitions.

The petition as a means of instigating change has been around for hundreds of years, but gone are the days when putting together a petition meant traipsing door-to-door collecting signatures. Now, anyone can start a petition with a few clicks and forward it through social media. There are a number of online petition sites, but Change.org is the largest and best-known.

Change.org is a non-profit organisation that hosts online petitions for free. It bills itself as a social enterprise that aims to promote social change by giving ordinary people a platform through which to reach decision-makers.

The growth in online petition sites has coincided with a change in the media landscape that means journalists now source a lot of their stories through social media. Consequently, petitions that go viral on social media are likely to get picked up by traditional media and given greater exposure.

However, because there are now so many petitions out there on issues big and small, it can be hard to make yours stand out. Your choice of issue will be part of it—something that resonates with large numbers of people is naturally going to go further than something that is only important to a select few. However, although sheer numbers are important, it’s also important to consider who is signing. For example, you’re petitioning your local council about an issue important to your local community. You may have relatively few signatures because the issue is so localised, but if half of those signatures are from major community and business leaders, your petition will carry more weight.

As with all your other communications, your petition needs to be targeted and run in a professional manner. This means:

  • Tell your story professionally and succinctly, and make sure there are no spelling or grammatical errors. Emotion can sometimes be a useful narrative tool, but decision-makers are more likely to be swayed by logic. Don’t just highlight the problem—put forward a solution too.
  • Target your decision-makers carefully. There’s no point sending a petition to someone who has no power to do anything about your issue.
  • Target your supporters. It’s good to get a large number of supporters if possible, but think also about targeting high-profile people who have an interest in your issue, as having some high-profile names will help add weight to your petition.
  • Deal professionally with your supporters. Keep them updated on any developments and let them know when you’ve reached a resolution. Also consider giving them information about other ways they can get involved.
  • Don’t feed the trolls. If you put forward a strong opinion, you’re likely to hear from people who oppose it equally strongly. Make sure you deal with any negative comments in a calm and professional way. Try to encourage conversations between people of differing views.

Used effectively, online petitions can be a good way for non-profits and community organisations to rally their supporters to a cause.

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