So what makes a good campaign?

I want to try something different today. We’ve spent a lot of time on this site talking about other people’s campaigns and what we think of them. I want to turn the tables and sketch out a campaign structure that I’d like to see. Some things to keep in mind: this campaign sketch is going to be generic, part of a long term strategy, and aimed more at medium to large scale organizations.

To put this in context, over the last year or so I’ve spent a lot of time researching gamification and behavioral psychology for my day job and I can’t help but see how it can be applied to campaigning. From my experience, most campaigns are, understandably, laser-focused on their end goals and miss opportunities to achieve some very valuable secondary objectives. Given the fact that people are busy and budgets are tight I can’t blame them for designing campaigns that way.

What I envision is something that’s a bit more holistic and admittedly a lot of work. In the long run though, I’d hope that the initial heavy lifting would pay off.

In my mind the best campaigns are sustainable. It doesn’t just accomplish its main goal, but that it also empowers the organizers by building their resource pool and empowers the people who participated by teaching them the impact of their actions and encouraging them to do more. A great campaign builds capacity and momentum.

A common complaint about online campaigns is that they’re low effort; you just need to like a post or sign a petition or send of a form email. That’s a fair criticism but it’s often misdirected. It’s low effort on the part of the organization and not necessarily on the part of the participant.

I don’t think you can really condemn someone for only liking a post about Ebola when that’s all they’re asked to do. We ask people to do something and then leave them standing around twiddling their thumbs. Even if they wanted to do something more it’s not put in front of them. That may sound like handholding because it is. It’s also what will encourage greater participation. If we want more we need to ask for more.

The campaign I want to run would try and help move people outside of their comfort zones (incrementally) and into more active roles.

Pyramids, ladders and strained metaphors

In fundraising there’s a concept called the donation pyramid. The basic premise is that there are lot of people who will donate a bit of money, there are fewer people who will donate more money, and then there is a very small group of people who will donate a lot of money. The whole thing can be conceptualized, unsurprisingly, as a pyramid. It is people’s entire jobs to figure out how you can shift people up the pyramid.

This fundraising pyramid is an old idea and a bit of a simplistic one, but as a framework it’s one that has legs and that can be applied to other areas. Just like you can use the pyramid to conceptualize how people are willing to donate their money you can also use it to see how they’d donate their time and energy.

Again at the bottom there is everyone who is interested enough to do a simple online action. Let’s say retweet something. Nice and easy and doesn’t require any real dedication. Above that there are some people who will do more. Maybe they’ll write an email to their MP or senator. Next there’s a smaller group who will evangelize online. They’ll write blogs and promote your content and act as cheerleaders for your campaigns.

As you keep moving up the pyramid you’ll find smaller and smaller groups of people who are willing to take more and more actions and more in-depth actions. At some point they’ll also move offline and into the real world until your pool of potential candidates for scaling an oil rig is miniscule compared to those willing to sign an online petition.

People are going to naturally fall into these groups based on what they feel comfortable with and what they know. The “what they know” is a key point here. A common complaint is that people just like something on Facebook and that’s the last they think of it. That’s because most people aren’t activists. That isn’t to say that they wouldn’t do more to help, just that they don’t know how. Activism is learned. It’s a skill and like any other skill it takes practice and coaching. The role of a good campaign is to help nurture those people so that they become more engaged with the cause.

What we want to do is to give them a ladder that helps them move up the pyramid to the point where they aren’t willing to go further; to the point where they’ve reached the natural edge of their activism. You’re not going to get everyone chaining themselves to fences and that’s okay. You will be moving some people up the pyramid though and growing a community that is empowered to demand change and to bring that change about.

The Framework

Activism is an action and like all actions it can become a habit. That’s the idea that we want to focus on.

Literature around designing for habit building tends to focus on a repeating loop of four elements: A trigger that leads to an action that leads to a reward which creates an investment in the process. That loops over and over until the habit is formed and self-sustaining.

Check out Hooked by Nir Eyal for more.

Check out Hooked by Nir Eyal for more.

The trigger prompts behavior. Initially they’re almost always external, such as an email or Facebook post, but the Holy Grail is to have the trigger become internalized and require no outside prompting.

Actions are self-explanatory. As the designer of this process it’s what we want people to do. Keep in mind is that as far as this process is concerned actions are important because they precede a reward. As a campaigner we’re interested in the action but users are interested in the reward. We want to make sure we create a scenario where we’re both happy.

Rewards are what get people to come back. They’ve done what you want and now are getting something in return. Rewards don’t have to be complicated and they don’t even have to be tangible. They can be as simple as a positive emotional reaction. Variable rewards also, as a general principle, work better at forming habits, see: gambling.

The final step is investing the user in further action. As part of the design they need to put in some degree of time/energy/money/social capital that gives them a personal investment in repeating the process with escalating actions.

That’s the framework we’ll be working with.

The campaign

What does our hypothetical campaign look like?

First, let’s go back and consider that we want to build activism as a habit and to increase capacity. That means that we need to guide people. If we think back to the pyramid of actions we can think of it as laying down a whole bunch of ladders.

We need to guide people up a chain of escalating actions and we need to do that as painlessly as possible. We’re competing in an ADHD world where we’re surrounded by entertainment and distractions and most people aren’t going to have the knowledge or initiative to follow an activist’s path by themselves. So rather than judge them we need to teach them.

A note here: as we move from action to action we’re going to lose people. That’s the nature of the beast as people reach the edge of their comfort. At some point we’re also going to need to move people offline. There’s only so much we can do online.

What’s our reward? How are we motivating people to continue doing what we want?

The internet is identity politics. In a world of Facebook, Twitter, etc. all our online actions are tinged to some degree, whether we want to admit it or not, with a desire to project a certain image of ourselves either to others or to ourselves. If people are expressing at least a passing interest in our campaign it means that they identify with the “brand” of the campaign. They want to be seen as an environmentalist, anti-establishment, socially conscious, etc. Now, they may actually be all of those things but for our purposes we’re interested in tapping into that desire to project that image and be a part of that group. We’re validating them and that’s why they’ll come back.

One tip that you always see about online campaigning is to tell a story as a way to engage users. We’re flipping this on its ear. We’re crafting a story around the user. They’re the hero and we’re putting them at the forefront and using their actions to craft the narrative. By doing this we’ll be rewarding the user with a greater sense of self and community that will keep them engaged and returning.

As we move from step to step we’re making sure to ask people to take the next step where appropriate. Dead time and unclear actions mean that you’re losing people. You’re going to have to work on the timing to be sure that the person always sees the next step they have to take within a minimal amount of time to maintain momentum.

Step 1 – we’re going to start off small and just ask people to like a post on Facebook. We want to catch as many people as we can and this lets us cast a wide net. Try and follow up in the comments or another post with a thank you to everyone for helping to spread the message and to let them know that it helps. Remember, we want people to have positive feelings about what they’ve done and that includes us expressing gratitude and showing the potential impact of their help.

Step 2 – here’s where we really get into it. We want to escalate by asking people to share a post. Not only that but we want to ask them to explain, in their own words, why they think the issue is important when they share it.

I know that seems pretty weak and like homework but there’s a method to the madness. Having people share a post in their own words accomplishes three things:

  1. it spreads the word again and lets the campaign communicate with a larger audience;
  2. it reinforces with the person sharing why they care since they have to stop and think about it; and
  3. it doubles down on their connection to the campaign. They’re making a very visible declaration of support to their friends and family.

All of that reinvests them in the campaign and will increase their likelihood of engagement.

Step 3 - let’s do an online petition here. Petitions might seem like a step back here from the last step – I mean you’re just signing your name in a form – but we’re trying to accomplish something different here. The first two steps have been about building up your identity as an individual. The petition is the first step to bringing you into a community and incorporating a sense of tradition and belonging into that identity.

After they sign the petition two things need to happen.

First, they need to be told how many other like-minded people are out there like them. Something along the lines of “You and 12,387 other people have told Monsanto to stop being selling Roundup.” We want to start building up the idea that they’re part of a community; one that has ties and one that depends on them.

Secondly, since at this point we’re going to be using more complicated tools, we need to present them with the next set of actions. Remind them of what they’ve done, remind them of the stakes, and let them know how they can continue to help to achieve your shared goals. Moving to a petition gets us onto other platforms (ideally your website) that give you more freedom for stuff like this.

Step 4 – the next step in the escalation is sending an email. The standard practice with stuff like this is to include a form email that they can use. We’re going to do that but we’re also going to press hard and encourage them to write their own version. A custom email has a bigger impact when it lands and it also pulls the user in more. They solidify their thoughts on the campaign by having to write them down and they also invest more time and energy into participating. Once they’ve taken the time to do this they’ll be more willing to put more time in later. It’s all sunk costs.

Since we’re encouraging that they write a custom email we need to justify the time and energy it will take over the form email. That means explaining that a custom email will have a greater impact than a form one while also walking the line of not discouraging people who will only send the form version.

From this point onwards we also want to be providing examples of what the actions we’re asking people to do have achieved in the past. That means that if we’re talking about divestment then you need to talk about apartheid. If you’re running a boycott then you need to highlight examples of where a boycott has worked. Your examples don’t all have to be grand but they should be clear successes. This helps demonstrate that their actions have impacts and it roots those actions in a history and tradition of activism and provide context for their identity. They aren’t just signing their name on a petition; they’re part of a long history of civil action.

Finally, while we’re on the topic of emails I’d also debate asking the user to make it an open letter and to cc friends, family, and the organization. It makes the letter harder to ignore and, again, it reinforces that identity with the user and puts that identity on the line as they are publicly presenting themselves with that persona to those they know and care about. If they cc the organization it also allows you an opportunity to follow up and be able to share good examples on Facebook or wherever so that, again, you can reinforce this idea of community and give public kudos and plaudits.

Step 5 - now we need to start entering the real world. We always knew this was coming, but until our Oculus overlords come to save us we need to venture from the screen sooner or later. We’re going to expand on the previous step by asking the user to send a physical letter. It can be the same one they emailed. It doesn’t matter. It’s all about taking a small step offline. Like before, we want to explain why a physical letter has a greater impact than an email and how it’s harder to ignore. We’re priming the user with the idea of the greater impacts of physical actions.

Step 5.5 – at some point around now the organization needs to start talking about impacts. We’ve alluded to historical impacts but let’s talk about what this campaign has achieved so far. You should have some numbers collected from your previous actions so throw together an infographic or something that shows the power of the collective actions of your supporters. Show them what their combined voices look like. We’ve started to ask them for a lot so let’s help justify that and encourage them.

Step 6 – we’ve introduced the idea of real world action and now it’s on to the next baby step to build them up. Ask the user to go out and take pictures of them with a banner somewhere or some other small action and then share it online. It’s not something that’s too out of place with what people do every day and it expands on what we’ve been trying to establish earlier.

Step 7 - they’ve put a lot of work in so far and we’ve been trying to give a sense of community. Now we want to ask them to attend a rally or a meet up or really anything that puts them in the same place as other like-minded individuals. We want to demonstrate that the community exists all around them (in the real world) and hopefully they’ll form some bonds and these people will begin to encourage each other and feed on each other’s energy.

Step 8 – at this point they’re ready for more guidance than we can give in a campaign. If we haven’t lost them at this point then we need to have them talk to an organizer in person so that they can learn how to keep participating. If you don’t have the capacity or a local office then try and direct them to another organization that does and aligns with your goals.

That’s my idea. I haven’t had a chance to try and execute it so I’d love to hear feedback and learn about your experiences trying to run something like this. Feel free to share in the comments below.

Ice Bucket Challenge post mortem: is it possible to capture the lightning again?


I’ve been waiting for the Ice Bucket Challenge to cool down (puns!) before taking a look at what went right with and whether it’s possible to replicate. Let’s break this down.

What is the Ice Bucket Challenge?

The Ice Bucket Challenge started, as best we can tell, on July 15th when Chris Kennedy dumped a bucket of ice water over his head and challenged his cousin to either donate money to ALS research or dump a bucket of freezing water over her head. If you’re interested in seeing how it spread the Wall Street Journal has a good run down. From their it spread across social media with people posting short videos of them dumping ice water over their heads, tagging their friends in the posts, and challenging them to donate and do the same. At some point the whole either/or part of the challenge got lost in translation.

Did the Ice Bucket Challenge work?

Good god yes! Over the course of a month there were thousands (tens? hundreds?) of tweets, YouTube videos, and Facebook posts. On top of that the ALS Association is reporting that they raised over $100 million dollars. Keep in mind that during that same time period last year they raised just under $3 million. So that’s pretty much an unqualified success and ridiculously amazing for something that started so organically.

Can you recreate the Ice Bucket Challenge?

No. Trying to recreate a viral campaign is a bad idea. They go viral due in part to their novelty. That being said we can look at what made it work and try and work that into future campaigns.

What lessons can we learn?

Okay, so it works but we can’t just copy it wholesale. Fair enough. There are a few really good lessons we can learn from the Ice Bucket Challenge to apply to future campaigns though.

1) The timing was right. This campaign hit in the summer right in a depressing news cycle. Shot down planes, invasion of Ukraine, ISIS, etc. were all dominating the news. Then along came this campaign, which is entertaining, involved celebrities, and was easy to turn into a human interest story. I can’t count the number of stories I saw where it started off with the ice bucket challenge and then shifted to a story about a local person with ALS. As a general rule news programs aren’t keen on positive stories unless their human interest stories and the timing of this hit when they were dying to break up the depression.

2) It’s basically a chain letter. Or a pyramid scheme or multilevel marketing or whatever way you want to think of it. It quite deftly exploits your social networks to perpetuate itself. Seriously, the tag 3 friends bit is straight out of Cutco’s playbook and also kinda genius in a nefarious sort of way.

3) It used peer pressure, (mild) humiliation and guilt. By tagging you in the post the challenge calls you out in front of your friends. You can ignore it but then you’ll look bad. So you’re peer pressured and guilted into participating. Some people would prefer to call this social proof.

The challenge itself is also a little humiliating or maybe humbling is a better word. Not enough to dissuade people from participating, but just enough that it’s entertaining to watch your friends dump cold water over their heads.

4) It targeted our vanity. We’re all a little vain and we all like looking good in front of our friends. The ice bucket challenge lets people show they care about something, show that they’re good people, and show that they have a sense of humour. Basically it’s a chance to show off.

5) It targeted celebrities. There’s no way this would have got the attention it did if it hadn’t targeted celebrities, which then got it on the national news.

6) It was authentic. This is the one that would be the hardest to replicate. The ice bucket challenge just felt authentic and not like it was cooked up in the back room of an office or that it had been focus grouped. I mean that’s because it wasn’t but still, you get the point. It was simple enough that anyone could have thought of it or started it and that’s something that people liked. They were on an equal playing field and not being directed by an organization.

When a clicktivist hits the streets

Yesterday I went street campaigning with Greenpeace UK and a bunch of Stormtroopers (that’s right, Stormtroopers), so I thought I would share some of my impressions and pictures of the day with you guys, while walking you through a very peculiar campaign that combines both online and offline tactics.

Greenpeace’s Dark Side campaign kicked off in late June this year, targeting the car manufacturer giant Volkswagen.  The ultimate goal of the campaign was to stop the company from lobbying against climate laws and have them spreading their “Blue Motion” energy efficiency technology throughout all their models – instead of just a few.

Yesterday’s street campaigning event would be one of the later stages of this European wide operation, whose earlier stages included:

  1. The launch of a spoof video in late June
  2. The launch of the viral game Dark Side – Join the Rebellion
  3. A number of direct actions (in the UK, France and Germany)
  4. The film competition “See Volkswagen Differently”

Our goal was to collect over a thousand signatures against Volkswagen’s lobbying practice. There were about 70 volunteers involved from all London GP networks, and 8 Stormtroopers (or volunteers wearing Star Wars costumes, if you will) escorting us through the streets of London. Simultaneously, campaigners and Twitter users were tweeting about the campaign, sharing pictures of their encounters with soldiers from the Imperial Army and using the unique hashtags #spotthestormtrooper and #gpactive to mark their tweets.

I found this combination of online and offline interactions very fascinating, though not as effective as I expected, unfortunately. To my great surprise, less people than I thought were actually interested in tweeting, mostly because they weren’t on Twitter at all (yikes!). Only couple of people out of the over thirty people I spoke to yesterday told me they were on Twitter (of those, one magically tweeted about the campaign from her smart phone while I was still formulating my question – oh, youngsters!). This made me think of the potential reach of a combined campaign that includes both face-to-face and online campaigning. However, this surely depends first and foremost on the target audience of the campaign in question; in this case, mostly middle-aged middle-class car owners, I guess.

My second thought of the day was: despite its undoubted effectiveness, street campaigning is, and will always be for me, a weird beast. I must say, I don’t usually fancy people coming around asking for money or signatures on issues I didn’t even take into consideration a minute before. Let’s be honest, nobody likes it. That is why, when I do get involved in this, I’m always very conscious of the way I’m talking and interacting with people. I’m aware of the fact that a single word could either scare them off, or make them hang on my lips. You also have to get used to being rejected most of the times, and learn not to take it personally. It is not a nice feeling in most cases, but is challenging and therefore very rewarding when it works.

Third thought of the day: Stormtroopers are campaigners’ best friends. The following pictures are pretty explicative of what happened once the guys put on their costumes and held the Greenpeace sign against Volkswagen. Lots of eyes, lots of pictures, lots of questions, lots of signatures (and, obviously, lots of fun).

At the end of the day, despite loosing the use of hands and feet due to the freezing London weather, we eventually reached and exceeded our goal, collecting over 1,600 signatures in just few hours.

Now, what would my beloved anti-clicktivists possibly have to say to this?

Oh yeah, and this is me with the Stormtroopers (tell me, how could I not have published this?).

--Oriana (@OrianaLau)