Do Online Petitions Work?

Some thoughts about online petitions:

Over the past few months, many of us have seen a massive increase in the number of online petitions posted in groups and added to the timelines of our personal pages. If you’re like me you’ve taken the time to at least sign and share many if not all of these petitions — perhaps even adding your own comments.

Have you wondered, like I have, if they actually make a difference?

The answer is that it depends.

There are a lot of factors that can influence whether a petition — and most especially a petition created and shared exclusively online — can really force change.

My goal with this post is to help people understand the things that influence whether a petition is useful or not and then to get us to work together to craft and support those petitions that will actually make a difference.

So what does it take for a petition to be successful? I’m going to break down the factors that I believe differentiate a petition likely to have an impact from the many that won’t:

A) A ton of signatures. And by this I don’t mean 1500. The number required to really mean something varies depending upon the target and the ask.

B) A realistic ask and a specific target.

This is tougher than it sounds because it requires us to be realistic and make some hard choices. While almost every one of us on here would like it to be a federal offense to kill a wolf in every state of the union, short of the government deciding to return wolves to the list of endangered species that’s incredibly unlikely to happen.

So what sort of “asks” are realistic? Again, this depends upon how reasoned the request, the nature of the request and who the target is. For example, I recently crafted a petition aimed at the judge involved in sentencing the White family — these people are known to be serial / habitual poachers who have already plead guilty to poaching a wolf in Washington state (where they are still protected) and then attempting to ship the pelt to Canada. The ask in this case was for the judge to apply the maximum sentence available under current law.

So why is this a good ask?

It’s good because it is very specific. The ask clearly explains what we want and why we want it. The target of the ask — the judge as well as the DOJ — are the correct people to target. What’s more, unlike many petitions that would require a vote or an act of congress to implement. If a judge hears from enough concerned citizens in advance of handing down a sentence, that has the potential to weigh significantly on his or her decision.

C) A compelling reason for the request.

In the above petition, the reason for the request is that it would act as a deterrent and send a strong message to other would-be poachers that this kind of crime is taken seriously and therefor the penalty for being caught is severe. This is a good reason for such a request, and in the case of this particular crime and the people that perpetrated it, it is reasonable. They have plead guilty and this is not the first time they’ve committed this type of crime.

Finally a petition like this can have an impact with a fairly small number of signatures. How small? I think a judge would take something like this seriously with 2500 signatures, especially if between 250 and 500 of them had comments.

Keep in mind that the bigger the ask the more signatures you are going to need before it will get anyone’s attention.

If we want to ban trapping in the entire US for example, we are going to need literally millions of signatures from all over the country. Foreign signatures are good, but don’t have nearly the impact of people that are likely to vote in an election for obvious reasons.

D) A consistent effort to drive awareness and get your petition broadly signed and shared.

There are some people that believe that they are making a difference by circulating a ton of online petitions, many of which they started themselves. Sometimes it seems a get a new petition a few times a week from the same people!

While I don’t want to dissuade anyone from taking action that they believe will help, I can tell you that this is not the best way to effect change. In fact at a certain point even the people that are the most likely to support your petitions will stop signing and sharing them. Why? If even the people that care most about your causes feel overwhelmed or even spammed, even if they sign it themselves, there’s almost zero chance they will be willing to forward it on t others.

Right there you are guaranteeing failure. For a petition to succeed, many of the people you share it with need to sign it and also share it with their friends. The more petitions you send, the less likely this is to happen.

In other words, your very efforts to help in every way you can are actually diminishing your effectiveness and therefor crippling your ability to help at all.

Instead of starting or sharing a new petition every couple of days, try taking one petition and making it your mission to drive it to success. This means more then just sharing it on Facebook or twitter. You need to really work at it.

Here are some tips:

– Don’t just tweet it. Use targeted tweets. @ message influencers with large followings. Ask them specifically to sign and share.
– Blog about your petition or try to get popular bloggers to do this for you. You can even try to submit guest posts to big blogs that have content related to your petition.
– Share your petition on Facebook and LinkedIn Groups that are aligned with your topic and likely to care and help
– Consider writing a press release and putting in on the wire using PR Newswire, PR Web or MarketWire.
– Reach out to the media and try to get their attention.
– Write a personal letter to the target of your petition. Let them know why you are starting a petition and to expect to hear from a lot of people that care about the topic.
– Write personal emails to your friends and family and ask them to support your cause. Explain why too.

I realize this has become a lengthy post already and I haven’t even touched on what not to do. I’ll get to that in a future post.

Before I end though, I’d like to suggest that as a group of people with a common interest we try to work together to choose the causes we support with care and then, as a group we work hard to turn those petitions into real wins. The wolves will thank us and in the end we will all feel good knowing our efforts are paying off instead of wondering, like we still are now, if online petitions really work!


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