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Online Organizing 2.0: How Change.org Found Its Groove (and Moved to the Center of Online Politics)

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, May 15 2012

Change.org.

The mainstream media has spent much of the last year looking for the next tool or app that is supposedly going to change the election of 2012 — "It's the Twitter Election! It's the Facebook Election! It's the Tumblr Election!"

While it's certainly worth noting how the campaigns are using these sites — playing elite spin games in public on Twitter, mining voters' social data on Facebook, and charming the cool kids on Tumblr — none of them are really changing the role of activists or ordinary voters all that much, the way that newly emergent online platforms disrupted politics as usual in 2007-08.

In the meantime, Change.org, a social action site built around the oldest and arguably least sexy tool in online politics, the petition, is exploding. A year ago, the site had about two million users and was gaining about 300,000 new ones a month. Now it's six times as big and is growing six times as fast. How did Change.org, a political startup founded in 2007, finally find its groove? And what does its sudden emergence at the center of online politics mean for the future of advocacy?

About a year ago, I talked with Ben Rattray, Change.org's 31-year-old founder, about some changes the company was going through at the time. It was the continuation of a conversation we'd been having on and off for some time, as Ben and his team wrestled with the same dilemma that has confronted just about every well-intentioned startup in the political technology space: How does someone convince millions of disconnected individuals to come share their political concerns around a common online hub? How can they aggregate their voices and augment their power?

The web is littered with failed attempts at solving this problem: Voter.com, Vote.com, Speakout.com, Essembly.com, HotSoup.com, VoteIQ.com. Cumulatively, investors have thrown away tens of millions on these efforts. It's a genuinely hard problem to solve, since random individuals don't naturally choose to hang out together at any given website. You have to scratch an itch they have and make them want to come back — and do it better than any other competing tool or site.

Causes.com, the brainchild of Sean Parker (co-founder of Napster) and Joe Green (a former Harvard roommate of Mark Zuckerberg's who failed first with Essembly) has probably come the closest to growing a sustainable user base, but it has been helped by its founders' unique relationship with Facebook — they started Causes as an internal Facebook app when Facebook launched its Platform in 2007. Change.org was founded around the same time as the other Web 2.0 wave of political startups, but for years it had struggled to find its footing.

But as we talked last year I could tell Ben was excited. Change.org was seeing a big bump in new members, 310,000 in the previous 30 days alone. Monthly traffic to the site had tripled. What was going on? Change.org had retooled itself. And this wasn't the first time that it had tried a pivot to where it thought users wanted to go.

After starting as a hub for causes that sought to make it easy for anyone to donate to a charity, which bragged about listing every nonprofit in the US but failed to gain traction, Change had tried becoming a content hub for causes. Figuring that a better way to find users was organic search, it hired editors and bloggers to cover dozens of issue areas like "gay rights" or "global warming." (techPresident's first assistant editor, Josh Levy, who is now Free Press's Internet campaign director, went over to Change at this time to manage this blogger pool.)

As Ben explained, while creating interesting content around issues did draw eyeballs, it didn't produce enough engagement.

"But then we saw that people were starting to start campaigns and they were winning, campaigns aimed at local targets like mayors," he told me. "So three months ago, we decided to build the best social action campaign platform possible."

That meant reengineering Change.org to be less about the content that its editors wanted to highlight, and more about the actions that users wanted to take. And the heart of this move was a throwback to one of the oldest political tools in existence: the e-petition.

It turns out that this pivot was the one Change.org needed to make. A year ago, I marveled with Ben at his company's growth. But get this: Last month Change.org gained two million new members. It's now up to about 12 million. (The company counts users as someone who signs a petition, creates an account, and doesn't unsubscribe from emails.) Everyone from the Bank of America to Verizon to the MPAA to the police chief of Sanford, Florida knows the power of Change.org's users. Trayvon Martin's parents garnered 2.25 million signatures on their Change.org petition seeking justice for their murdered son, and now aggrieved families elsewhere are launching petitions to seek investigations into unresolved killings. Obviously, the Martin case involved many other dedicated organizers and groups, local and national, that have been working for years on racial justice issues, and who moved into concerted action on their own without Change.org's intervention. But at the center of the cause was the parents' petition page, which was a hub for all kinds of related networking.

A year ago, Ben told me he had 37 full-time staff, up from three the year before and a large stable of paid freelance writers. Now Change.org has 130 employees. People joke that if the Obama campaign hasn't hired someone to be an online campaign organizer, it's because they've been hired by Change. And it is growing worldwide, buying the Spanish online petition company Actuable last fall and expanding beyond Europe to Australia, Japan, India, Indonesia, Thailand and beyond. Petitions started on the site are making news constantly and people keep coming back and starting more of them — 15,000 a month, at the moment. Why is Change.org suddenly the center of the online political universe? And what does its success mean for advocacy organizations?

This Isn't Your Father's Clicktivism

"What Change.org is showing that online petitions can catch fire and change the world," says Ben Wikler, the company's executive vice president, who I spoke to last week. "Each time something takes off and wins, that inspires another wave of people who hadn't thought they could do something, to give it a shot. If only one in a hundred makes a difference, then having many more hundreds makes a difference. This is a moment in history where people power is in the air, from the Arab Spring to Occupy to the Tea Party. What Change.org does is give people living anywhere an entry point to try to change something. You don't have to live in Cairo or on Wall Street to launch your own movement."

Actually, it's not quite that simple, since online petitions have been around since the beginning of the Internet. Change.org is succeeding for the same reasons that YouTube took off — and it presents some of the same dilemmas as it grows. Before YouTube, it wasn't easy to post your own video online, and if your video somehow drew attention, the costs to you of keeping it online could be painful. The same was true for online petitioning. Plenty of sites gave you the ability to post a petition, but if lots of people started to sign up and you wanted to email them back, either you couldn't, or you had to pay an email service provider hundreds or even thousands of dollars for every email you wanted to send.

On Change.org, anyone can start a petition. The site gives petition creators the ability to keep emailing signers, along with some smart tie-ins to social sharing platforms like Facebook and Twitter. And if your petition starts gaining significant traction, Change's staff--which boasts people with deep political organizing experience--jumps in to offer assistance with fine-tuning your message, testing email subject lines, getting press attention and the like. And while only one or two percent of the petitions that people launch on the site go anywhere, the law of big numbers is the company's friend. It turns out that there is an abundant number of nascent causes that individuals want action on, and if you let them, in effect, do the early market research, the stronger appeals keep emerging. Or, as Ben put it during his appearance on the Daily Show a few weeks ago, "We allow a sort of Darwinian process to unfold."

Change isn't the only platform for this kind of online petition-centered organizing. Around the same time that Change pivoted to its current model, MoveOn.org launched SignOn.org, which offers its members a similar tool set. In just over a year, it has generated 18,000 petitions, and MoveOn has put the muscle of its big list behind about 600 of them, says Steven Biel, SignOn's director. "We've given hundreds of people not just the tools to build a petition, but a network of followers big enough to run a real, ongoing campaign," he says. "For instance, Robert Applebaum, a MoveOn member, student debt activist, and attorney in New York, has over 1.4 million people he can email through our system at will. He used that list to build the first We the People petition that the Obama administration ever responded to."

Online Organizing 2.0?

"I think Change.org is part of one of the biggest waves of innovation in digital social change organizing since Wes Boyd and Joan Blades first used email to bring people together around a progressive idea at MoveOn.org 12 years ago," says Natalie Foster, the co-founder of Rebuild the Dream, who previously was at the DNC running Organizing for America, and before that worked for MoveOn. "In many ways, it's online organizing 2.0 ... finally. I know it's an overused term, but in this case the parallel is accurate," she argues.

"Web 2.0 companies famously grew by using user generated content to chase the long tail of the market. Now political organizations are seeing massive growth through the decentralization of campaign creation. Change.org and other platforms — like MoveOn's SignOn and Nathan Woodhull's new Control Shift technology — allows everyday folks to function as campaigners."

This presents a really interesting challenge to existing political actors. Platforms like Change.org and SignOn.org are tapping the power of abundance and unlocking a lot of civic energy that institutions often miss. Big organizations typically choose their campaigns through an internal process of prioritization, and then they hunt for ways to make those goals move lots of people into action, often by finding and highlighting individuals whose stories exemplify an issue.

Change "flips the funnel," to use Seth Godin's phrase. Some people are discovering they can become super-activists; when that happens, why belong to some stodgy old group?

Watching what its users were doing induced Change.org to make its big shift. Back in late 2010, a South African human rights activist Ndumie Funda used Change to start a petition to get the government there to declare "corrective rape" of lesbians a hate crime. Her same-sex fiancé had been gang-raped and died later as a result.

"We would never have started that campaign," Ben told me last year. "It would never have occurred to us. And we would never have had legitimacy if we started it."

Change's editorial staff definitely helped draw attention to Funda's cause, but it was her direct and personal appeal that gave it its authenticity and power.

What this means is personal appeals on timely or unusually outrageous issues are likely to do best in a hyper-connected always-on environment. Rutgers University professor Dave Karpf calls this "headline chasing," and he doesn't mean that in a necessarily bad way. His excellent new book, The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy, describes in careful detail how technology is enabling a shift in the nature and structure of political organizing that gives the advantage to newer groups that can move quickly and better engage their members using techniques like A/B testing of email subject lines and website landing pages.

"If you are a longstanding organization, with lots of armchair activists, you can't go online and test campaigns," he told me last week. "And thus your membership becomes ballast that weighs you down and thus you can't take advantage of this rapid moving new media environment."

"We've had the ability to create petitions on line and build a big list since 1998," says Karpf. "But what Change.org has done is soup that up and make the online petition model more effective. Now there is a hub space for potential superactivists to go. Where before you had to know html, or use one of the warehouse e-petition sites, to build a list."

He also notes that "Facebook matters a lot to this." Earlier petition sites operated in more of a social vacuum.

"Not only didn't we have Facebook, we didn't have Facebook Connect," Karpf says. "That makes this model a lot more possible, the optimizing of the social media landscape."

In case you think this means the democratization of online petitioning is more bad news for the old-fashioned and supposedly much nobler and more engaging work of getting people to identify with an issue organization and rally around its appeals, Karpf has a ready answer: "I'm not sure people were that loyal to organizations before this all started. They were sending a $35 check and forgetting about it," he says. "Now they're showing that same level of loyalty thru clicks and A/B testing, which lets you figure out better what they're interested in."

One way that older legacy organizations are adapting is by drafting on Change's momentum, or to put it more bluntly, by paying Change to acquire email addresses at a rate of roughly $1 to $1.50 a name.

"Our business model is advertising," says Wikler. "You can sponsor petitions on the site. Our partners are groups like Sierra or Amnesty, and if someone signs a petition, they'll see those related petitions on a page." He adds, "We're looking for a bunch of ways of improving the discovery process. We're going with geolocation, for example. Right now you can see other petitions from India if you're from India, but we're working on bringing that closer to the city you're in."

Karpf is relatively sanguine about this. "A lot of older organizations have been spending money acquiring email lists since the late 90s. And Change.org may be a better use of your email list-acquiring budget than in the past. But they still face this challenge of paying for their old infrastructure, and working thru the difficult organizational choices of 'wow, we can't pay for that furniture any more.' The rough transition doesn't disappear."

Change.org's success may be hastening that transition. Because as the company grows, and it hires more campaign organizers and issue specialists, it could very well start to put a lot of smaller political operations under a lot of competitive pressure. Change.org isn't Walmart, and Ben Rattray certainly isn't Sam Walton, but the economics of scale — like the economics of abundance — are starting to favor Change.org's social action model a lot over single-issue bricks-and-mortar organizations. Ben's original vision for Change.org, to create "a community platform that creates a web of social networks for over 1 million nonprofit organizations," is still far off in the distance, but what he's built in the intervening years has become a platform for millions of social activists. The end result may be the same.

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