Don’t Fear the Flash Mob

Flash mobs are the new “let’s make a viral video” of activism. They’re an idea that people (often supervisors or clients) have latched onto, thinking it will propel their campaign to greatness. Successful flash mobs like Target Ain’t People or Don’t Get Caught in a Bad Hotel resulted in a surge of interest in the progressive organizing space – and a lot of wasted choreography.

But flash mobs aren’t what they used to be, and that could be a good thing.

Let’s start at the beginning. A guy named Bill invented the flash mob. It started as a kind of cynical performance art (“cynical” being Bill’s own word) in New York City. He sent out instructions via email to a a group of friends, and it grew from there. The email informed people where and when to arrive, and what they’d do when they got there. Bill’s first flash mob targeted a Claire’s Accessories store in Manhattan – because, hey, who doesn’t want to turn Claire’s Accessories into a space of whimsy and mayhem. (A great interview with Bill on the making of the flash mob is here.)

The definition of flash mob (circa 2002): A flash mob is an event where a large group of people, having received instructions in advance, converge upon a place, do something odd there, and leave peaceably within minutes.

But the definition of the flash mob – especially in activist circles – is changing. One example is the flash mob as a stunt, performed entirely for a camera to capture it, with the purpose of driving an action or telling the story of a campaign. Here’s a great example of a flash mob stunt by MoveOn:

Or a flash mob can be, basically, a flash protest. Something that is planned at the last minute in response to an incident. This was demonstrated at this month’s Netroots Nation gathering in Minneapolis:

So, when field directors or clients ask for a “flash mob,” are they simply asking for a smaller, tactical protest with a creative element?  I’m all for that. Anything that moves us away from organizing protests with the same tired signs, chanting the same tired slogans, is a win in my book. If organizers need to call it a “flash mob” to justify risk-taking and creativity, so be it. 


Accidentally Creating an International News Story (and Twitter Spam)

Last week, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs (@PressSec) held an open Q&A session on Twitter. He invited folks to tweet their questions, and he’d select a handful to answer. According to reports, more than 1,000 questions were submitted that morning. My question, “What are the President’s plans for relations with China is 2011?” was answered.

Continue reading

Interview with Google

Talking shop with Google. We’re quite proud of being a “Google Adwords Success Story.” 

Online Organizing vs. Clay Johnson

Disclaimer: I am a huge fan of Clay Johnson. He’s an innovator and thought-leader, and he’s really really smart. This is a response to his recent blog post, “Online Petitions Are a Sham.”

Minnesota League of Women Voters Hold Mile Long Petition

Everyone (and by everyone, I mean a handful of people who I respect and admire) is talking about Clay Johnson’s recent declaration, “Online petitions are a sham.” Clay touches on a few points, which I’ve summarized below:

  • Online petitions are a sham because they don’t (and can’t) result in real world change.
  • Online petitions are just a cynical ploy to capture your email address.
  • Signatures you collect are not a real measurement of strength.
  • Don’t bother with online petitions or advocacy groups. Go it alone.

I’ve critiqued online petitions – and our obsession with big numbers – previously on this blog. But Clay’s screed begs rebuttal. Online petitions are a valuable tool. Yes, it’s true that in most cases, the petition you’re signing is not going to influence a decision-maker. But, so what? The petition isn’t meant to win the campaign – the petition is meant to build the campaign. Online and offline petitions help us win change by:

  • Identifying supporters. These people can then be cultivated to take higher level actions – including attending events, meeting with members of Congress, and even organizing in their communities.
  • Pulling in new people. Growing a movement is how you win campaigns. To pull in new people, you need to break through the noise. Campaigns like PCCC’s “Google is Evil” campaign attracts new supporters. Once you’ve got their attention, you can work in more information and nuance. As you build trust with your new list, you can begin to engage them on bigger – scarier – issues.
  • Building community. Online petitions demonstrate that you are not alone in caring about an issue. Photo petitions and Facebook petitions are two examples of how people connect with one another and find community around online activism. Community is powerful. Community changes people lives.
  • Winning campaigns. So what’s in it for you, the activist? You want to win, don’t you?

From collecting signatures during the Suffragists movement in 1910 to collecting online signatures to stop oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 2006, the purpose of a petition has remain unchanged for more than a century. To build a campaign that wins.

Clay Johnson isn’t just dismissing online petitions, he’s suggesting that organizing is a waste of time. He concludes with a bold and ill-conceived piece of advice:

Skip the advocacy groups. Dismiss the petitions. There’s nothing in a call to action that can be considered honest. In the case of net neutrality, read what Google and Verizon said and make up your own mind. The intent of advocacy messaging isn’t to tell you the truth, it’s to get you to click a link. If you have something to say to Congress, gives you a method as does If you have something to say to Google, contact them yourself.

When you are powerless, you must organize. When your opponent has more money, more resources, more access to power,  you must organize. Online petitions and paper petitions are not a sham, they are a tool to win.

Avoid Stress-Inducing Subject Lines

When writing subject line for a critical email blast, be careful not to stress out your supporters. Here a few of my favorite alarm-inducing subject lines that caused me to instantly hit “archive”:

  • “Video: torture – to the dark side” from Amnesty International USA. To the dark side?! I’m sipping a latte and entering numbers into a spreadsheet! STRESS! Delete.

This fundraising series from the League of Conservation Voters included:

  • “Dont Wait – the Heat is On”
  • “24 hours left – we can’t wait any longer”
  • “Don’t pass up this chance”
  • “Dollar for dollar – don’t miss this chance!”
  • “Not another chance”

You know, something tells me there will be another chance to donate to your organization. Delete.

The “No on 8” campaign had some gems, too. My favorites were:

  • “Armageddon” – No, I’m not kidding. This is the email subject line for a “No on 8” email on 10/27/08.
  • “URGENT APPEAL” – Apparently it wasn’t urgent enough to tell me about it in the subject line.
  • “We are under attack!” – Needless to say, this is not the kind of subject line that inspires confidence in your organization.

So, when you’re sending a critical email blast to supporters, try to avoid these common pitfalls:

1. Don’t use exclamation points (and if you must, make sure they’re exclaiming something positive, like “We’re so close!” and not “Urgent: Deadline Approaching!”)

2. Don’t use the word “URGENT” unless it’s really truly, super dooper, um, urgent. In fact, you’re probably better off not using it at all. We’ve all included that alarmist word in email blasts before, and I’m beginning to think that users now scroll past “Urgent” subjectlines  just as they do with the “15% off tulip bulbs” emails from Garden Express.

3. Don’t be a jerk. Don’t berrate us or try to shame us. And definitely do not take the user on a guilt trip. We have mothers for that.

Your Bad Emails Are Hurting Your Organization

Before I launch into my well-intentioned rant on the importance of email, I’d like to first explain a few things:

I don’t know anyone who works at the following organization, but I’m fairly confident that they’re all committed, capable individuals who manage to turn meager resources into amazing things. This is not a critique of anyone’s work–it is a critique of how organizations invest (or do not invest) in new media, and how that could potentially impact future donors, volunteers, etc. I’ve worked in nonprofits and have sent my share of criminally bad emails, and I know that a nonprofit’s web presence is most often the result of resources, not of talent or sheer will. We make the best with what we’re given, but even the most talented online organizer can’t turn a $5K  budget into a $100K one.

Okay, here we go.

I’ve been a subscriber to NARAL Pro-Choice America emails for several years. As a new media professional, I subscribe to every nonprofit email list under the sun–but NARAL emails always stood out for their design and best practices. Over time, I began to associate their expertly crafted emails to the NARAL brand. In my mind, they were more internet savvy (and therefore, more effective) than NOW or Planned Parenthood. When it came to reproductive rights, I would support NARAL. Afterall, I live and breathe on the web. I want the organizations that I support to meet me online.

Here is an example of what I was receiving from NARAL back in 2006 and 2007:You can find another example, here.

There is so much to like about the above email. The text above the banner pulls you in, and offers a quick “click here” for the impatient among us. The banner serves as a second subject line, to reinforce the central “ask” of the email. The sidebar graphic is appealing and in-keeping with the banner’s design. Even today, several years later, this email looks pretty current, right?

Note: I’m fairly certain that during this time, NARAL was contracting with an email advocacy vendor (Watershed, perhaps?). If anyone has any details on that, let me know in the comments.

I didn’t realize the impact of these early emails until last week, when I received this, uh, 1997-ish email:

This email prompted an investigation deep into the recesses of my gmail archives. Something just didn’t seem right. “Wasn’t it NARAL,” I thought, “who sent those great advocacy emails way back when?” I was right.

There is so much wrong with this email, I don’t even know where to begin. I’m sure it goes without explanation, but let’s all take a moment to admire that DONATE button. Tell me, would you give money to an organization with an email like this!? I sure wouldn’t.

In this case, NARAL would be better off sending nothing at all. This email degrades their brand, and the damage is long-lasting. I volunteered for NARAL back in October, amid a barrage of volunteer & donation asks from other organizations. The reason I chose NARAL? I’m guessing it was those early emails. For some reason, I had the impression that volunteering a few hours with NARAL would go farther than a few hours with DFA or MoveOn. Unfortunately, that impression is now gone. Send a few more of these and you might lose me forever.

The bottom line is that image matters. Your bad emails and websites are not just be failing to attract new donors and volunteers–they might be turning away your old ones, too. Your investment in new media is an investment in your future. How much does your organization budget for new media? Does it match your investment in direct mail, communications and donor relations combined? ‘Cause it should.

Putting the “Community” Into Online Organizing

Note: My apologies for the long absence. Life has been hectic these past six months, as I’ve taken on a new role at my organization and am working hard to elect Barack Obama this November. Post-election, I’ll be getting back in the swing of things.

For years, the nonprofit sector thrived online. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, campaigns and activist-oriented nonprofits–frequently strapped for cash–seized on the early promises of the internet. Through email and websites, they could cheaply communicate with supporters, drive contributions, and activate tens of thousands of members online.

Online petitions drove much of the nonprofit internet revolution. was founded on it. The anti-Iraq war movement thrived on it. Supreme court filibusters, Downing Street, and Tom DeLay came and went, all with the backdrop of huge online petitions. That was then.

This is now. I was talking to my mother yesterday. She receives emails, but admits she no longer reads them (and she’s not the first person to tell me that). Apparently, she signed an online petition last week related to the $700 Billion Wall Street bailout. I asked her what she thought would happen after the petitioner received enough online signatures. She didn’t know. I added, “You know, online petitions are really just a cheap ploy to collect more email addresses.” She responded, “Yeah, I know that. I figured that was what it was for, but I did it anyway.”

Which makes me wonder, is this really activism? Am I “organizing” if I’m merely trying to capture your email address? (And your friends’ email addresses, as well?)

For years, online organizing was about growth. It was about amassing a large enough list to do real damage on the hill, or to raise a significant amount of money in the next urgent campaign. Let us not forget that, in the early days, members of Congress actually responded to our emails, and appeared to consider them when taking position on a bill.

But now, there’s a glut of email. Every organization is scrambling for our attention. Every campaign and nonprofit has an online staff of 10 or 20, sometimes even more.

As a community organizer in Hartford, Connecticut several years ago, I spent seven hours a day knocking on doors in some of Hartford’s most dangerous neighborhoods. In a typical day, I could have conversations with one or two semi-interested people, and if I was lucky, I’d convince them to sign up to financially support the organization. One time, though, I met a couple, Carlos and Luisanna, who claimed they “had been waiting for a visit from someone like me.” They showed me the bullet holes in the side of their home, asserting they lived in a place “more dangerous than Baghdad,” and asked what they could do. These people were ready. Ready to roll up their sleeves and organize their friends and neighbors to affect real change in their community.

I wonder, with the glut of email and the changing contours of the social media environment, is it possible that small, targeted online organizing trumps the 1,000,000 member email list?

Would you rather have a list of 1,000,000 online “activists” like my mom? Or 50,000 community activists like Carlos and Luisanna?