Tweet your way to a more effective petition

So I meant to post about this back in July, but I wrote the note to myself on the back of my son’s library receipt and then spent several weeks wondering why I had intended to post about Richard Scarry’s funniest picture book ever. Sorry about that!

The good folks at Mashable have compiled some great resources for using Twitter for petitions. This is an exciting idea because, as I was discussing in a Facebook thread with the talented and enthusiastic Jake Lowen of Kansas Grassroots Consulting fame (check him out), much of the power in petitions is in their ability to help you connect more actively and more deeply with your constituents. (Actually, he argued that that is the value in petitions, but I have actually seen them influence targets, too, and I brought up some examples–once when trying to get a utility company to accept alternative identification for undocumented immigrants, and once when pressuring a manufacturing company to pressure its subcontractors to improve labor standards in its Mexican plants–I think the key variables here were that these were institutions feeling the heat from customers (so there was a subtle boycott-type threat too) and that petitions were part of a larger strategy, not the whole thing.)

But if you’ve ever had to go out to collect petition signatures, you know that it can be rough going. Lots of time spent at community festivals and in Wal-Mart parking lots, lots of glares from people who just want to be left alone, and lots of unusable signatures that lack addresses or are illegible or have a variety of other problems. There’s no relationship building and sometimes not even much consciousness-raising, since some people will sign anything just to get you to leave them alone. There has to be a better way, right?

Yes! Using Twitter, you can create sort of viral petitions, with your followers tweeting the petitions to other followers, or direct people to Petition Site petitions (using those tiny urls that work so well!), and start whole conversations around them, with people explaining in brief tweets why they are signing, and then tweeting follow up information to those who have signed (like your agency website, or opportunities to volunteer on the campaign, or a request for a donation). It’s super easy–as the Mashable link explains, there are applications that allow you to start a petition in less than a minute (I know; I did it!). People can not only sign the petition, then, but, far more importantly, instantly convert themselves into organizers–requesting that others sign, sharing information, really activating. And they can see everyone else who’s signing the same petitions, because there is traffic generated around them, so they are building new relationships with people who may be totally unknown to them, but with whom they now know they share a common passion. And, as we know, that’s the key to building real movements.

And, here’s where maybe it’s a good thing that this has been sitting in my head for so long. It occurred to me that there is real potential to blend the two strategies–the Twitter-type virtual petition and the old school/clipboard in hand kind. What if a campaign had a Twitter petition drive going and also had signature gatherers out in the field, and then the gatherers tweet after every day of field work (or once a week, if they’re working through institutional channels) about the number of signatures they gathered that day? They could also write a periodic blog post about a memorable encounter with a signer, or something that motivated them for that day’s canvas, and then tweet a link to that blog post. Now you’ve got opportunities for people to engage online and offline, and a way to weave the two together. So you’re gathering signatures, spreading awareness, and mobilizing activists. And that’s something to tweet about!

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