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Online Activists’ Lessons For Online Business

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Over a 48-hour period, the online political activist site MoveOn.org, ran a groundbreaking online Democratic primary that netted 317,647 votes — far more than actual turnout in many states’ actual Presidential primaries.

If you work in PR, marketing or media, you can’t afford to ignore the impact of MoveOn and other online activists — regardless of your political views. The work these groups are doing has made many traditional consensus-building tactics irrelevant.

Activists’ mighty tools can be turned on a dime against a corporation whose actions or products are seen as reprehensible. Yet there is not a single politician or corporation ready to mobilize with equal force.

Examining the impact of MoveOn’s presidential straw poll and other actions, it appears that guerilla marketing masters from John the Baptist to Edward Bernays to P.T. Barnum had nothing on today’s online activists.

With just four paid staff members and an operating budget of $330,000, MoveOn uses e-mail and easy-to-navigate Web pages to spring members into action. They encourage members to sign online petitions; call, write letters and send e-mail to media outlets, elected and corporate officials; donate money to causes and state their opinions in forums throughout the Internet.

In the MoveOne primary, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, with 44 percent of the vote, led the pack of nine Democratic presidential candidates who have officially entered the Democratic primary race. Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich came in second, with 24 percent, followed by Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, with 16 percent.

Since none of the candidates won a clear majority, MoveOn has not endorsed anyone. Instead, it says it will encourage its members to make contributions to and volunteer for the candidates of their choice.

Deploying traditional PR tools at lightening speed Once a MoveOn member registers and gives his or her mailing address and e-mail address, MoveOn software can instantly provide a member with a list of their Congressmen, Senators, local representatives and media outlets.

MoveOn campaigns use some traditional PR tools, deploying them with great dispatch. Petitions are hand-delivered to each Congressional member prior to a vote. Bumper stickers are printed and distributed. Banner ads for campaigns are run on Yahoo and made available for download to hundreds of other Web sites. Press releases are issued and speeches are made.

MoveOn and other activists provide suggested messages for members to personalize and, with one click, send to many politicians, organizations and media. They also promote subscriptions to recommended magazines and newsletters, and provide readers for interviews, viewers for TV and radio shows and visitors to Web sites.

When MoveOn identifies a political issue and asks its members to take action, a tsunami is let loose. The MoveOn political action committee has raised $6.5 million for like-minded candidates and has hopes of doubling that amount in this election cycle. MoveOn generated a million phone calls and e-mails to Congress protesting the Iraq war, shutting down phone and fax lines throughout the nation’s capital.

Flash action By making it so simple for members to pass along their opinions, MoveOn and other online activists create a rich environment for viral marketing. And they bypass traditional media gatekeepers, who are now paying close attention to, and reporting on, their activities. Returning power to the people, activists have taken over much of PR and advertising’s role in influencing public opinion. Communiocations professionals have much to learn from them.

MoveOn has used the Internet to run lightening-fast “flash campaigns,” along with e-mail, to quickly focus a broad and deep segment of the American public into action within a specified time period.

When the group asked members to help pay $27,000 for an anti-war advertisement in the New York Times, supporters immediately sent more than $400,000 in donations. Funding grew to $1.3 million which was used for billboards, radio and TV spots and print ads in more than 100 papers.

MoveOn members are asked to pledge time and money to various causes, and have the option of joining a media corps which can mobilize in hours to voice an opinion about what they perceive as slanted media coverage.

Recently, MoveOn paired members and gave them guidelines for interviewing eachother so they would begin to have personal connections. Each partner was asked to report to MoveOn about the other’s interests and concerns. Thousands filed reports, though the group has not announced how the information will be used.

Hearts and Minds By sheer force of numbers, MoveOn is too big to be ignored by the media. Besides its numbers, its strength, and the strength of other activist sites, is in technology and willingness to continually try new methods of motivating members and reaching the media.

“Every time we did something, every time we showed leadership, our membership went up,” MoveOn founder Wes Boyd told a recent Take Back America conference in Washington, D.C.

The right wing has an online community as well. TownHall.com is an online umbrella organization “of conservative thoughts, ideas and actions.” The site has a page with a list of businesses and organizations including Ben & Jerry and Amazon that it claims give them a commission on sales “to help Townhall keep up the good work.” Town Hall’s right wing member organizations like Conservative USA also have activism Web sites, but they are not as well-organized, simply designed or elegantly researched as MoveOn.

Schools for change Some activist organizations use search engine placement to make their point. The Rainforest Activist Committee, incensed that Home Depot sources and sells old growth lumber, developed HomeDepotSucks.com www.homedepotsucks.com which chastises the company for using wood from endangered rain forests. The site comes up number three in a Google search for Home Depot, thanks to good search engine marketing tactics.

The Internet has many sites that promise to teach activists the most effective tactics. Act for Change (winner of a 2003 Webby Award for activism) provides activism tips on making your e-mails, calls and letters more effective.

NetAction provides an activist’s training course which explains the difference between traditional and Internet communication techniques, explains how to communicate with online media and gives before and after examples of an effective e-mail action alert.

Digital Freedom Network provides an Activist’s Workshop is devoted to helping human rights activists develop their technical knowledge. It includes tutorials, sample code, and other reference material useful for activists who have some electronic resources.

Organizer’s Collaborative recently ran its fourth annual sold-out conference on the grassroots use of technology, with topics like “New Software Tools for Grassroots Activism Campaigns,” and “Hands-on Demonstrations of Online Fundraising Tools.”

Lessons to be learned Guerilla marketing is nothing new. Its foundations are rooted in interactions between peoples in long lost ancient civilizations. Ever since people started having messages to convey they’ve needed effective ways to get their points across. Guerilla marketing is about influencing people to try or buy a product, to trust a company or to adopt a new point of view.

According to Ron Smith, Professor of Public Communication at Buffalo State College in New York, guerilla marketing goes back a long, long way. “John the Baptist,” he says, “is recognized in the social history of Christianity as the precursor, the advance man who was effective in generating in his publics an anticipation and enthusiasm for Jesus Christ.”

Samuel Adams is credited as the chief public relations strategist for the American movement for independence. His legacy includes using anniversaries as news pegs for publicity, creating activist organizations like the Sons of Liberty, and staging events like the Boston Tea party and hangings in effigy.

Sixty years ago. PR master Edward Bernays, known as “the father of spin,” made smoking cigarettes fashionable for women by connecting their right to smoke with their freedom to vote. His parade of debutantes who walked down Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue carrying “torches of freedom made every front page in America the next day. They called attention to a product, changed public opinion about it and promoted sales.

Yet these campaigns pale in comparison to the hold that MoveOn and other online activists’ have on members hearts and minds. Ignoring the power of activists is a recipe for trouble. Online activists represent a huge and young demographic, and that means corporations will depend on them for sales for decades to come. Those who ignore the concerns and preferences of this highly opinionated group do so at their own peril.

Today’s online activists have cutting edge tools, fast response and deeply committed members. If a company or product is ever targeted by one of the activist groups, a quick and honest response could help diffuse a potential PR disaster.

Watch closely, the revolution has begun.

Other online activist sites of note:

  • Veterans for Common Sense
  • World Wild Life Fund
  • Greenpeace
  • The Jane Goodall Institute
  • Voice Yourself
  • World Resources Institute
  • Environmental Working Group
  • Democracy Groups a national listing of social change e-mail lists and forums
  • Organizers Collaborative a database for organizers

    B.L. Ochman BLOchman@whatsnextonline.com Marketing strategist,
    journalist, speaker 212.369.8312 http://www.whatsnextonline.com Moderator, I-PR, the world’s largest interactive community of public
    relations and marketing professionals. Subscribe at
    http://www.up2speed.com/lists/ipr/
    Sign up for What’s Next Online, our award-winning no-fluff marketing
    tactics newsletter GRATIS at http://www.whatsnextonline.com

    Online Activists’ Lessons For Online Business
  • About B.L. Ochman
    B.L. Ochman BLOchman@whatsnextonline.com Marketing strategist, journalist, speaker 212.369.8312 http://www.whatsnextonline.com Moderator, I-PR, the world's largest interactive community of public relations and marketing professionals. Subscribe at http://www.up2speed.com/lists/ipr/ Sign up for What's Next Online, our award-winning no-fluff marketing tactics newsletter GRATIS at http://www.whatsnextonline.com WebProNews Writer
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