OurForests.org: Online Organizing Comes of Age
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On January 5, 2001, President Bill Clinton announced the largest federal land conservation action since the Carter Administration. By executive order, he permanently banned road-building and logging on nearly a third of the lands in the National Forests. All told, 58.5 million acres of forests in 39 states were set aside for special protection.
Clintons order was a landmark for the American environmental movement, and a tremendous victory for the Heritage Forests Campaign, an alliance of conservationists, educators, scientists, and clergy who came together to fight for permanent protection of roadless areas in the National Forests.* Thanks largely to the campaign's work, citizens deluged the Forest Service in 1999 and 2000 with more than 1.6 million official public comments on its draft roadless-areas proposal, the vast majority of them in support of forest preservation. Hundreds of thousands more postcards, faxes, phone calls, and emails poured into the White House and congressional offices as well.
As a result, the Forest Service issued a final order that was considerably stronger from an environmental standpoint than the original proposal. Upon the order's release, a senior Clinton Administration official told the New York Times that the public had shown overwhelming support for forest protection.
Such a level of public participation in a federal regulatory process was unprecedented, and so was the campaign that made it happen. The Heritage Forests Campaign made extensive use of traditional organizing tools: door-to-door canvassing, college campus organizing, information tables at public events, phone banks, and direct mail. Most innovative, however, was the campaign's work to mobilize citizens via the Internet.
That effort was successful far beyond its organizers' expectations: more than 180,000 official public comments were collected online, and 520,000 more email messages were delivered to the president, the vice-president, and other elected officials.
Perhaps most importantly, the online campaign mobilized a large complement of citizens that environmental groups were not effectively reaching via traditional means. Because those citizens—all of whom have a demonstrated history of taking action—can now be contacted quickly and cheaply through the Internet, they will be a force to be reckoned with in future environmental battles.
Recruiting an Online Constituency
The Internet arm of the Heritage Forests Campaign was created and run by TechRocks (formerly the Rockefeller Technology Project and Desktop Assistance), a national organization with headquarters in Philadelphia and five field offices around the country including Washington, DC, San Francisco, and Helena, MT. TechRocks is dedicated to helping progressive nonprofits use new technologies to increase their effectiveness.
From the beginning, TechRocks had two major goals for the campaign. The first was to generate the largest possible number of official public comments and other emails pressuring the Clinton Administration to issue strong roadless-area regulations. The second was to develop relationships with those who sent such messages to government officials, building an engaged, responsive corps of online environmental activists. With both goals in mind, TechRocks designed an outreach campaign with the following major elements:
A database-backed website, http://www.OurForests.org, designed to collect "electronic postcards" from site visitors to the Forest Service and elected officials, as well as contact information for those who sent such messages;
Gateway pages, such as http://www.wildforests.com—providing the same functions as the main site, and connected to the same central database—on the sites of some campaign partner organizations;
An email solicitation campaign;
A paid electronic advertising campaign to users of the Juno email/Internet service;
Banner advertising donated by 12 top Web sites and Internet advertising networks;
Links to and/or banners advertising www.OurForests.org on the web sites of coalition partner groups;
A paid advertising campaign to users of RealPlayer, free software that plays and provides a gateway to video and audio feeds from a variety of news, entertainment, and information sources;
A downloadable Flash clip, featuring an animated mouse who asked people to "use your mouse to save America's wild forests!"; clicking on the animation brought viewers to the OurForests website; a message containing a link to the clip was emailed to activists, who were encouraged to forward it to their friends;
The Web address included in all traditional organizing materials, such as flyers, petitions, print and television advertisements, and direct mail; and
Traditional press outreach, to gain additional publicity for the campaign and the websites.
The OurForests website was more than a mere collections of text and images. Instead, it was designed to spur site visitors to become part of the campaign. Visitors to OurForests were greeted with a page that asked them to take action to help save America's last unprotected wild forests. To make it easy to get started, the front page included a simple online form for sending email to government officials, and clearly outlined additional steps for taking action, such as sending email to friends who also might be interested in the campaign. After visitors submitted what they entered—which usually included their name, mailing address, and email address, as well as the message they wished to send—the information was entered into the site's underlying database, which generated a personalized email thank-you note to each activist.
The actions suggested to the site's visitors varied over the course of the campaign. During the regulatory comment period, for example, visitors were asked to send an electronic postcard to Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck. At other times, they were asked to email President Clinton or Vice President Gore. OurForests also provided links to further information about the Heritage Forests Campaign and its partners, the dates, times and places of public meetings on the Forest Service proposal, and the latest forest-related news.
Email was used to attract visitors to the OurForests website. Early in the campaign, using ebase, a organizing database developed by Desktop Assistance. TechRocks sent email invitations to visit OurForests.org to a few thousand members and supporters of the coalition's partner groups. Those who responded became part of the campaigns own list of activists. The email campaign became much larger as the list of activists grew through the campaigns various promotional activities.
Probably the most important source of new activists was a paid advertising campaign to users of Juno, one of the largest email/Internet access providers in the United States. Juno, which built its business on providing free email access, collects information about its subscribers' interests when they first sign up. That information helps the company target advertisements, and helps its Juno Advocacy Network deliver custom-selected audiences for political campaigns.
The Heritage Forests Campaign at first targeted half a million Juno users who had listed hiking or camping among their favorite activities. The initial ad was so successful that the organizers selected an additional 2.5 million subscribers. The Juno advertisements popped up either when subscribers logged onto their email service, or while their email was downloading. All told, the Juno ads brought in more than 150,000 new activists to the campaign, and generated over 320,000 email messages to government officials.
Activists were also alerted to the campaign via a variety of paid and donated advertising. In addition to placing banners on campaign partner sites, TechRocks secured millions of page views of donated banner advertising from Internet advertising firms and major commercial websites. The group paid to reach RealPlayer users, who saw a "pre-roll" 15-second video public service announcement (PSA) when they clicked on the player's audio "channels." The users' requested content played immediately after the brief video, which offered a clickable link to the OurForests site.
Strategies for Success
The OurForests online campaign eventually generated a total of more than 700,000 messages to government decision-makers, and developed a database of 300,000 interested citizens. By the standards of traditional direct marketing, response rates for the campaign's various solicitations were remarkably high: email messages, for example, garnered between 3 and 22 percent response, depending on the mailing, and some other types of advertisements yielded as much as a 5 percent response. Theses extraordinary successes stemmed not simply from the campaign's innovative tools—websites, email, Internet advertising, and so on—but from the underlying strategies that informed their use. These included:
Viral marketing: On the Internet, success builds on success. Motivating people to send messages to their friends is the key to so-called "viral marketing," through which a message becomes, essentially, self-multiplying, as each recipient forwards it on to several friends. Viral marketing was a central strategy of the OurForests campaign, and it helped messages sent initially to relatively few people to reach a much larger audience. Virtually every element of the campaign included a viral component: thank-you notes, responses to general inquiries, and the web pages reached after filling out email forms all asked activists to forward campaign alerts to their friends, family, and colleagues. Perhaps the campaign's purest viral strategy was the email pointing people to the Flash clip featuring an animated mouse saving a forest. It was also one of the most effective: more than 18 percent of those who viewed the animation submitted a postcard to the Forest Service.
Clear messages: People respond best when an issue or problem is quickly and understandably stated, its urgency is obvious, and suggested actions are easy to take. TechRocks made sure that emails, advertisements, and web pages were brief and conversational in tone (not full of policy jargon), provided clear directions on how to take action, and provided tools, such as forms (or links to them) for activists to fill out.
Use of compelling graphics and multimedia: The campaign found that well-designed graphics increased response rates substantially. For example, HTML-formatted email messages, which can include photographs, interesting typefaces, and colorful graphics, yielded much stronger returns than plain-text messages. Over 10 percent of the recipients of such messages sent electronic postcards to the Forest Service. Custom "jump pages" (web pages reachable only by links in specific emails or banner ads) were designed to match individual HTML email messages and advertising banners. Large websites, including America Online, Garden.com, and Women.com, and major Internet-advertising firms, such as Lot21 and Engage Media, donated more than 10 million page views worth of banner ads. While a relatively small proportion of banner ad viewers clicked on them, more than a quarter of all those who did so ended up sending a message to the Forest Service. Although multimedia did not play a particularly large role in the campaign, its limited use yielded some tantalizing results. Such tools may become significantly more useful as more Internet users move to high-bandwidth connections, such as DSL and cable modems, and as multimedia is more closely integrated into web browsers and operating systems.
Integration with other elements of a campaign: While online organizing can be effective on its own, it will be more effective when reinforced by other efforts—and vice versa. For example, several thousand well-timed emails from constituents can certainly help a lobbyist gain the ear of a member of Congress—and the emails will probably have more impact when followed by the visit of a well-informed lobbyist. Emails can help get activists to attend public meetings in their area, and provide them with up-to-date information.
An overriding focus on long-term engagement and retention of activists: Understanding such factors as where individual activists live, which issues they care about the most, and how they have responded to past appeals, can lead to better response rates—and help develop extremely valuable long-term relationships with them. People are much more likely to act when they identify with a cause, and get a sense that organizers understand their individual concerns. As TechRocks accumulated contact information and action histories for hundreds of thousands of activists, they were able to target a greater proportion of email messages by geographical and other criteria. For example, activists were alerted when the Forest Service scheduled public meetings in their state or region. Highly engaged activists—those who had repeatedly sent messages to decision-makers—were asked to volunteer in person at Earth Day events. After each effort, success rates were analyzed, helping make future targeting more effective.
The Internet as a Tool for Political Activism: Conclusions
2000 was the year that reality set in about the Internet. Unbridled hype gave way to stories on nonexistent profits for "dot-com" companies, stock prices plummeted, and previously heralded firms went bankrupt. Many observers began to question whether the digital revolution had really arrived. At the same time, however, the OurForests.org experience made it clear that the Internet had finally become a major medium for political organizing. While successful campaigns can still be conducted using only traditional methods, it is clear that the Internet offers an excellent, cost-effective additional tool beyond the traditional direct mail, phone banks, and face-to-face organizing.
Based on the experience with OurForests.org delivering comments to public officials through web-based activities is extremely cost effective. Consider the following. The Heritage Forests Campaign generated about 121,000 comments on the draft roadless-areas plan through a direct mail campaign. These comments cost approximately $20 per comment. The online campaign spent about $1 per comment to generate 180,000 through the OurForests.org web site and web marketing tactics. The cost per comment generated by the Internet campaign was fairly comparable to that of traditional face-to-face organizing, such as doorbelling, tables at public events, and so on, much of which is usually done with volunteer labor.
Dollars-per-comment figures don't tell the whole story, however: online campaigning offers three distinct advantages over other organizing methods. The first is its speed: messages are delivered in minutes, not days. The second is its exceedingly low marginal cost: it takes very little more effort or technology to send a message to 100,000 people rather than 1,000. And the third is probably the most important: a well-run online campaign yields a valuable long-term asset, in the form of ongoing relationships with large numbers of closely-engaged activists. The 300,000 people in the OurForests database are a tremendous political asset. And large activist lists have obvious fundraising potential.
Internet organizing tends to reach a different audience than traditional campaigns. Demographic analysis of such campaigns has revealed online activists to be much younger, on average, than those contacted via direct mail. Their overall demographic profile is also a much closer match to that of the overall voting population than the pool of activists contracted via traditional methods. Online organizing may be the only way to reach some potential activists: some people are simply too busy to do anything that takes longer than clicking on a banner ad or forwarding an email. It also may more effectively identify the most engaged activists, who, with the right encouragement, may move on to become organizers themselves, testify at public meetings and hearings, and lobby elected officials directly. With all this in mind, TechRocks was careful to integrate the Internet effort closely with the traditional campaign, and it is likely that considerable synergies were realized from the combination, though such effects are very hard to measure.
An often-asked question about Internet organizing is whether public officials pay attention to email messages. Conventional Washington wisdom holds that telegrams, phone calls, faxes, and letters all carry more weight in Congressional offices. While this may be the case on Capitol Hill, it is clear that, in the case of the roadless-areas proposal, the Forest Service treated all written public comments equally, whether they were submitted via email, fax, or postal mail. It is also clear that the tremendous number of email comments had an impact, especially given that public comments in support of the proposal vastly outnumbered those submitted against it. The Heritage Forests Campaign played a key role in moving the Forest Service to significantly strengthen its proposal after analysis of the public comments. Press reports about the huge number of the campaign supporters must have had an impact on the political calculus of the White House. In July 1999, the arrival of 170,000 messages supporting forest protection in the vice president’s email was newsworthy enough to make the front page of the Washington Post.
OurForests.org certainly proved the efficacy of online organizing methods. The campaign is an inspiring model for how the Internet can expand and enhance traditional organizing efforts. The Internet offers opportunity to increase citizen engagement on behalf of a variety of social change issues.
* The Heritage Forests Campaign was initiated by the Pew Charitable Trusts, funded by several other major foundations, and hosted by the National Audubon Society. Among its partner organizations were American Lands, the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, the National Environmental Trust, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, and the Wilderness Society. The online campaign also received major support from the W. Alton Jones Foundation, the Turner Foundation, the Brainerd Foundation, and the Bullitt Foundation.