Grassroots Campaigning in the Digital Age

Portland’s Mark Wallace explores how grassroots campaigning has adapted to digital technology

A motivated group of people with a targeted message can, with the right approach, build mass support and make a huge impact on political or commercial issues. Grassroots campaigns have a rich and potent history, from the Chartist petitions of the 19th century to the Suffragette movement, and in the digital age they have evolved to apply this old tradition to new technologies.

As with other internet trends, online campaigning developed organically and chaotically in its early years. Some campaigns had huge amounts of money poured into them but flopped, while some one man bands caught a lucky break or arrived at the right time and went viral.

The appeal of the internet for grassroots campaigners is understandable –millions of people who can be identified by their interests and concerns, and reaching them is cheap and easy. From the consumer’s perspective, technology like Twitter and Facebook make it easier than ever to join a campaign or take action for a given cause. Where the Chartists had to gather physical signatures in rainy market places across the country, today’s campaigners can sit at home and invite the public to simply click to sign up.

In the UK the first mass scale, purely online campaign to break through was the 2007 e-petition against the Labour Government’s proposals for road charging. Set up on the Downing Street e-petition site by Peter Roberts, a previously unknown motorist from Shropshire, it swiftly gathered 1.3 million signatures.

Suddenly Roberts was in the national media spotlight, the link to his petition was being forwarded around by ordinary people, leading the Government to junk the idea of road pricing entirely. With no money, no real campaign and no logistical support, Peter Roberts had beaten the Government of the United Kingdom.

At the time it was a shock – since then, the story has become more familiar. The rise of the so-called clicktivisthas seen the Coalition Government retreat on forestries and played a major part in the delaying of the embattled Health and Social Care Bill. Beyond politics, the Twitter mob has become notorious for its hobby of rounding on and bombarding anyone deemed to have said or done something unacceptable – such as when it helped to identify and catch the Cat Bin Lady.

The model has also become more complex. It is still possible to run a successful amateur campaign as Peter Roberts did, like the newly arrived UKUncut movement. However, the environment has become far more crowded and much more professional. Larger, better funded players have entered the market to run either purely digital campaigns or to add a digital arm to their real world work.

For example, 38 Degrees in the UK and MoveOn in the US have harnessed large numbers of leftwing activists online and focussed them on a series of individual issues in succession to great effect. Both have staff and sizeable funding and are embedded within traditional political movements but they work in new ways.

So what have the first few years of grassroots digital campaigning taught us? Here are a few key lessons that others have learned the hard way.

Control your campaign

Peter Roberts’ huge success against the road charging proposals was undeniable. However, he soon suffered from his choice of platform. By hosting his petition on the Downing Street website, he effectively handed them access to his audience.

Under the rules of the site Tony Blair, rather than Mr Roberts, was the only person who had the chance to email all of the signatories. Worse, Roberts never gained access to the names, locations and contact details of his supporters meaning that when the Government backed down he was left with nothing but his newfound reputation rather than an active and victorious grassroots movement which he could continue to work with.

To avoid the same fate, always make sure you control your campaign and retain access to your supporters – either by setting up your own site or at minimum running petitions through one of the many free independent services available.

Get the right data

Digital campaigning is all about gathering the right information and using it to inform regular, targeted communication. Getting a supporter’s name and home address or phone number is fine, but means that contacting them will cost you time and money. Getting their email address or Twitter username, though, allows you to contact them for free at the push of a button.

Gathering data must always be done sensitively and appropriately – no-one likes a spammer and the law is (rightly) increasingly strict on data protection – but if you get it right it will form the backbone of your campaign. Having a good quality database which lets you reach the right people as cheaply as possible will make your campaign affordable, nimble and well-targeted. Otherwise you will spend your life stuffing envelopes.

Be open-minded about platforms

The best thing about digital campaigning is that while your supporter base may be geographically scattered, online they will tend to cluster together around their shared interests and concerns. This makes them easier to access – searching for Facebook groups or like-minded tweets is a lot quicker than knocking on 10,000 doors.

Make sure you do your research properly – don’t assume that your natural supporters will use the internet in the same way as you, and make sure you are open minded about platforms. You don’t have to communicate through every single online outlet, but if you spread your message in the wrong place then your audience might never know you exist. Linking your outlets together through buttons to TweetLike or +1 your content will boost your online footprint, turning supporters into town criers promoting your cause to their contacts.

Don’t fudge the facts

Always remember that digital tools can be used by your opponents to bring you down just as they can be used by you to spread your message. The ever-beady eyes of bloggers keen to get attention and the whimsical nature of crowds means that if you deploy dodgy, unsourced or even just poorly defined facts and figures, you can easily find yourself in the middle of a firestorm. Once there’s a mob at your metaphorical door they won’t care if you sinned by accident or design and your reputation could be left in tatters.

Even the very successful 38 Degrees campaigning group recently came unstuck when they faced allegations of having deliberately misrepresented a Barrister’s opinion on the Government’s proposed health reforms. Their previous success had left plenty of opponents itching to take a shot at them, and as soon as the scandal came to light it spread on Twitter, blogs and Facebook like wildfire.

For that reason, always make sure your facts and figures are fireproof. Resist the temptation to round up, take a small-c conservative policy on choosing which numbers to use and link to your sources.

Mark Wallace is a Senior Account Manager at Portland. He is the former Campaign Director of grassroots campaign group the TaxPayers’ Alliance.