The Impact and Factors of Effective Online Petitions

Online Petition Effectiveness

Researchers have dubbed online petitions slacktivism—button-click activism that doesn’t commit signers to any real-world action or commitment. But when done right, they can have an impact.

Petitioning can bring new audiences to an issue, but it’s up to organizations to help guide them into next steps. Several factors contribute to an online petition’s effectiveness.

1. Urgency

Petitioning has long been a means for citizens to express their opinions on issues that affect them. While many online petitions don’t actually create policy change, they can help build awareness for an issue, encourage people to connect with a cause, and mobilize advocates.

Petition success depends on a few key factors. One of the most important is urgency, as a well-timed campaign with a clear deadline can inspire people to sign. Another is a specific call to action. Vague, broad requests like “better gun control” or “more women in leadership positions” aren’t likely to resonate with people. Instead, ask for something more specific and actionable such as asking a government to vote on a particular law or demanding improvements in working conditions at a company.

2. Relevance

Despite their critics, online petitions are a powerful tool to empower citizens. By collecting digital signatures, they create a ripple effect that signals to decision-makers the strength of public support for an issue and informs the media that there’s enough interest in a story. Increasingly, they can even spur additional action and donations.

Unlike surveys, which can be skewed and biased by the choices of participants, data from online petitions is transactional and provides a complete picture of how citizens mobilize themselves in society. This new source of information represents a major shift for social science research into political behavior that has traditionally relied on survey or, for elections, voting data.

Using time stamps from the e-petition platform, this study examined the determinants of anonymous signatures in a large sample of successful petitions. Statistically significant effects were found for five of the nine independent variables examined in Tables 2 and 3. They include who petitioned, to whom, the topic, and how the e-petition was prepared.

3. Call-to-action

In online petitions, your digital signature carries a lot of weight. Though criticized as another form of “slacktivism,” the low-risk nature of signing a petition can make it an entry point to further political action for many people. It tells a decision-maker that there is strong support for a topic and signals to media outlets that there’s a story worth telling.

Petitions can also build lists of supporters that an organization can then use to communicate with. Unlike the old days of giving a check to an organization, adding your name to a petition only costs you your time and energy—not your money. Whether they achieve policy change or simply increase awareness, the power of collective action is real.

4. Social proof

Petition websites can be a powerful tool for organisations and individuals to exert pressure on businesses to act in a socially responsible way. For example, when workers at Tupelo Honey went on strike in support of higher wages for themselves and their families, petitions were used to encourage the company to make changes. A similar campaign by Medecins Sans Frontiere Australia saw Benetton contribute to a compensation fund for victims of the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh that killed over 1,000 people.

However, the success of a petition depends on how many people see it and sign it in the first place. Experimental research has found that the willingness of individuals to sign a petition varies with the social information they receive on how many others have already signed it. This suggests a feedback loop that can drive early growth but is less reliable over time.

For this reason, it’s important to continually promote your petition and share updates on social media. Encourage those who have signed to do the same and share with their networks.

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