When should you use the Internet as part of your organizing and advocacy work? When you need an immediate response, want to contact a lot of people as quickly as possible, and don't have a lot of money to spend on printing and postage. Virtually all of the written materials that your organization produces can be adapted for electronic distribution via email, the Web, or both. If you're not already using email as part of your advocacy work, here are some tips to help you get started.
- Collect email addresses from your members, supporters and volunteers, the media, your contacts in legislative offices, your funders and anyone else you communicate with regularly. Include a space for email addresses in your membership sign-up forms, newsletter subscription forms, and fundraising reply cards.
- If your organization publishes a newsletter, offer your members the option of receiving it electronically. Encourage them to switch by reminding them that your organization will save money.
- Train your staff, board and volunteers to regularly collect email addresses from colleagues, friends and supporters and feed those into the email newsletter list. Nominate one month as "Email Collection Month" and do an all-out push to increase your lists.
- If your organization has a Web site where visitors can sign up to volunteer, to subscribe to a newsletter or action alert, or to donate money, be sure to ask for an email address as well as other contact information.
- If your organization has a table at a conference, rally, or other event, include space for an email address on your sign-up sheet.
- If you distribute press releases to the media, start sending them by email instead of fax. (Also, be sure to add online media outlets to your distribution list.)
- Establish and promote an email action alert list.
Although our focus here is on email activism, once you get started you'll discover that there are many other ways in which technology can enhance your organization's communications. Many people prefer to receive information electronically because it reduces the amount of paper they accumulate.
Suppose you wanted to design an Internet outreach effort to supplement your traditional techniques. To get the word out, your organization has planned a press conference and written a press release. You have plans to write an article for your newsletter, and you are actively preparing a list of talking points for staff and volunteers to use in communicating with the media. What Internet tools can you use to enhance the effectiveness of your effort? You can publish a copy of your press release on your Web site, distribute an email version of your newsletter, and/or post an electronic copy of the newsletter on your Web site.
Preparing an email action alert
Before the Internet was widely used, activists and advocacy organizations distributed action alerts by mail and fax. Preparing an email action alert is similar. But since email has the potential to reach a significantly larger audience, there are some special considerations. Below a simple checklist to help you determine if your action alert is ready to circulate in cyberspace: Will readers know who sent the action alert?
It's important to clearly identify your organization as the source of the action alert. (If you're sending out an alert as an individual, you'll need to identify yourself.)
Will readers know how to contact your organization?
Always include your organization's email address, postal address, Web site address, phone number and fax number in action alerts. (Or your personal contact information if you're distributing an alert as an individual.) Although not essential, it is helpful to include the name, title and phone number of someone in your organization who can be contacted if readers have questions.
Will readers want to open the message?
The subject line can determine whether someone opens and reads your message, or deletes it unread. Make the subject line compelling or provocative -- and never send an action alert with a blank subject line.
Will readers know if the action alert is timely?
Always include the date that your action alert is distributed and the date by which action is requested. (And don't forget the year!) Outdated action alerts can circulate online for years, and many do because the preparer failed to include a date.
Will readers understand why action is important?
Include clear, concise background information and the key point(s) to communicate. Keep layout simple, use ascii text, avoid jargon, use short paragraphs, section headings, bullets and simple formatting to mark the start and end of the alert. Don't assume the reader will be familiar with the issue. Include hyperlink pointers to Web sites where additional background information can be found.
Will readers know what action to take?
Be specific about how the reader can help. Include the postal address or phone number if you are asking readers to write letters or make phone calls. Include a hyperlink pointer to online information to help readers locate their elected representatives.
Are you sure of the facts?
Electronic action alerts can literally go around the world in minutes. Since you won't know exactly who sees your alert, factual errors aren't easily corrected. Make sure the information is correct before you hit the "send" key. If you're drafting an alert in response to information provided to your organization, make sure it's from a trusted source, or can be verified by a trusted source, before sending it out. If you're forwarding information from another organization, contact the organization to verify that they sent it before forwarding it to others.
Are you building your base of support?
Always include information on how readers can subscribe to or unsubscribe from your action alert list. It's also a good idea to include information on how to join your organization.
Distributing an email action alert
When your action alert is ready, you'll be distributing it to the people who subscribed to your alert list. But your organization's subscriber list isn't your only option. There are thousands of email discussion lists and news groups on the Internet. When you post the same action alert to several discussion lists or news groups, it's called cross-posting. This can be a very effective way to expand the universe of Internet users who receive your alert. But be careful to target only appropriate lists. If you plan to cross-post your action alerts, you'll have to identify and subscribe to the lists and news groups ahead of time to become familiar with the topics they address.
How do you identify the news groups and discussion lists that might be appropriate places to cross-post your action alert? One way is to ask your own subscribers, as well as your friends and colleagues, for suggestions. Or you can locate appropriate lists by surfing other organizations' Web sites to see if they have lists focused on similar issues. For example, if an organization is concerned with welfare issues, they might try posting their alert to news groups that deal with poverty and homelessness.
Caution: Take care to understand fully the topic and the "environment" of a news group. It's a bad idea under any circumstances to post your alert to a news group you haven't been reading, or an email list you aren't already subscribed to. You need to be familiar with the news group or list to make sure that your action alert is appropriate to post. Otherwise, it could be considered spam (an Internet term for unsolicited junk email) and result in complaints from other subscribers to the list owner, or to your ISP.
There may also be complaints if you post your email action alert to several lists with overlapping subscribers, since people might wind up with three or four copies of the same action alert. If you get a lot of complaints from people who receive multiple copies, reduce the number of lists and news groups that you cross-post to.
There is no hard and fast rule about how often an organization should distribute action alerts. Send them out when there is a specific action you want people to take, such as writing to government departments or attending a rally. Try not to send them more frequently than once a week, but don't feel obligated to send them every week if there isn't anything you want people to do, and don't avoid sending more than one per week if the requested action is timely. If the need for action is infrequent, consider sending an update on the issue once a month just to keep the list active.
Do's and Don'ts
The key to success in distributing email action alerts is as much in knowing what NOT to do as in knowing what to do. Here is NetAction's quick reference list of Do's and Don'ts for email action alerts:
- Keep the text short and focused.
- Make the subject line compelling or provocative.
- Include all your contact information: phone, address, fax, email, URL.
- Include phone, fax and/or postal addresses of targeted decision-makers.
- Post only to relevant discussion lists and news groups.
- Use ascii-friendly symbols to break up text (i.e. # or ^ or =).
- Test your alert before distributing it by sending it to yourself.
- Spam individuals or lists.
- Use wide margins.
- Post to discussion lists or news groups on unrelated issues.
- Leave the subject line blank.
Because of the borderless nature of the Internet, it can be a powerful tool for networking. Organizations with similar concerns can form coalitions and alliances that literally span the globe. The following sites are sponsored by coalitions that developed as a result of cyberspace networking.
Forming Cyberspace coalitions:
Example: Coalition for Networked Information http://www.cni.org/
Example: Global Internet Liberty Campaign http://www.gilc.org/
Example: People's Global Action http://www.agp.org/agp/index.html
Example: Internet Free Expression Alliance http://www.ifea.net/
Example: Internet Democracy Project http://www.internetdemocracyproject.org/
Intranets and electronic networks
Intranets and electronic networks are common in workplaces. They enable a specific group of computer users to communicate online, but they are not part of the larger Internet. America Online is an example of a commercial intranet. If you subscribe to AOL, you have access to a variety of forums, discussion groups, and online services that are not accessible to the general public. Non-profit organizations and grassroots groups can also set up these types of networks. Example: Institute for Global Communications Internet http://www.igc.org/igc/gateway/index.html
See IDM Intranet FAQ