Participate - Petitions aren't just about supporting an issue anymore

Think by signing your name and email to an online petition that you're showing your support for an issue that's important to you? Think again. While getting you to show your support for something is part of the reason why political parties and lobby groups hit you with an endless stream of petitions and sign up pages, it's no longer the primary driver of this behaviour.

Ultimately it's all about getting your email address and starting you on a pathway to being an active support and participant in their campaign or cause.

Having already covered the extensive lengths political campaigns go to in persuading you to support them, I'm now going to look at how they aim to - and I apologise for borrowing a corporate term here - move you up their value chain.

Generally the value chain that political campaigns, lobby groups, and NGOs use goes something like this:
Voter sees content about an issue > Voter signs up via a petition on that issue > Voter receives request to donate > Voter receives request to join campaign/cause > Voter is asked to volunteer.

The idea is that each step in this path represents a greater commitment from the person they're targeting, and to move people along that value chain you need to be able to speak to them in an increasingly more targeted and personal way.

Traditionally political campaigns have done this through building voter files, and none do it better than the Democrats and the Republicans in the United States. As I've previously recommended, Sasha Issenberg's The Victory Lab does a fantastic job of explaining how this data driven approach has both evolved and is implemented in the U.S.

Where the U.S. and overseas jurisdictions differ from New Zealand is that their privacy and information sharing laws are much more lax than those here. If, like me, you've signed up to receive emails from both the Republicans and the Democrats, you may have noticed that you also eventually receive other emails from affiliated campaigns and causes. That's because they're constantly buying, selling, and refining their voter files to get the best possible information on voters so they can better identify those they want to target, and what messages that want show them.

What's changed in the last decade hasn't necessarily been this approach, it's been the channels it's applied to and the scale on which it can be done. Prior to the internet and social media it was used to micro-target direct mail, newspaper, radio, and TV advertising buying, door knocking, and phone calling. Now the same methodology is being used on social media, email, and online ad platforms, and it's backed up by data on an unprecedented scale.

As I mentioned before, New Zealand's privacy laws means that unlike the U.S. where political parties go and buy massive consumer data sets from commercial providers, that's simply not possible here. The net result has been that New Zealand's political parties, lobby groups, and NGOs have to go out and build these data sets themselves largely from scratch. This is why signing your name, age, email address, and town or postcode to a petition is almost mandatory to be able to show your support for it. Because once they have that data, they can add a line to their voter file with your name, contact details, demographic and geographic information, and issue tags to it.

The idea then is that they begin to target you through their online channels to get you to take the next step. Signed a petition? How about you donate so you can support us as we fight for it? Donated? Why not join our campaign and be part of a community of like-minded people? Joined our campaign? How about getting out and about and volunteering to help us out?

Next, because you've signed a petition on a specific issue, that party, lobby group, or NGO now knows you have a potential interest in that topic, so they can tailor content to serve to you whether it's via sending segmented emails to specific audiences, use it to target Google AdWords or SEO optimise a website, or uploading that email list into Facebook to let it create a broader audience of people who are similar to you via their demographic, geographic, and Facebook activities. On this final note, it's important to keep in mind that Facebook doesn't share that data on who else might look like you with someone who's setting up ads, but it does mean political parties can continually refine their voter files, data analysis, and targeting strategies by serving up similar content to those people.

While the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand have, in my mind, historically been the best at this, largely borrowing techniques from Greenpeace, WWF, and Forest & Bird, as far as I'm aware the Labour Party have had the single most successful sign up campaign with their "What number baby are you?" My understanding is that Labour gained somewhere in the order of 40,000 to 50,000 new email addresses to it, and while there was a larger than normal level of backlash to it when people realised they were also signing up to Labour's email list, I'd wager that the churn of unsubscribes they were getting were far outweighed by the gains they made.

It's also worth pointing out that contrary to the headline in the above article that Labour was tricking people into signing up, from my experience there's usually been text (and I believe it's a legal requirement) to the effect that signing a petition means you're agreeing to receive communications from that political party and its candidates.

As someone who's worked in this field, the notion that this is somehow a political dark art I think isn't really fair. Rather, it's part and parcel of the continuing evolution of not just communications practice, but what we're seeing more generally too across society. Other than long-standing commercial use of consumer data to target people with advertising, this approach also has the potential to offer massive benefits from a civic and social perspective too.

Whether it's getting people to engage with our democracy at all its levels, being able to understand how to communicate with people in a crisis via targeted alerts across mobile phones, social channels, and physical alerts, or being able to more accurately predict and intervene early to prevent health or law and order issues, data like this can and is used in a responsible and productive way. We're hugely fortunate in New Zealand that we do have very robust structures in place for governing its use responsibly, and a culture that does err on the side of caution about its use.

Next time we'll look at how political campaigns aim to Mobilise their supporters to get out and vote for them, a phase of political campaigning that now spans the two weeks prior to polling day with the opening of overseas and advance voting.