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Top 5 Reasons Why Online Petitions are Crucial to Your Advocacy Success

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By Randy Paynter

With the news saturated with the crisis in West Africa, increasingly dire warnings about our warming planet and attacks on women's rights, I often worry about the world I'm leaving behind for my children. It makes me want to do something about it.

I'm not the only one. Over the years, I've seen millions of people step up and take action about these issues and more. Hundreds of thousands have demanded a crackdown on the illegal ivory trade. Thousands more appealed better access to health care. This year, more than 22,000 people came together to save a front yard lending library started by a 9-year-old boy in Kansas.

So, why haven't you heard stories about marches on the Capitol steps or protests at state houses? Because these campaigns raised awareness in a modern way: online. By organizing through the Web, activists sign petitions sent directly to the powers that be, from legislators and regulators to business people. Hundreds of thousands have created their own petitions to fight for issues in their communities.

Others have realized the power online petitions have to reach decision-makers and facilitate change. Even President Barack Obama gets it: His administration created "We the People," a government owned and sponsored petition platform, in 2011.

Here are five reasons online petitions are crucial to sharing your message and creating advocacy impact:

1. They're easy


Petitions are one of the oldest forms of grassroots activism. Thomas Clarkson, the workhorse behind Great Britain's abolition movement in the 18th and 19th centuries, traveled on horseback collecting petition signatures to oppose slavery. Clarkson's in-person methods required time and manpower. It's long, hard work.

With the advent of the Internet, things changed. Today, it's easy to create a petition in minutes and plug your petition directly into a network of activists, sharing it with like-minded people who want to help. There is even online coaching about how to make your petition successful, from persuasive writing tips to direct support with signature delivery and working with the media.

2. They reach people where they are


There's a reason traditional signature gathering happened on street corners and people's front steps: you have to meet people where they are. Everyone is busy, and while many take time to support causes they believe in, many more would act if the opportunity arose in the course of their daily life.

The internet is the modern-day meeting place, where people go to get informed and exchange ideas. Unfortunately, even if you create one, people won't necessarily come to your website automatically. That's why online petitions are integrated with Facebook and partnered with hundreds of media sites to connect the latent activists on their sites to opportunities to make a difference.

3. They help you find new audiences


You hear a lot about apathy among the Internet generation, but our engaged community of more than 26 million shows me that activists are out there - you just won't always find them using the traditional organizing methods. In June 2014, we celebrated the milestone of more than 200 million petition signatures.

According to a Pew Research Center study in 2013, more than half of Americans have participated in some kind of civic action, and two-thirds of all adults were politically active online. One in five active users on social networks said information they learned online inspired them to take further action. Pew also found in 2014 that people's online networks are deep. Even baby boomers have an average of nearly 100 Facebook friends. That means getting even one person to share your story can multiply, and pay huge dividends.

4. They make change


Just because online petitions are easy to start and sign doesn't mean that they don't make a big impact. Online petitions give people a powerful collective voice and access to decision makers.

In a substantial win for the environment and food security, an online petition helped the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Pew Environment Group and Center for Biological Diversity flood decision makers with comments about a new rule to protect menhaden from overfishing. Dubbed the "most important fish in the sea" for the critical role they play as a food source for whales, dolphins, eagles and osprey and more, the petition efforts helped convince the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to provide historic protections.

Big wins make a big difference, but often, it's more exciting to see how online petitions started by everyday citizens can make local change. Earlier this year, the Taos Farmers' Market faced strong opposition to its move to the New Mexico city's historic town square from a handful of merchants. When it seemed the City Council would give in to this small minority's demands and close the market mid-season, Nyna Matysiak, a Taos area resident, took action. Though the Council refused to hear citizen comments on the issue, Matysiak submitted the 500 online signatures from her pro-farmers' market petition, which convinced the Council to keep the market open through this season.

5. They cultivate engaged citizens and informed democracy


Often a small step, like an online petition signature, is all people need to become engaged in other ways. Studies show that more informed citizens are more likely to vote in elections. Recent work looked at the protests in Wisconsin against Gov. Scott Walker's attack on collective bargaining rights and found that young people who expressed their views online were more likely to protest offline, too.

The world may face a lot of challenges, but it's heartening to see so many people are willing to take action to make it better. Online petitions are a critical part of any strategy to make change.

Image credit: Shutterstock

Randy Paynter is the Founder, President and CEO of Care2 and The Petition Site. He is a pioneer in the online advocacy field that is dedicated to helping empower others to collective action in support of their social and environmental causes. Randy's innovation of the "Engine for Good" model, whereby good actions generate revenue that fuels more good actions, is the basis for how Care2 and The Petition Site are run. He is a frequent speaker at conferences including Bioneers, Social Venture Network, Silicon Valley Boomer Venture Summit, SoCap, Aging in America, LOHAS, AARP and Green Festivals. Randy hold an undergraduate degree from Harvard University and an MBA from Standford's Graduate School of Business.

3p Contributor

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