Best Practices for Online Organizing

Have you ever encouraged a group of friends or co-workers to join you at a party or event by sending them a personal email? Congratulations, you’re an online organizer.

Maybe you want to generate some online buzz and interest around your newly released album or the new cancer-curing coffee machine that your company invented in order to increase sales. Even if you’re looking to build a coalition of activists around the world to lead several thousand public demonstrations at the very same moment, you are online organizing.

The internet enables you to both widen your audience and also strengthen your relationship with existing supporters or members. With the proper mix of authenticity, leadership, and sometimes humor, information about your idea, product, campaign, or effort can travel "virally" through thousands and millions of people within hours. Your goal is to capture the attention (and email address) of as many of these people as possible -- then to support this community’s ability to (a) continue growing and (b) accomplish your common goals.

The internet will never replace face-to-face interactions, but it does have a uniquely powerful way of enabling citizens with similar interests to find one another, communicate, and take action. Even if these people never meet in the real world, they have a profound ability to shape a political debate, affect the marketplace, and impact society.

Much like the internet itself, there’s no single path to success in this dynamic and ever-evolving medium. That’s why we’re painting in broad strokes to describe key lessons and proven best practices. No discussions of databases, pace, ways to integrate online and offline organizing, etc. Just the basics here:

1. Before you start: Think strategically and take the plunge

  • Ask: How do your audience’s goals fit with your organizational priorities?
  • Identify the goals that your supporters will help achieve.
  • Integrate your internet strategy into your overall organizing plan.
  • Organizational buy-in: agree to fully support this effort (staff time, technology) and trust the community with what you’re asking.

2. Start a dialogue with your audience or supporters: Communicate regularly with them about why your project, organization, or campaign is important.

  • What is your message? Use simple, concrete objectives. You only have a few seconds—minutes if you are lucky—to make your point.
  • Speak authentically: We all get plenty of email from nameless, faceless institutions. Respect your supporters’ intelligence, keep a positive tone when possible, and always speak honestly.
  • Educate your supporters, and move them to action—not despair.

3. Create opportunities for meaningful action

  • Suggest actions that are appropriate to their goals and explain how the action will make an impact.
  • Make it irresistibly easy! Respect people’s time and minimize the work they’ll need to do to take action. Provide phone numbers, talking points, etc. Consider mailing them materials. (At the height of the Dean campaign’s Meetup program, we shipped over 1,000 organizing kits each month to grassroots organizers nationwide so that they had the videos, agendas, checklists, sign-in sheets, handouts, pens, and contribution forms that they needed to run a successful event.)
  • Encourage them to forward your message to their friends.
  • Track your progress: celebrate the fruits of your collective action with a number, map, or graphic.

4. Identify and support your leaders as if they are high-dollar contributors

  • Offer more responsibility (and personal contact) to those who stand out as active and helpful.
  • Provide inside information, additional resources (materials, agendas), and tokens of gratitude to your leaders.
  • Encourage collaboration: Help the community of leaders grow stronger by developing mechanisms for good cross-channel communication (e.g., Yahoo! email discussion groups, conference calls, etc.).
  • Solicit feedback and let them know how you’ve incorporated their ideas.

5. Close the loop

  • Thank people immediately for taking action.
  • Later, tell the whole story -- data (how many actions), anecdotes, and results.
  • Explain how this action fits in with your shared long-term objectives.
  • Preview what’s coming next and encourage their continued involvement.

Here is a list of what we believe to be some of the Best Online Organizing Reads of 2010 as published in the Huffington Post: