Petitions serve a number of valuable roles — both for the individual activist and the organization hosting the petition. It is through this mutual benefit that petitions succeed or fail.
Online petitions provide a low barrier to entry for joining a cause. Most normal folks don’t feel a need to become part of a formal movement, or to “join” an organization. Fewer still want give money to a cause. And only a very small percentage will take the time to compose an original message to a policymaker or other influential individual. A good online petition, however, can attract the individual who truly supports the issue position, but doesn’t have the time or inclination to get more involved.
Online petitions create a “farm league” of activists for the cause. If you think of activists using a sales funnel model, petition signers would be at the wides point of that funnel. But a certain percentage of them can be converted into more significant “sales” — sending a personalized note to Congress, donating time or money, or recruiting other supporters. By growing a list of petition signers, it establishes an email list that can be used to generate more conversions.
Online petitions help signers feel like they are making a difference. Done right, petition-generated email lists can be used to educate and inform signers about the status of the cause. As important, the emails ought to reinforce the notion of the signer that their contribution has an impact. This can be done by providing updates on the progress of the campaign, with specific attention to how the petition has provided ammunition for the fight. And the emails should, of course, regularly thank the signer for their participation. This small touch is often overlooked by list managers in the heat of battle and the rush to generate more action as the finish line nears.
Online petitions and similar communications make a difference in Congress. During my time on Capitol Hill as a staffer, we were regularly inundated with messages or calls from constituents on one topic or another. As a staffer, it could be frustrating to handle the incoming traffic on the phone, via fax, or in the mail (my service on the Hill pre-dated widespread use of email). But for the Member, the messages could make a difference. While not having the accuracy of traditional public opinion research, the message count pro and con on an issue would help in taking the temperature of the congressional district, at least as far as the level of passion on the issue went.