5 Ways Free Online Petitions Can Be Improved
There are numerous services on the web that will help you start your own online petition often for free. Unfortunately, many of these services are not as effective as they could be. Here are 5 areas in which they could be improved to better serve nonprofits and social change campaigns.
1 - No Unique URL:
A petition will be treated with far more respect and will therefore be far more effective if it has its own unique URL. Think about it. Would a company be more likely to respond to your petition if it was buried in a petition service with a long and easily forgettable domain or if it was hosted on its own strong domain that people could not only remember but could rally around until the petition's goal had been reached? It's the difference between trying to get Walmart to stop the sale of whale meat in Japan with this site http://www.thepetitionsite.com/2/tell-wal-mart-to-stop-the-sale-of-whale-meat-in-japan or this one - http://www.stopwhalingwalmart.com (made up domain).StopWhalingWalmart.com would be far more effective in terms of establishing credibility and inspiring a movement. This is why many activist groups host their campaigns on specialized domains. For example, Greenpeace targets Exxon with www.exxonsecrets.com, AmnestyInternational once targeted Apple with www.greenmyapple.org, and PETA just launched a campaign against Mars Candy with MarsCandyKills.com.
Care2's ThePetitionSite allows its users to customize their domain but misses the boat in encouraging its users to buy their own domain and re-direct it to Care2's page. PetitionOnline, too, doesn't empower their users. They make it clear on their FAQ page that they are "not set up to give away our script and database petition system."
Online petition services need to help their users buy domains and assist them with hosted solutions. This would not only be beneficial to their users but is also a profitable solution since petition sites can charge for and generate revenue from these premium (or affiliate) services.
2 - Advertisements:
Whenever I see an online petitions with advertisements I cringe. I am less likely to see the petition as a valid campaign and as a result am less likely to sign it. I also can't imagine a company CEO or local politician viewing a petition with banner and google ads and giving it the respect it might otherwise deserve. Advertisements demean social causes by giving the impression that the petition in question exists to earn ad revenue and not to promote social justice. This is likely why Care2 is wise enough not to include advertisements on their petitions. However, sites such as PetitionOnline.com and YouChoose.net need to offer premium services (like iPetitions.com and GoPetition.com do) whereby their users can pay extra to remove advertisements. Another attempt at a solution is simply not to use google ads or other non-discriminatory ad platforms as these are often not social change oriented.
3 - Unemphasized SMO (or "Social Media Optimization"):
The success of an online petitions is largely measured by how many signatures it has received. This means it is extremely important for petitions to have built in features that make it easy for anyone to spread the word and recruit more signatures. In today's social media sphere where it is only the sum of many, many votes that can get a site featured on Digg petitions mustn't just include social boomarking buttons somewhere on the page they need to emphasize them!
Care2's ThePetitionSite.com and YouChoose.net both have tiny addthis.com widgets that do a poor job of making it clear and easy for their users to spread the word with sites like Digg.com, Delicio.us, and StumbleUpon. GoPetition.com and PetitionOnline.com have larger social bookmarking buttons but seem to miss the point by placing them all the way on the bottom of their petition pages. These buttons are absolutely crucial to getting the word out about vital issues and need to be emphasized near the top of the page with large icons.
PetitionSpot.com, while lacking somewhat in the design department, does a great job at featuring popular social bookmarking buttons at the top and is also innovative in adding Gmail/Yahoo/MSN contact invite buttons. See this petition for an example.
4 - No Means to Update:
A campaign is expected to change and evolve as it progresses. For example, a campaign might achieve one of its goals, or might decide to broaden its scope, or could possibly hit a roadblock it can't overcome. What's unfortunate, though, is that most free petition services do not enable their petition creators to update their petition pages with their campaign's current progress. This ensures the campaign loses relevance over time and makes it harder to harness the power of supporters on an ongoing basis.
PetitionOnline makes it clear on their FAQ page that "a petition cannot be changed after it has been submitted, because any changes would be unfair to people who have already signed the petition." This does not take into consideration how important and beneficial updates could be! Care2's ThePetitionSite has no interactive feature that could provide news or campaign updates. And while GoPetition.com has a built in forum feature it's not an intuitive place to go to find news.
In order to enable news and other campaign updates, petition services should provide a blog for their petition creators to post to on an ongoing basis. A blog would place the responsibility of campaign updates in the hands of the user who has shown the most initiative the one who created the petition in the first place. Recent blog post snippets could then be displayed on the petition page itself to give supporters quick updates about the current status of the campaign. Blog posts could also be commented on, fostering dialogue between the petition creator and his or her supporters.
5 - Complicated Sign-up Process:
No matter how compelling your cause, the more steps your petition's service provider has for adding a supporter's signature the less likely you're going to get said signature. The fact is people are busy and web visitors especially are becoming more and more easily frustrated when it comes to sign-up processes. Many are likely not to join your cause and will thereby jeopardize your cause's success if the sign-up process is overly complicated.
Unfortunately, many online petition providers create numerous hurdles for those who wish to add their signature to specific petitions. More specifically, in order to add my signature - Care2 requests my personal street address and YouChoose.net requires my birthday. Both of these bits of data may frustrate potential supporters and hurt campaigns.
iPetitions.com and PetitionOnline.com both do a great job at only requiring a minimal amount of data iPetitions.com doesn't even require an email! However, these two petition services should follow ThePetitionSite's lead in having a signature box ready to be filled out on the petition's main page. The less clicks, the better!
Online petition providers need to limit the number of fields required to recruit a signature to just first name, last name, and email. Comments should be optional and instead of (or in addition to) a check box to subscribe to a newsletter there should be a button to subscribe to a blog's RSS feed. Signing a petition should be as easy as leaving a comment on this blog post if not easier.
Here is a mock-up which I hope petition providers will find useful in implementing some of the the suggestions recommended in this post: