Let’s say you’re an activist and you want to right some wrongs in the world. One good way is to apply rally support for your cause through an online petition. But there’s also a right and wrong way to do that. For instance, the most common words that people use to start most petitions aren’t actually the most effective. Many people ask others to help stop or ban things. They’d be more effective if they switched that negative phrasing for something more positive, like calls to grant, save, or protect something.
That’s one finding from an internal analysis of user behavior on the popular online movement-building site Change.org. Over the last decade, Change.org has seen its total number of petitions spike from 6,000 in 2008 to more than 6 million in 2018. The group realized that as more people use digital tools like this for activism, it could use the data it has to help make them more effective, so it commissioned its own study what’s working (or not). “We really just wanted to create a report that for our users specifically would help them to write better petitions on Change.org, but also something that could serve as a resource for kind of anyone involved in activism,” says Change.org data analyst Matthew Gillespie.
Crafting Headlines For Change is an analysis of 164,000 petitions with at least five signatures in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, and Australia between January 2018 and May 2019. Overall, the organizing found that “stop” was the most common first word used in petitions, accounting for 1 out of every 19 actions. That’s followed by “save”(1 in every 40) and “ban” (1 in every 54). The next most common are remove, make, keep, and help in descending order.
1: Use active and positive words
To figure out how effective these terms were at motivating people, the researchers tracked the median number of signatures associated with different first word in petitions. In that case, “grant,” which appears in only 1 of every 1,260 petitions is best choice. That’s followed by “save,” “oppose,” and “protect.” Gillespie says that words that are both “active and also positive” were in some cases performing “twice [or] three times better” on similarly themed petitions. The report breaks down trends by geography, too. In the U.S. specifically, the most successful words are slightly different with “justice,” “oppose,” “save,” “protect,” and “support” topping the list.
2: Shorter isn’t better
Another key lesson is that keeping message short but sweet isn’t always right for this kind of messaging. Most petitions have between three and 10 words in their title. But there’s a distinct upward curve in engagement as the headings get to around 13 words. “What was making those titles longer were these really rich details,” Gillespie adds. “So if it was the animal rights petition saying something to the effect of ‘Keep animals safe from the freezing cold,’ a detail like that is a really keen sensory detail that almost tells an entire story in a few words. It really like ups the sort of pathos and brings people in.”
3: Give Specifics
Another trend that the team spotted is the ability to make local change by also specifically naming the place you’re targeting. That might be a community center, place of worship, or traffic intersection. “Those are a fairly small percentage of petitions on the site, but when we looked at them in terms of signatures and supporters, they did really well,” he adds. Some community activists might lean the other way, working with generically clever titles to try to go viral. What they don’t realize is that their neighbors are more eager to share and support easily recognizable asks.
Globally, the analysis does point out some interesting trends. Donald Trump, who appears in 1 of 28 petitions during the 17-month examination period, became the only person to make the top 10 lists of people petitioned against in every region measured. Mark Zuckerberg drew serious attention everywhere except Australia. Companies at “the intersection of media and technology” like Netflix, Facebook, the Walt Disney Company and YouTube were also heavily petitioned against for various reasons globally.
In terms of making your Change.org campaign standout, one still heavily underused practice is the hashtag. Just over 1% of all campaigns had one. That may be because the platform doesn’t allow uses to search by hashtag. But users who share petitions on other social media can still repeat the hashtag there so the movement gains recognition and can be spread more easily.