Ecampaigning Forum: Ben Brandzel

Ben BrandzelFor the next couple of days I’m at the ecampaigning forum in Oxford and am going to attempt to live blog the main sessions as far as possible. These notes are largely unedited, so they’re likely to be a bit sketchy. For context, feel free to post a comment and I’ll catch up with them when I can.

The first keynote is from Ben Brandzel

Offered four options for his talk:

  • anatomy of an email
  • fundraising
  • politics of online organising in large, pre-internet organisation
  • growth

Fundraising least popular. Joked about how the pound is so strong we don’t need to raise much money.

“In the spirit of online organising, you find out what everyone wants and then make an executive decision” — wants to talk about 3 and 4. Has 1 pre-written and can email it to us.


MoveOn has to replenish 700,000 new members a year because of rate of bounces.

  • Started in 1998. Told story of Wes and Joan founding MoveOn during the impeachment process. Half a million within a few months.
  • Right after 9/11 “punk kid” Eli Pariser worried that the response may be disproportionate. Put up a petition for a peaceful response.
  • “let the inspections work” – 2003 – petition to security council. 700,000 people
  • Save NPR. Threat to cut funding to PBS, NPR, etc.

Avaaz started just over a year ago

  • petition for ceasefire, israel/lebanon
  • petition for china to pressure burma
  • tibet campaign


Growth in giant spurts rare. few and far between. MoveOn – 4 in 10 years.

When he looks at all of these moments, what common denominators?

  • urgent and rapid. sometimes obvious, sometimes “we can’t frickin’ take it any more” (impeachment). so can be a vote in parliament tomorrow, can be a feeling. always think about the sense of urgency.
  • “visceralness” – clear visceral imagery. PBS is Big Bird. NPR is you listening and being happy. Hans Blix going around Iraq. David Hicks in Guantanamo. Monks being beaten.
  • all of these are a way to get at a larger problem about which there’s a great deal of passion but not a great deal of ways to get into it. Let The Inspections work tapped into a general frustration, but managed to crystallise it for a lot of people. Tibet — “negotiate with the Dalai Lama” — feels actionable. “Free Tibet” doesn’t. FInd things people don’t have an entree into.
  • Clear impact – if avaaz reached 100,000 signatures they would sky-write “vote no”. How do you connect passion, visceralness, urgency, with “crucial last step” of “how will this affect decision makers” also in a visceral way.
  • High energy/high information. Ratio of energy/passion and the information your supporters have about it. Best campaigns combine high energy with high information; often from media — it’s in the news, they know about it. inspections was. NPR was not in the news, so it was low information/high energy. You need at least one element. If you don’t have information, you need to signal “the time is now” to your audience. “High passion” means “high pre-existing passion” — they already care about it.
  • All part of a sustained campaign. Multiple emails, multiple attempts, carefully timed.

How do we do incremental/sustained growth?

Constantly trying to get to big moments. For every one that worked, there are dozens that were failures, or minor successes. MoveOn started spin-off called “mothers rising” — great idea, no-one joined. Need campaignable moment — people unlikely to just join. Always action focussed.

He likes splash pages (‘go to a web site and first page is one big page with simple action’). Obama/Edwards done really well with them. They communicate “joining, being part of this thing, is fundamental”. Most advocacy groups don’t see that, they want to get lots of information out quickly. Ought to catch on

Question – doesn’t it annoy people who’ve already signed joined?
Answer – use cookies to make sure they don’t see it

  • Focus on having “movement-centered grassroots storyline.”
  • Have clear internal growth targets. Know how big you want to get. Have growth targets and organise around those
  • Never think you’re too small to start. You’re never too small (online) to act as if you have 3 million people on your list.

Running out of time.

Working within large organisations

Few major stumbling blocks

Strategy – difference between “inside power strategy” and “outside power strategy”. Lots of organisations think that their route to change will be keeping doors open and providing information. “outside power” is that if you have enough people you can knock down doors that may have been closed. You may need to say things insiders won’t like.

  • Long-term strategy. Insider strategy only works while you have insiders who want to listen to you. That changes with every election. If we build strong constituency then whoever is elected will be much more likely to have to listen.
  • Necessary to have an authentic dialogue to help your supporters become an effective force.

Mission alignment. In the nature of grassroots organisations to go for outsider strategy.

  • Nimbleness. Lots of decision making layers to work through.
  • Vested interests. Coalitions, celebrity supporters.
  • “Org chart issue”. Sees internet as an adjunct to communications or IT departments. Rarely works.

Practical arguments

  • “Help me, help us”. Explain ways in which effective online organising adds values. In presidential campaign, and probably others, it leads to good fundraising.
  • “opportunity fundraising”. Outsource things to large base that you’d normally pay for. SEIU normally has to pay lots to organise, make calls, etc. but now your supporters can do that for you. $1.50 per phone call – 10,000 calls = $15,000. Can outsource design, making ads (“Bush in 30 seconds”). When Harriet Miers was nominated to Supreme Court MoveOn had their list research her. Saved lots of money.
  • “internet is not a technical thing” – no more a technical thing than traditional press work is a typewriter thing. Analogy usually works
  • the people who are on your list are not the general public. they are your supporters. communications is about getting message out to as many as possible. this is about “organising”/”mobilising” people who are already convinced.
  • efficiency argument.
  • defuse the “nutcase fear”. people worry about “the nutcase” who will do something crazy and defuse your organisation. Those risks usually far outweighed by the opportunities gained.
  • Sit down with the stakeholders and explain it all carefully. Work out who they are. Maybe talk to top donors directly. If management thinks stakeholders have qualms, you should talk directly to stakeholders.


Q. What hasn’t worked?
A: 90% of what we’ve tried. Multiple asks in a single email. Asking people to just join. Watch out for the “paradox of choice”
Q: How communicate to a new audience
A: Focus on content that is funny/compelling regardless of issue, and then draw them into issue.
Q: You said joint ask doesn’t work but seemed to contradict that with splash page comment
A: If you email your current group and ask them to join a new group, or ask people to suggest their friends join, that rarely works. In terms of splash screens, they’re mostly tested in terms of presidential campaigns which are already highly energised. Probably works better in campaign than long-term progressive movements. Try them. “test, test, test, test, test”.

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