Hallmarks of an Online Insurgent Campaign

Submitted by Brett on Wed, 02/20/2008 - 3:10pm

Justin Perkins, Heather Holdridge, & James O’Malley, Care2

It's happening.

A few small nonprofits with distributed networks of volunteers are swamping social networks and raising thousands of dollars for orphans in China and other worthy causes. Obama, Edwards and Ron Paul have seen droves of new donors come out of the woodwork with surprising speed. Ron Paul raised $4.3 million in one day.

Correction -- a seemingly random Ron Paul fan raised $4.3 million in one day by creating a publicity stunt and coordinating efforts across networks and blogs. That was followed a month later by an event actually sponsored by the Paul campaign (celebrating the Boston Tea Party) that outdid itself and raised $6 million, breaking the all-time record set by the Kerry campaign in 2004.

Though the tried and true one-to-many broadcast model is still working, the above examples are fascinating because they confirm the notion that loose distributed networks with very little centralized oversight or control can rally together around a common goal in support of an organization -- both nonprofits and political candidates. Let's look a little closer at how this works.

Field of Dreams

"If you build it, they will come" is a flawed assumption, whether you're building a Facebook Group, website, or Facebook Cause. "Viral" is a bit of a myth as well. Successful campaigns usually come down to money or muscle -- and how big your network is to begin with. Oh, and if people like you and trust you.

The tools built into the social networks can help accelerate the process of getting known, building trust, and getting action out of people if you have lots of time and volunteers. There is a lot of noise to cut through, though, and having a list of people to start with is pretty key.

"Oh the hours! I know just speaking for myself, I was putting in at least 8-10 hours a day blogging, emailing supporters, making phone calls, and recruiting teens and college students to help us," said Amy Eldridge of Love Without Boundaries, winners of the Facebook Causes Giving Challenge. "It was definitely a full time job during the last 2 weeks of the contest. I know of at least 10 other people who were working similar hours trying to cheerlead more donors to our Cause."

You can also use the tools to search for volunteers. One dedicated supporter of a candidate running for State Comptroller spent hours contacting friends and tapping networks on MySpace in an effort to recruit volunteers. The result? Over 15,000 phone calls made to voters, 50,000 pieces of literature handed out, and a victory in a three-way primary that included a long-time incumbent.

Be Prepared for Windows of Opportunity

Though the ROI on the day-to-day operations of social network profiles, or nonprofit websites, is questionable, the contests that seem to be popping up every month are offering a unique opportunity. For example, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) was able to leverage their email list of over 1 million people, MySpace friends network of 33,000, and their Facebook friends to win $50,000 from Microsoft in a contest to drive traffic to a Microsoft Facebook Group. In just a few days, they were able to win the prize by driving over 26,000 people to the contest -- over 40% of the total traffic. That said, a huge email list isn't always necessary if you have a large network of dedicated volunteers, like political candidates or the winners of the recent Case Foundation challenge on Facebook Causes.

Distributed Networks

Though there is often a need for some web 1.5 -- i.e. the combination of push marketing and social marketing -- the beauty of the new media technologies is that work can be distributed through thousands of small networks once things get going. At least in theory; the incentives need to be pretty good, and as Malcolm Gladwell points out in The Tipping Point, there are some key factors that need to line up. Finding the Connectors and Salespeople out there will help accelerate your ideas. We call them "superactivists" at Care2 -- the folks who have huge networks on our social network and take lots of action, posting articles, contributing to forums, signing petitions, etc. Finding these folks and giving them things to do is key.

Sometimes a dedicated group of volunteers can beat out larger organizations. For example, Love Without Boundaries was able to win the Causes Giving Challenge against several large, well-known nonprofit groups.

Instead of just messaging their list, LWB had to teach their members how to sign-up for Facebook and donate to their cause. Sometimes, this even included an army of college students going door-to-door, ICU nurses convincing hospital staff to join, businessmen calling meetings to let their employees know about the contest, and other offline work.

The extra offline leg work was the difference. Rather than just sending Facebook messages to the fans of their Cause who already weren't voting, LWB succeeded by attracting new members. Their list grew from about 50 to over 6,000 over the course of the contest.

Give up Control and Encourage 3-way Communication

A lot of bigger organizations with well-established brands are probably more reticent to turn their messaging over to the masses than a new organization with nothing to lose.

However, a couple of groups, like Oxfam America and HSUS, are having some success. They have created vibrant social networking communities on MySpace, which has given some great exposure to their brands in a new demographic they weren't reaching en masse before.

During Hurricane Katrina, Care2 members used the social networking tools on Care2 to self-organize and raise about $150,000 for animal shelters in about a week. Care2 had very little to do with this other than providing the tools.

The amount raised almost matched the amount Care2 raised on behalf of American Humane at the same time through email appeals. Unexpected things can happen, superactivists can emerge, and the overall impact of a community can accelerate when self-organization and three-way communication is allowed.


It's really tough to keep up with all of the new social networks popping up. If you're looking for short-term fundraising results, be realistic -- be prepared to roll-up your sleeves and spend a lot of hours recruiting volunteers to leverage your efforts, and it's likely you'll only make a quick return in coordination with a contest. But thinking about the long run is key -- if you have the capacity to a quality presence on several social networks, more folks will recognize you, hopefully begin to trust you, and maybe even step up to take action for you when they're called. Of course, the larger your existing network is to start with, the faster you can reach out into other communities by leveraging the contacts and affinity of your existing supporters.


Justin Perkins, Director of Nonprofit Services, Care2, justin@earth.care2.com

Heather Holdridge, Director of Nonprofit Services and Political Advocacy, Care2, heather@earth.care2.com

James O'Malley, Frogloop Editor, Care2 jfomall4@gmail.com