Five things to learn from the e-campaigning forum

Posted on 19/04/2016


The annual ECF Global Event in Oxford is the highlight of many campaigner’s calendars. A chance to inspire and be inspired by some of Europe’s best progressive campaigners.

Part of the joy of the conference is the Open Space agenda approach and that every participant will take away a very different set of learnings. But here are five vital ones:

1) Long form conversations, not 140 characters, are increasingly important

While bite size chunks of information may attract people to click on links and find out about a campaign, there needs to be substance behind the soundbite. The Marriage Equality campaign in Ireland took a “long form” approach to campaign material, giving real voices the chance to explain why they were in favour – and used everyday people and their own words to successfully set out the argument for change.

Yet, while being ready for a long form conversation is vital, this doesn’t give licence to waffle.

According to Richard Roaf, the most popular Facebook videos are now 45 seconds in length and Which? more than doubled the click to open rate of emails by cutting the number of paragraphs in an email in half.

2) Respectability risks making campaigns anodyne

At the opening ECF session, campaigners were challenged to continue to innovate.

Just because marketing has always been done in one way, doesn’t mean it has to continue. In some ways big charities are among the least likely to innovate and experiment with new technologies – either due to a fear of having an unsuccessful campaign or the risks of having to deliver a campaign with teams that don’t have the appropriate skills, charities (like all organisations) can fall back to the tried and tested.

But this risks leading to the anodyne and may actually off potential donors or funders. Instead what campaigners need to be inspired by are the 50 year visions for organisations, not 5 week campaigns to a specific output-based objective. This may mean ending successful campaigns. It means continuing to look for the best value for money from tightened budgets.

Looking so far into the future sets campaigners big goals that need big thinking and may need new skills for campaign teams. The skill for planners and those working on evaluation is to break down the vision into smaller, deliverable, targets which show how each individual campaign helps take people on the journey. And appreciate that there may not be a linear journey, nor 100% success rate, for activity along the way.

3) Campaigners must fight the fear

The Lobbying Act, the restrictions on charity advocacy, the threats to Trade Unions and a hostile mainstream media environment has made the last 18 months a tough period for progressive campaigners. But the threats to charity freedom of speech are being challenged (and the Lobbying Act doesn’t apply to many charities) and campaigners should fight the fear and refuse to self censor themselves or restrict their creativity.

This may mean standing up to cautious trustees, winning over apprehensive fundraisers, taking the argument to the senior management or bringing in external help to think creatively about problems faced. But if progressive campaigners continue to work together and support each other at events like ECF, fear can be fought off.

4) Language is vital

A surprise hit at ECF was a small, reflective session on the use of language in campaigns. With a global audience possible (if not desirable) for almost every activity, the need to ensure universal understandings and cultural sensitivity is having an impact on campaigns and brands alike.

What can start as a hyper local issue can go global. And with that campaigners need to be sensitive to how communications materials may be understood in different communities – is the humour understandable to those without fluency in a language, are the materials reflective of the community.

But also when things do go wrong – or a charity does face criticism – campaigners need to be better at responding. Not everyone who criticises activity is a troll and charity social media presences must learn more from brands about how to respond to valid criticism or “customer” complaints.

5) Turning clicktivists into activists is a universal problem

From political parties and trade unions to charities and campaigns, the rise of clicktivism has led to a decline in activism. Supporters of a cause increasingly believe the job is done once the button is clicked.

This is not to say that clicktivism isn’t important. But too many campaigns have focussed on measuring clicks in recent years. All campaigners need to see clicks as part of a journey to activism and put in place a programme to develop supporters and take them on a journey to not only clicking regularly, but delivering offline actions as well.

Welcome programmes, supporter segmentation and the innovative use of technology can help. But so can careful campaign planning, joint campaigns and creating bite size offline asks.

And, as Michaela O’Brien argued, we must also learn from our offline campaigning history to inspire the future. But that’s a whole separate blog post.