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4 min read - By Sebastian Schuetz & Mary Imbong

Digital activism is the new normal

In Germany, restrictions in public gatherings forced campaigners to protest virtually

As campaigners at Change.org, we dedicate much of our time helping petition starters on our platform escalate their campaigns toward achieving victory. Often, this means helping them organize in-person demonstrations in public spaces. But when the coronavirus and #StayAtHome happened, we needed to get more creative in supporting twice as many petitions we saw on our platform. 

One of these petitions we uniquely supported was a breakout campaign started by Berlin-based freelance fashion designer Tonia Merz. As one of many independent workers who felt the economic burden brought by the pandemic, she started a petition, which asked the government for a universal basic income during the corona crisis. As the campaign progressed, we formed a network of supporters that included other organizations in Germany that were active advocates of universal basic income even before COVID-19 happened. 

Together with Tonia and our partners, we decided to apply certain principles in organizing in-person demonstrations to an online setting. That decision translated into a 12-hour digital demonstration on Twitter aimed at escalating the campaign enough to get a decision maker’s attention.

Here are the key principles that we found made this experiment successful:

1. Coalition-building: Collaborate with other committed individuals.

Tonia herself was proactive in gathering support for her petition from the very start. Her campaign attracted local media and drew attention and support from local organizations that advocated universal basic income in Germany. 

So we started a chat group where we could coordinate regularly. Tonia met with these organizations online and worked alongside our team at Change.org Deutschland to plan what we can do next.

2. Planning: Decide what to accomplish and how.

We wanted to escalate the campaign to its decision-makers. So as a group, we hatched the idea of organizing a digital protest on Twitter that would grant us as many supporters as all our social media accounts combined could reach. 

We agreed on a date, March 26th, and exchanged ideas and updates on what our organizations planned to do and what we could contribute to the campaign demonstration.

3. Communicating your message: Prepare your content.

Tonia continued engaging with campaign supporters through her petition page on Change.org by regularly posting updates and prompts. Meanwhile, our partner organizations continued promoting the campaign to their network of advocates. It wasn’t long before more campaign supporters flooded our pages with their sentiments, personal stories, and even ideas for protesting given local restrictions in their areas. We collected these and set them aside as content for the demo.

To communicate our message more clearly, we agreed to create a brand for the campaign (rather than using our organizational brands). This branding approach helped avoid crowding out the campaign message.

4. Program-mapping: Envision what the demonstration will contain.

Unlike in-person protests, it’s difficult to tell who and how many people are engaged in the demonstration as it unfolds. And with a platform like Twitter where content flows 24/7, competing for people’s attention is not that easy to do. 

To recreate the experience of being in a demonstration, we fashioned our content to how a public, in-person demonstration might look. We prepared welcome tweets with instructions on how to join the movement, a video message from Tonia, quotes from petition supporters (to resemble protest speeches), a video response from a decision-maker (the highlight), retweets of posts by people who participated in the demonstration, and a graphic that summarized what transpired over the 12 hours of “rallying” online.

We prepared at least 30 posts the day before the event and anticipated creating more throughout the day.

5. Engagement: Remember to interact with your supporters as you go.

As a group, we launched the digital demonstration simultaneously from our Twitter accounts at exactly 7:00 AM. We stayed on high alert throughout the day, ready to engage with our virtual guests and prompt them to Tweet our target decision-makers.

We also retweeted our how-to post every two hours or so for those who logged in later in the day and made sure to use the campaign hashtag, #GrundeinkommenJetzt (“Basic income now”), in every post. Consistency and responsiveness were vital. 

Finally, we kept a sharp eye out for campaign developments that we could turn into more Twitter content. One excellent example of this was knowing that one of our decision-makers scheduled to give a live interview that day with a well-known local Youtuber. We grabbed the opportunity of possibly getting a comment from him by Tweeting at the decision-maker and instructing our campaign supporters to do the same. He commented on the campaign during his interview, and we immediately published a clip of his response.

6. Closing: Recap the events and keep the momentum going.

Towards the afternoon of March 26th, #GrundeinkommenJetzt became the number one trending hashtag on Twitter in Germany, gaining more than 5,000 Tweets. This achievement was mostly due to the steady growth of organic content from followers and participants of the digital demonstration.

So at 7:01 PM, we closed the demonstration with a post that summarized the impact of our event. But more than just putting a cap on the protest, we felt it was important to thank our followers for their participation and to inform them of what they helped the campaign to achieve. It was also an effective way for us to motivate more people to continue the conversation. True enough, more Tweets rolled in that evening and the following days.

Written by – Sebastian Schuetz
Comms/Brand Campaigning Lead, Change.org Germany
Written by – Mary Imbong
Learning Associate, Change.org Foundation