Avaaz hits 20m members, Beppe Grillo, and digital lessons for political parties

Aside from an no-new-news Observer interview with co-founder Ricken Patel, Avaaz hasn’t shouted about its milestone of 20m members. According to the Observer, these members make Avaaz the world’s biggest online campaign group. You have to admire their out-of-nowhere exponential growth:

Avaaz growth curve
Avaaz’s growth curve, from an Avaaz email (note additional 2.5m in just a few months)

For a political organisation, 20m is an astounding member count. Avaaz is not a political party, but just for reference, here’s the size of UK political party membership:

  • Labour Party – 183,000  (2010 figure, Wikipedia)
  • Conservative Party – 130,000  (2012, Wikipedia)
  • Liberal Democrats – 42,500  (2013, Wikipedia)

And comparing it with its closer cousins, traditional activist/lobby groups, it is still a giant:

  • Greenpeace International – 2.9m (2007, Greenpeace) 
  • Amnesty International – 3m (2013, Amnesty)
  • World Wildlife Fund – 5m+ (2013, WWF)

The only worldwide political campaigns that come close to or are larger than Avaaz are trade unions. The largest group of unions, the International Trade Union Confederation, can cumulatively claim 166m members (2010, Wikipedia).

The above comparisons are unfair, of course. Comparing the size of a mailing list with fully paid up members is not comparing like with like. In fact, the US presidential campaigns can probably claim numbers far in advance of Avaaz in simple terms of email lists. And political party membership is about more than clicktivism, right? It involves actual participation – whether that’s paying fees to fund party machinery or voting on leadership and policy.

But while Avaaz doesn’t have elected leaders, it does claim to survey all its members at least once a year to inform its campaign priorities, and surveys groups of 10,000 at a time with questions on specific campaigns. And while it was set up with some large donations from George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, it now funds itself through micro-donations from its members.

In essence, Avaaz has used digital media brilliantly to grow into a powerful political player, whatever label we give it. Compare its approach with one existing political party: the UK Green Party. The Greens seem ripe for development and growth – there’s a clear proposition to voters on an issue that gets growing media coverage, is especially of importance to younger, digital-friendly voters, and doesn’t have the baggage of the traditional UK parties. But the first thing a potential member sees when they click to become a member is a membership fee.

Green Party member web form
What happens when you click ‘Join’ from the homepage

I asked them why a fee was the first thing they asked for – why didn’t they just grab our email addresses and start asking us to do things – sign petitions, get involved locally, etc? Because, they answered, they need the money.

But that’s not a good enough reason. Now the money comes later. In member acquisition, you don’t put your toughest ask first. You go for quantity. Sheer quantity of members – just basic email addresses – and any extra data is a bonus. Then if you can convince people to believe in what you do, you send them up the type of ‘commitment curve‘ (view, click, share, join, donate, participate) that organisations like Avaaz use so well. Eventually you’re funded by micro-donations from thousands of members.

Existing political parties are trapped in their 20th century structures. They have weighty infrastructures of staff and offices to pay for. The party machinery is heavy, slow and expensive. They can’t switch to the flexible startup models of online campaigns. Avaaz doesn’t even have offices – it’s employees connect from home. Why does a modern political party need offices? Strip it down: harness committed members to run the machine, and employ a core staff only if you can drive enough donations. In the UK, both the Labour and Conservative parties only survive due to air-drops of cash from trade unions or super-rich backers: hardly democratic and hardly likely to build trust with the public. Meanwhile, issue-based political campaigning will continue to grow. Some of those mocked ‘clicktivists’ will gradually become donors and offline activists.

New political organisations get this – and are reaping the rewards. In Italy, Beppe Grillo’s M5S party was formed in 2009 and – just four years later – gained around a *quarter* of the popular vote in the recent elections – despite, on some accounts, being afforded less TV coverage than other parties. Instead, Grillo campaigned through live events and social media.

Grillo refuses to call his group a ‘party’. A very-readable Demos paper on Beppe Grillo’s success states: “Grillo stated from the beginning that he did not want to found ‘a party’; the M5S continues to reject this label and calls itself a ‘movement’.”

The M5S ‘movement’ has an interesting structure, which – like Avaaz – has been criticised for a lack of internal democracy and accountability. It relies on Grillo immensely – he has the only right to use the M5S name, which he grants to others as he sees appropriate. The Demos paper rightly suggests that the structure has some similarity with a franchise model – the brand is carefully leased to followers who fit the overall mission of Beppe Grillo.

Some see his success as a protest vote – I’m not so sure. Given the similar gains of the Pirate Party across Europe, I wonder whether this online-driven loose-affiliates model of party structure might not be a taste of the future of politics.

A final point on clicktivism or digital politics: the new world of online political movements or franchised political brands is by its nature highly temporary. Movements, and perhaps entire parties, will come and go quicker than before. Parties, movements, or brands that stray from the views of the public, or are too internally reliant on powerful individuals can swiftly be deserted – members will change their allegiances – they will ‘unsubscribe’. Digital is disrupting politics as it disrupts business and every other way life is organised – it lowers the barriers to entry for new ideas. Creative destruction will happen faster and more easily – in terms of parties, movements, online campaigns, perhaps eventually even in the speed of turnover of legislators and governments.

We live in clicktivist times.

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