What is a “Call to Action”?
- An immediate action you want supporters to take when you have engaged them with the campaign
- Designed to embed their commitment, give a sense of belonging to the campaign, and demonstrate their support to decision makers and the wider public
The starting point for any campaign is to highlight the problem that they want to address. For simple ‘public awareness’ campaigns, that is all they try to do. Most campaigns also promote a solution to that problem, and try to get that solution adopted through presenting evidence-based arguments and building support from others.
However, building support for a campaign can be challenging and can have limited impact unless that support is visible. Simply informing audiences about the issues may increase awareness, but it is essentially a passive process that does little to change attitudes and behaviours. Furthermore, any impacts it does have on audiences are often invisible to the policy makers that campaigns are ultimately trying to influence.
To overcome this, campaigns often try to mobilise their supporters by incorporating a ‘call to action’ in their strategy.
A Call to Action is a specified and immediate action that the campaign asks its audiences to take if they agree with the solution that the campaign is promoting. This can be a simple action, such as signing a petition, giving money, wearing a badge or sharing a social media post, or it may require more effort, such as writing to the decision maker or attending an event.
The most impactful calls to action are highly visible and distinctive, so that when support reaches a tipping point, they gain their own publicity and generate further support. This in turn can have a dramatic effect on public discourse and put pressure on policy makers to respond.
Campaigns can have more than one call to action, but often has primacy, becoming the identity of the campaign itself.
The examples below are not an exhaustive list, just a quick tour of the most common Calls to Action used by campaigns. They are intended to inspire campaigners to adapt distinctive variations of these old favourites or even develop their own new calls.
Joining & Giving
Although joining a campaign by signing on to a mailing list (sometimes through a petition) or giving money has limited direct influence on the decision makers, it is often a very valuable first engagement with supporters. Not only is the movement for change being built, but also it opens up opportunities for further engagement to build commitment from the supporter so they can be mobilised for other outward-facing actions.
Public symbols of support
There are many ways that individuals can proclaim their support for a cause by using the symbol of a campaign – both off-line and on-line. Such a symbol can give the supporter a sense of belonging, a shared identity with others, and can also demonstrate ‘social proof’ – a key driver of attitude and behaviour change (where people are influenced by what other people like them are saying and doing).
Many campaigns encourage supporters to wear a badge on their clothes to highlight a cause. Originally, they were made of metal or enamel but these were costly to produce and distribute. Since 1991, a red ribbon lapel badge has been worn to indicate solidarity with people living with HIV. Other campaigns have now adopted this low-cost device, using different colours to signify their issue (for example, pink ribbons for breast cancer).
Because ribbons have become so common, campaigns have tried to use other devices with varying degrees of success. The Make Poverty History campaign distributed a white wristband that became very popular among the young and spawned many alternative ‘awareness bracelets’ for other causes.
These (and other) symbols can also be used on-line in a variety of ways. One of the most common forms of demonstrating support on-line is for people to change their social media profile pictures – either using the stand-alone symbol or superimposing the symbol or wording on their existing picture. There are on-line tools to make this easier, the best known being Twibbon (https://twibbon.com).
Slogans and logos on clothing have also been used to show support. T-shirts are the obvious example, but in Africa dress fabrics have long been used to tell a story or spread a message.
The challenge for campaigners is to create a symbol or device that is original, distinctive and attractive. The use of the symbolic device can be encouraged by designating days or weeks of action, usually associated with some fixed external event such as a UN day or political summit.
The above examples tend to be undertaken individually, but there are also opportunities for calls to action to bring people together in a collective non-violent demonstration of support.
Marches and other demonstrations can be energising for those taking part and are visible, which can help with getting media publicity. However they need large numbers to make an impact. They can be challenging to organise and control, can come across as confrontational and the media coverage could be negative.
An alternative is a peaceful vigil at a suitable location. These require fewer people participating to make an impact and can be held in multiple locations simultaneously. They don’t take much effort to organise and can also be repeated every week or month to maintain visibility.
Similar to vigils are prayer meetings. Either within one faith or as an inter-faith activity, these bring people together to pray for the victims of an issue and demonstrate solidarity.
Support for a cause can be demonstrated directly to policy makers through various lobbying actions.
Petitions are relatively easy to promote and have a low barrier to action (ie, they don’t take much effort to sign or involve much social or political risk to the person signing). Paper-based petitions require more effort to promote and collate but have the advantage that a petition handover is a visible event that can attract media publicity. On-line petitions can be shared widely on social media and quickly gain many signatures, but supporters can be from outside the desired target groups. Because they are untargeted and so easy to sign, on-line petitions often have less influence on the policy makers.
Some legislatures have a formal process for petitions with thresholds numbers to be reached to trigger a response from the legislature. Whether or not the threshold exists, it is important to get very high numbers for a petition – if not, you are demonstrating to the policy makers how little support there is for your campaign.
It should be recognised that petitions have other benefits beyond lobbying policy makers. As the mechanism is widely recognised, they can be a useful tool for engaging people in dialogue about an issue and winning their support. Petitions can also be used for ‘list-building’ – getting the contact details of ‘warm’ supporters onto a database so they can be contacted again and hopefully persuaded to give more committed support (there is a lot of evidence that shows how a simple initial commitment can be used as part of a long-term supporter development strategy).
Campaigners have tried to refresh the idea of petitions by making more distinctive or visual. This has included getting supporters to post ‘selfies’ of themselves, sometimes with them holding the symbol of the campaign or a hand-written message.
Much more demanding than adding a name to a petition is making direct contact with elected representatives or other policy makers. This can be done through visits, personal letters, phone calls, pre-printed post cards or pre-formatted emails. As these actions require much more of the supporter, it is harder to get large numbers but each one can have more individual impact.
The organisational equivalent to a petition is to sign up to a joint statement or manifesto. The Jubilee 2000 campaign used this to great effect, persuading many membership organisations, trade unions and other bodies to sign up to their call for debt relief.
Developing a call to Action
The goals for the campaign may include policy makers taking steps to tackle the problem as well as changes in public attitudes and behaviours. Therefore, the Call to Action should impact in both these spheres.
The primary call needs to be visible and widespread, providing social proof. Ideally, the action should be suitable and attractive for the national media to cover.
The call to action needs to be replicable at low cost and with minimal central coordination and work in multiple languages and in different political, social and cultural contexts.