From Our Book: Measuring Success in Digital Campaigns

NOTE: We’ve posted a free downloadable copy of our new book Digital Activism Decoded and on July 1st the paper version will go on sale at For the next month we’ll be posting more brief excerpts from all the chapters in the book. To learn more, visit our book page.

Today’s excerpt is the first from the third section of the book, which addresses the effect and ultimate value of digital activism. This excerpt, by Dave Karpf of Rutgers University, opens the chapter on measuring success in digital campaigns with an illustration about the critical difference between tactical and strategic success.

The digital revolution has provided us with an expansive set of tools for pursuing activist campaigns. Never before have the powers of self-publishing in video, audio, or written format been so widely accessible to so many. Anyone with an Internet connection has a platform for getting the word out. But do these new tactics and platforms make our attempts at political activism any more successful than before? If a half million people sign an online petition to end poverty, reduce global warming emissions, or overthrow a repressive regime, what effect does that actually have? Digital activism boasts a wide array of tools, but in many ways they only make the measurement of success that much more difficult.

This chapter focuses on two different types of metrics used in digital activism: tactical and strategic. Tactical measurements count the number of signatures, visits, blog posts, etc. They provide indicators of how many individuals have taken some action related to your campaign. Strategic metrics, on the other hand, measure success. They require a clear theory of how you expect your tactics to make a difference, in turn clarifying which measures actually contribute to a win or a loss.

The difference between these two types of measurement dates to the analog era. I first became interested in the difference between them during a campus environmental rally at Oberlin College in Ohio. The organizers had spent months preparing and they managed to gather a large crowd of students to hear speakers, hold placards, and demonstrate their support for the protection of a West Coast forest. Tactically, the event was a great success, one that the group leaders were rightly proud of. But since the fate of the forest was to be decided by the California state government—2,349 miles away—any strategic measure of the event would have had to find it lacking. The students chanted loudly that day, but since Ohio is so far from California, not nearly loud enough to be heard by the state government! In the digital age, the Internet provides every one of us with a megaphone. But, as with those college students, whether the right people will hear and react to digital activism is a more complicated matter.

Successful activist campaigns have always come down to a set of people mobilizing the resources at their disposal to either affect the choices of powerful decision makers or to replace those actors with others more attuned to the beliefs and preferences of the people. To accomplish this goal, activists use the tools at their disposal to educate their fellow citizens and mobilize pressure tactics. But, online or offline, large or small, mainstream or radical, success in all forms of activism must be judged at the strategic, rather than the tactical, level. And, while the availability of online engagement platforms leads to a slew of tactical data, it can also make measurement of success all the more difficult. In the examples that follow, I will discuss some of the pitfalls embedded in easy-to-find tactical-level measures available online, as well as offer a few lessons on how to construct strategic metrics of success in the digital age.

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