Measuring Success: Proving that Activism Works

When you are trying to change the world, how do you know when you’ve succeeded? Last week, when Skepchick went dark, did it do any good?

Last year, I put together a workshop on skeptical activism with the fantastic Desiree Schell. I thought it might be useful to share some of the components of this workshop in a few blog posts, and to provide some examples of activism that are working or that are not.

More and more, skeptical groups are starting to move into the realm of activism. As we continue to see examples of poor critical thinking, bad information and societal trends toward anti-science positions, many of us want to do more than just talk about it, and try to put campaigns of activism together to try to effect change. But, as skeptics, we also must recognize that we need more than our gut instincts to run successful campaigns.

Even though this is my first in a series of posts on this topic, I thought it might be useful to start with what happens at the end of a campaign. So I’m going to be discussing measuring success of an activism campaign. When you’re putting your campaign together, it’s important to begin with the end in mind. How will you know if your activism was successful?

Identifying how you’ll be measuring success will help you solidify clear objectives for your campaign. If you want to raise awareness about the safety of vaccines, how will you measure that awareness? How will you know if you’ve succeeded?

Last week, thousands of sites, including the Skepchick network, participated in the SOPA blackout, going dark for a day to protest legislation that would tie the hands and freedom of the internet. For a few days after the blackout, I saw several of my less… optimistic friends post a link to this opinion piece regarding the blackout.

This article is a great example of a very common problem I’ve noticed with activism. Allies criticize you because although they agree with your position, they disagree with your tactics. You’re coming on too strong or not strong enough, you’re not pushing hard enough, you’re making the whole movement look bad. Sound familiar?

Image Courtesy Surly-Ramics

The only answer to this problem is evidence. If you think your tactics were successful – provide the evidence.

In the case of the SOPA blackout, this critic is saying that what we did was simply not enough. We didn’t put anyone in any real hardship and so the blackout could not possibly work. The writer quotes Snopes:

“Protest schemes that don’t cost the participants any inconvenience, hardship or money remain the most popular, despite their ineffectiveness.”

It’s a valid concern. Many activist campaigns lack ‘teeth’ and therefore fall flat. The Snopes quote above is in reference to the periodic request for people to not buy gas on a particular day of the year to protest rising gas prices. Because these campaigns are badly organized (we get those emails at least once a year; does anyone know if there’s actually a day when it’s happening?) and don’t really get a lot of support, they don’t often succeed. However, I don’t agree with the sentiment that basically says that activism has to be hard and you have to make huge sacrifices to run a successful campaign of activism. Yes, running an activism campaign takes work. But the individuals participating in a campaign can often play a very small, crucial part that requires very little effort from them but contributes to a much larger impact.

In reality, you have to be self-aware, smart and focused to run a successful campaign of activism. The thing about activism is – sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes the critics are right. So when you are managing a campaign, it’s really important to understand how you will figure out if you were successful or not.

So, was the SOPA protest a success? Luckily, we have a very clear way to check the evidence on this one.

Pretty chart that is easy to read! tracked the positions of congress members on SOPA the day before and the day after the protest. The effect was clear. The protests cut the official SOPA supporters by 15 congressmen and added 70 opponents. In addition, shortly thereafter, Lamar Smith, the chief sponsor of SOPA pulled the bill altogether.

That’s pretty compelling evidence that the blackout tactics worked. Even if there is still work to be done against PIPA and other similar legislation, it’s hard to argue that the blackout had no impact.

The lesson:

It’s crucial to have measurable objectives when you’re planning a campaign. You may have several objectives – primary and secondary. Your primary objective should be pretty big and should be easy to measure. Did anyone in power change their position? Did a business change their policy? If your objective is to have a certain company stop advertising anti-vaccine organizations, that’s also your measurable outcome. Did they stop, or not?

Keep in mind, however, that NOT achieving your primary objective doesn’t mean your event was a failure. Measuring your secondary objectives, such as positive media hits, internal participation, new relationships, is important when evaluating your progress.

Finally, keep in mind that if you have measurable objectives, even failing to meet your goals is a partial success. Because you know you failed and you can learn from that! So you can throw away those tactics or re-work them into something that will get you better results the next time. You won’t be doing the same thing over and over, in the hopes that it has some sort of impact. So even if you fail, you still win.


Maria D'Souza grew up in different countries around the world, including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Kenya and it shows. She currently lives in the Bay Area and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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  1. I have another instance where activism definitely worked: The repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (and I was a part of that). And the fact that Washington state is likely to become the 7th state to allow same-sex marriage. This sort of stuff doesn’t happen without activism. Also, I think that link is off-base; I know a LOT of people who are activists and who do things within their activism that costs them time, money, and even jobs (DADT is a good example — Lt. Dan Choi, anyone?).

    The Right to Marry Walk ( here in Phoenix helped change many minds in small town Arizona. We’ve heard from many people in Yuma, for instance, who are now our allies.

    These are just my experiences and observations, of course, but I think it’s pretty short-sighted to claim that people aren’t going out, and getting dirty, with their activism.

  2. Maddox makes a valid point, though – DMCA is still around, ACTA is still around, PRO-IP is still around, and SOPA is just going to come back after the election in a slightly different form with a different name.

    Unless the corporations pouring millions of dollars into political campaigns can be turned against such censorship, they’re going to keep pushing it. Is a blackout going to be as effective next time? The time after that? What about the tenth time?

    SOPA’s gone. For now. Yes, that’s an achievement, but SOPA is the symptom. We need to get rid of the disease.

    1. I guess my point is, it’s unfair to dismiss activism that works because there is still work to be done. The goal of the blackout was clear and measurable and it did what it set out to do.

      Maddox claims the blackout served no purpose because it didn’t solve the entire problem. And claims that the tactics were useless because it didn’t solve the entire problem. That’s what I have an issue with. They weren’t looking to solve the entire problem; they were trying to solve one, specific component of the problem.

      1. And how can we even be expected to solve the entire problem?! It’s huge, it’s complex. You can’t solve problems like this in one go. It doesn’t work like that. Just like the fight for equality! Each little win is important. It takes time, and effort.

        People who say, “But it didn’t fix the whole problem!” generally, in my opinion, are the type of people who aren’t really willing to fight anyway. I wonder what he’s doing to help fight this? Anything at all, aside from whining about how there is still a problem?

      2. As well, the fact that this demonstration did work shows that the internet community has muscle it can flex when it needs to. From here on out, when we discuss things like ACTA, the child protection bill, or PIPA we’re going to be listened to. This success will also encourage other people who were fence-sitters in the protest to join ranks with the people who participated and become activists. This was a social, and political, success as far as I’m concerned.

      3. Whilst this is true, how many people are now going to shrug, assume work is done, and move on? I think you’ll find it’s that attitude, moreso than just the blackout, that Maddox has a problem with, and he’s doing the right thing by organising boycotts of SOPA supporters. The blackout isn’t the entire process, it’s step one.

          1. Which part? The idea that a lot of people will assume the job is done? One need only look and the countless slacktivist causes, people who attribute far too much to their efforts (KathyO being a good example), and the number of people who, when SOPA died, pointed out that the upcoming blackout was thus unnecessary because the job had been done.

          2. People saying the job is done isn’t proof that people think the job is done? You want some kind of massive study or something?

            Yes, apathy is unhelpful. That’s kinda my point.

          3. And what I’ve been seeing is the complete oposite of what you are describing. Almost everyone has been saying, “THE JOB IS NOT DONE!”

            So, you know. Anecdotes, I has them too.

          4. Indeed, but then one must also keep in mind that Maddox posted before the blackout occurred, so he’d not have known what was going to happen. Though FWIW, Maddox and I are the only people I’ve seen to date holding that attitude.

            Maddox has a point, though, is all I’m saying.

          5. “but then one must also keep in mind that Maddox posted before the blackout occurred,”

            Oh. So basically, he doesn’t really have a valid point. Or proof to back up his point. Gotcha.

          6. In what way does the timing of his post invalidate his point that SOPA is the symptom, and we need to get rid of the disease? That’s a perfectly valid point regardless of when you make it.

          7. You know, here’s the problem that I have with Maddox. He may have good ideas and a valid point but the method that he is using to get his message across is completely ineffective:

            That web page has some good ideas around who to boycott and who to contact. However, it is almost entirely unreadable. It’s formatted that makes you have to work to actually glean any information from it. If you want people to actually get involved, you have to make it easier for them to get good information.

            He provides other options – which is a good idea – but in such a way that it’s extremely difficult for a reader to understand the specific tactics he’s arguing for.

            So, if I have an OK idea and I lay it out clearly and 10 people do it because they understand it and you have a great idea and you lay it out terribly and 10 people do it because they care enough to do the work to get your message AND do the work you’re asking… who’s better off?

            I’m composing another article in this series about tactics and how to get support for your tactics. I think this is probably relevant there. It doesn’t matter if you have the greatest idea in the world; unless you have support and people willing to help you and stand with you, it’s not going to be an effective campaign. And insulting people’s intelligence and making it difficult for them to get good information? Isn’t the way to get support.

          8. Maddox’s site is far better formatted than this place. There’s a line break about every two words by now, which makes comments impossible to read, and I far prefer light font on a dark background. As far as actually getting information off the page, I’m having no trouble doing that whatsoever. I don’t understand the issue you’re having.

  3. Personally, I’m starting to lose patience with these nit picky arguments. In my opinion, every little bit helps. Am I glad that some people are in the forefront of the fight, be it against discrimination or censorship? Of course! But there’s no reason to belittle the smaller efforts some people feel more comfortable making. I took my blog black for a day. Did my seven readers notice? Probably not, but I feel like I contributed to the shift in opinion.

  4. The full extent of the victory of the blackouts may never be known. How many people are now recognizing the need to protect freedom of speech who were previously accepting that the gov was doing the right thing without investigating the ramifications. I’m sure there are a lot more people aware of the issues now.

    Some fights take decades, or even centuries. These little battles are not the war. A teeny bit of ground may have been gained, but nothing has been won.

  5. I attended the workshop based on this at TAM last summer. It was the best thing there. Desiree (and Lyz Liddell and Brian Thompson) were awesome! After the presentation, we broke up into small groups to create our own activist campaign to better understand the process.

    That was 6 months ago, I’m moving with typical glacial* slowness, but I hope to one day put the ideas into practice for real. But the ideas presented have given me a basis for understanding and evaluating other campaigns.

    If you** do a similar workshop another time, I strongly recommend anyone who is interested in changing the world, and not just whinging about it, to attend.

    * Maybe something on Climate Change?

    ** I was very sorry not to see you there as scheduled, and my deepest sympathies.

  6. I was thinking (in relation to the Reddit thread, but also more generally) maybe Skepchick could do one or two online polls to measure effectiveness of various campaigns and stragegies?

  7. I had a friend post this link on facebook, I found it to be very cynical. I knew about SOPA before the black out, but the black out brought my awareness to a point that I sent my representatives a letter. Sure the fight is not over, but one battle has been won.

    Even if this effort had failed, is it really “bad”? Sometimes it takes multiple attempts to get something right, just like in science. If something doesn’t yield results, it is sometimes necessary to keep hitting it with a hammer until you get it right.

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