Designing Effective Action
Alerts for the Internet

by Phil Agre
Department of Information Studies
University of California, Los Angeles
Los Angeles, California 90095-1520

Version of 24 April 1999.
Copyright 1994-1998, all rights reserved.

This is an updated version of an article from the January 1994 issue of The Network Observer.

I appreciate the comments and suggestions of Steven Cherry, Nathan Newman, Steven Snedker, and Larry Yates. Jillaine Smith of the Benton Foundation did the HTML markup as part of her Best Practices Toolkit.

An action alert is a message that someone sends out to the net asking for a specific action to be taken on a current political issue. Well-designed action alerts are a powerful way to invite people to participate in the processes of a democracy. Having seen many action alerts in my years on the Internet, I have tried to abstract some guidelines for people who wish to use them. Even if you do not plan to construct any action alerts yourself, I do not recommend that you forward anybody else's alerts unless they conform to at least the spirit of these guidelines. If I sometimes seem stern or didactic in my prescriptions, please forgive me. It's just that I've seen badly designed action alerts do an awful lot of damage.

Although an Internet action alert should always be part of an issue campaign with a coherent strategy and clear goals, I won't discuss the larger strategic questions here. Instead, I will simply divide action alerts into two categories, single messages and structured campaigns. Single alerts are broadcast in the hope that they will propagate to the maximum possible number of sympathetic Internet users. Structured campaigns are typically conducted through mailing lists specially constructed for the purpose, and their intended audience may include either the whole Internet universe or a narrower group of already-mobilized partisans.

Both types of action alerts are obviously modeled on things that have been happening on paper, through telephone trees, and lately via fax machines, for a long time. What computer networks do is make them a lot cheaper. A networked alert can travel far from its origin by being forwarded from friend to friend and list to list, without any additional cost being imposed on the original sender. This phenomenon of chain-forwarding is important, and it behooves the would-be author of an action alert, whether a single message or a whole campaign, to think through its consequences:

  1. Establish authenticity. Bogus action alerts -- such as the notorious "modem tax" alert -- travel just as fast as real ones. Don't give alerts a bad name. Include clear information about the sponsoring organization and provide the reader with several ways of tracing back to you -- e-mail address, postal address, URL, phone number, etc. Including this contact information makes sense anyway -- you want people to join your movement, and this means establishing contact with you. One way to establish authenticity is by appending a digital signature, presumably using PGP. Few people will check the signature, though, and many people will remove the signature when they forward your message to others. So there's no substitute for clearly explaining who you are and giving people a way to reach you.

  2. Put a date on it. Paper mail and faxes get thrown away quickly, but action alerts can travel through the Internet forever. Even if an alert seems to have faded away, it can sleep in someone's mailbox for months or years and then suddenly get a new life as the mailbox's owner forwards it to a new set of lists. Do not count on the message header to convey the date (or anything else); people who forward Internet messages frequently strip off the header. Even better, give your recommended action a clearly stated time-out date, e.g., "Take this action until February 17, 1998". If you think there will be follow-up actions, or if you want to convey that this is part of an ongoing campaign, say so. That way, people will contact you or look out for your next alert.

  3. Include clear beginning and ending markers. You can't prevent people from modifying your alert as they pass it along. Fortunately, at least in my experience, this only happens accidentally, as extra commentary accumulates at the top and bottom of the message as it gets forwarded. So put a bold row of dashes or something similar at the top and bottom so extra stuff will look extra. That way it will be very clear what you and your credibility are standing behind.

  4. Beware of second-hand alerts. Although it is uncommon for someone to modify the text of your alert, sometimes people will foolishly send out their own paraphrase of an alert, perhaps based on something they heard verbally. These second-hand alerts usually contain exaggerations and other factual inaccuracies, and as a result they can easily be used to discredit your alert. If you become aware of inaccurate variants of your alert, you should immediately notify relevant mailing lists of the existence of these second-hand alerts. Explain clearly what the facts are and aren't, implore the community not to propagate the misleading variants, and provide pointers to accurate information including a copy of your own alert. This action has two virtues: first, it may help to suppress the mistaken reports; and second, it positions you (accurately, I hope) as a responsible person who cares about the truth.

  5. Think about whether you want the alert to propagate at all. If your alerts concern highly sensitive matters, for example the status of specifically named political prisoners, then you will probably want to know precisely who is getting your notices, and how, and in what context. If so, include a prominent notice forbidding the alert's recipients from forwarding it.

  6. Make it self-contained. Don't presuppose that your readers will have any context beyond what they'll get on the news. Your alert will probably be read by people who have never heard of you or your cause. So define your terms, avoid references to previous messages on your mailing list, and provide lots of background, or at least some simple instructions for getting useful background materials. In fact, you might consider making the e-mailed alert relatively short and include the URL for a Web page that provides the full details. Your most important audience consists of people who are sympathetic to your cause and want to learn more about it before they can take action. Write your alert with that type of reader in mind, not the complete insider or the apathetic stranger.

  7. Ask your reader to take a simple, clearly defined, rationally chosen action. For example, you might ask people to call their representatives and express a certain view on an issue. In this case, you should provide a way to find that representative's name and number, and explain how to conduct the conversation: what to say, how to answer certain likely questions, and so on. The purpose of such a script is not to impose your thinking but to help people to learn a skill that might otherwise be intimidating. Decide whether to ask for e-mail messages (which can be huge in number but near-zero in effect), written letters (which will be fewer but more effective), or phone calls (which fall in between). Consider other options as well: perhaps the sole purpose of your alert is to solicit contacts from a small number of committed activists, or to gather information, or to start a mailing list to organize further actions.

  8. Make it easy to understand. It is crucial to begin with a good, clear headline that summarizes the issue and the recommended action. Use plain language, not jargon. Check your spelling. Use short sentences and simple grammar. Choose words that will be understood worldwide, not just in your own country or culture. Solicit comments on a draft before sending it out.

  9. Get your facts straight! Your message will circle the earth, so double-check. Errors can be disastrous. Even a small mistake can make it easy for your opponents to dismiss your alerts -- and Internet alerts in general -- as "rumors". Once you do discover a mistake, it will be impossible to issue a correction -- the correction will probably not get forwarded everyplace that the original message did.

  10. Start a movement, not a panic. Do not say "forward this to everyone you know". Do not overstate. Do not plead. Do not say "Please Act NOW!!!". Do not rant about the urgency of telling everyone in the universe about your issue. You're not trying to address "everyone"; you're trying to address a targeted group of people who are inclined to care about the issue. And if the issue really is time-critical then just explain why, in sober language. Do not get obsessed with the immediate situation at hand. Your message may help avoid some short-term calamity, but it should also contribute to a much longer-term process of building a social movement. Maintaining a sense of that larger context will help you and your readers from becoming dispirited in the event that you lose the immediate battle.

  11. Tell the whole story. Most people have never heard of your issue, and they need facts to evaluate it. Facts, facts, facts. For example, if you believe that someone has been unjustly convicted of a crime, don't just give one or two facts to support that view; most people will simply assume they are getting half the truth. If your opponents have circulated their own arguments, you'll need to rebut them, and if they have framed the facts in a misleading way then you'll need to explain what's misleading and why. On the other hand, you need to write concisely. Even if you are focused on the actions, good explanations count more. After all, one of the benefits of your action alert -- maybe the principal benefit -- is that it informs people about the issue. Even if they don't act today, your readers will be more aware of the issue in the future, provided that you don't insult their intelligence today.

  12. Don't just preach to the converted. When you are very caught up in your cause, it is easy to send out a message in the language you use when discussing the issue with your fellow campaigners. Often this language is a shorthand that doesn't really explain anything to an outsider. If you really care about your issue, you'll take the time to find language that is suitable for a much broader audience. This can take practice.

  13. Avoid polemics. Your readers should not have to feel they are being hectored to go along with something from the pure righteousness of it. Some people seem to associate non-polemical language with deference, as if they were being made to bow at the feet of the king. This is not so. You will not succeed unless you assume that your readers are reasonable people who are willing to act if they are provided with good reasons.

  14. Make it easy to read. Use a simple, clear layout with lots of white space. Break up long paragraphs. Use bullets and section headings to avoid visual monotony. If your organization plans to send out action alerts regularly, use a distinctive design so that everyone can recognize your "brand name" instantly. Use only plain ASCII characters, which are the common denominator among Internet character sets. Just to make sure, do not use a MIME-compliant mail program to send the message; use a minimal program such as Berkeley mail. MIME is great, but not everybody uses it and you don't want your recipients getting distracted from your message by weird control codes. Format the message in 72 columns or even fewer; otherwise it is likely to get wrapped around or otherwise mutilated as people forward it around the net.

  15. DO NOT use a chain-letter petition. A chain-letter petition is an action alert that includes a list of names at the end; it invites people to add their own name to the list, send in the petition if their name is the 30th or 60th etc, and in any case forward the resulting alert-plus-signature-list to everyone they know. This idea sounds great in the abstract, but it really doesn't work. The problem is that most of the signatures will never reachtheir destination, since the chain will fizzle out before reaching the next multiple of 30 in length. What's even worse, a small proportion of the signatures will be received in the legislator's office many times, thus annoying the staff and persuading them that they're dealing with an incompetent movement that can never hold them accountable.

  16. Urge people to inform you of their actions. If you are calling on people to telephone a legislator's office, for example, you should provide an e-mail address and invite them to send you a brief message. Explain that you'll use these messages to count the number of callers your alert has generated, and this information will be invaluable when you speak with the legislator's staffers later on. Only do this, though, if your mail server is capable of handling 50,000 messages in a short period. You might want to check this out with your service provider beforehand.

  17. Don't overdo it. Action alerts might become as unwelcome as direct-mail advertising. Postpone that day by picking your fights and including some useful, thought-provoking information in your alert message. If you're running a sustained campaign, set up your own list. Then send out a single message that calls for some action and include an advertisement for your new list. If you must send out multiple alerts on the same issue, make sure each one is easily distinguishable from the others and provides fresh, useful information. Above all, don't spam. Post your message only where it belongs. When in doubt, ask the maintainer of a given mailing list whether your alert is appropriate. And include a phrase like "post where appropriate" toward the beginning so that people aren't encouraged to send your alert to mailing lists where it doesn't belong.

  18. Do a post-mortem. When the campaign is over, try to derive some lessons for others to use. Even if you're burned out, take a minute right away while the experience is still fresh in mind. What problems did you have? What mistakes did you make? What unexpected connections did you make? Who did you reach and why? Which mailing lists was your alert forwarded to, and which of these forwardings actually caused people to take action? Good guesses are useful too.

  19. Don't mistake e-mail for organizing. An action alert is not an organization. If you want to build a lasting political movement, at some point you'll have to gather people together. The Internet is a useful tool for organizing, but it's just one tool and one medium among many that you will need, and you should evaluate it largely in terms of its contribution to larger organizing goals. Do the people you reach through Internet alerts move up into more active positions in your movement? Do you draw them into conferences, talk to them by phone, meet them in person, become accountable to them to provide specific information and answer questions? If not, why do you keep reaching out to them?

  20. Encourage good practices. The Internet is a democratic medium that provides us all with the time and space to do the right thing. So let's use the Internet in a positive way and encourage others to do the same. You can help by passing these guidelines along to others who might benefit from them (including people who have sent out badly designed alerts), and refrain from propagating alerts that do not conform to them. Remember, forwarding a badly designed action alert actually harms the cause that it is supposed to support. Modeling thoughtful, constructive action on the Internet, however, provides everyone with a living example of democracy in action.