Email Best Practices For Activists

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online action campaign email writing, a.k.a.  “how to write to engage an audience”

Engagement “Hit Song Formula”:

  1. Crisitunity
  2. Reader-driven theory of change
  3. Ask
  4. Supporting info
    • (Ask again?)
  5. Movement story

Whose formula?

  • MoveOn
  • Avaaz
  • SumOfUs
  • OPEN network
  • Credo

Pretty much any group which tries to inspire an online membership list to take some sort of “action”.


“Crisitunity” is the really bad thing that might happen that we must stop, and/or the really good thing that might happen that we must create

  • It has immediacy
  • It is germane to the shared interests of the readers

Crisitunity Examples

  • The president has vetoed children’s health care, but Congress can override him
  • The US is poised to ratify a treaty and dramatically slow global warming but 
if we lose this close vote we may never get another chance

NOT Crisitunitys:

  • “We’re working day and night to protect the earth”
  • “Global warming threatens our very way of life”
  • “Parliament doesn’t think you care”

Reader-driven theory of change

Cause-and-effect sequence that..

  • Begins with something the reader can do, and..
  • Ends with the resolution of the crisitunity

Theory of Change examples

  • Congress must understand that their constituents will not allow children’s health care to disappear. We have to show them we will not rest until Congress overrides Bush’s veto and stands up for our kids.
  • The United States, Canada and Japan are dragging their heels at the climate talks. But they don’t realize that millions of their own citizens back home are watching, and ready to demand better. Together we can remind them who they serve, and push them back onto the right course.

NOT Theories of Change

  • “Global poverty is terrible, and we’ve launched a petition to stop it.”
  • “George Bush has staked his presidency on privatizing Social Security. So we’ve launched a petition to stop it.”
  • “Climate change threatens us all, and we’re working night and day to stop it. Please contribute to keep our campaign going.”


The Ask

The actual thing you want your reader to do. It should clearly trigger the Reader-driven ToC and help resolve the Crisitunity. It should be clear, vivid and basic

“Ask” examples

  • Please take a few minutes to write your member of Congress to tell your personal story about how public healthcare has affected your family. Maybe it’s a story from your own childhood, or a niece, nephew or cousin. Maybe it’s your own child. Whatever your story, if you share it now you can help save children’s health care. You can write and submit your story online right here
  • Please sign our petition to ensure your name shows up in our FT ad. You can sign by entering your information below
  • Please click to find the phone number for your head of state and primary representative to the Bali summit. Then just call them up and say that as a constituent you demand that your nation stop blocking progress toward a binding climate treaty. Here’s all the info you need

Supporting info

Most people read only the first three paragraphs, the content here should persuade people who are still undecided on the issue, and back up your big claims. (Don’t lead off the email with this.)

The Movement Story

The Movement Story provides a bigger context that builds member affinity and commitment for the future. The Movement Story also inoculates against short-term failures.

  • What's Going On: Here we go into the deeper descriptive, value-based story about what's happening on the issue, or what this is an example of.
  • What We're Doing: This is a deeper, descriptive, value-based story about our role in what's going on.
  • Where we're going: Here we look ahead at where the campaign is headed, by foreshadowing a victory image or end state projection.