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Do they work? And how to make one
14 min read
Last update: Mar 16, 2024

In this article, we investigate whether petitions work. We also provide some suggestions to increase the potential of petitions as a campaigning tactic.

This article takes a more academic approach than most guides on Activist Handbook, encouraging a collaborative form of doing social change research.

Do you like this format, or do you prefer to only get the main takeaways? Let us know: [email protected]


Activists can use petitions to grow their movements by gathering signatures from people who support their cause. Petitions can also be used to pressure lawmakers and other decision-makers to take action on an issue. Additionally, petitions can help activists build a database of supporters who can be mobilized for future actions.

Petitions can take various forms. Often, it is a certain statement that people can publicly declare to agree with by providing their name and contact details. However, there are many creative variations on petitions. For example, you could also have a phone go off in an office every time someone fills out a form, or send out a letter, email or text message to a certain target.

In this article, we regard all these variations to be the same in their essence: it is just the act of filling out an online form which is supposed to bring about change. This is different than online forms in which people make the commitment to do something else that makes impact. For example, a form that people use to sign up as a volunteer is not a petition.

Do petitions work?

The short answer: we do not know, and it depends on your particular context. The majority of articles out there on the internet discuss the use of petitions quite uncritically. We do not want to go straight to explaining how to create a petition, without first seriously discussing the possibility that it might actually be a counterproductive tactic.

A petition is a popular tool among activists, so it is logical that is the first thing you think of if you want to do something about an injustice. However, more experienced activists know that petitions are not necessarily the most impactful tactic.

To find out if petitions work, we have formulated some hypotheses. In the spirit of collaborative research, we encourage you to add arguments and data to prove or disprove these hypotheses. Share your experiences with petitions in our section 'Case studies'.

What is an hypothesis? An hypothesis is nothing more than a theory. It could be true or false. You should look at data and arguments yourself to find out which is the case.


Missing expertise

Organisations may not have the ability to collect and analyse the data required to find out if their petitions are effective.

Conflicting interests

Even if an organisation has the ability to make data-driven decisions, there may not be the motivation to do so. Organisations often have a conflicting interest of proving their tactics are effective, regardless of whether they actually are. For example:

  • Donors are more likely to donate to successful organisations, so it is financially advantageous to portray yourself more impactful than you actually are.

  • We might want to tell a positive story, because we are afraid that telling a negative story that reflects critically on yourself and others can demotivate people to act at all. If you are working tirelessly for your cause, you likely want to hear it has not all been for nothing.

  • Not knowing what to do is uncomfortable. It can be more comfortable to continue confidently on the chosen path, instead of acknowledging you have no idea what you are doing. The same goes for acknowledging mistakes.

  • We might not like to hear about more effective alternatives. Alternatives may involve more time, energy and risk required. We like to think that all it takes to change the world is filling out an online form from the safety of your comfortable sofa, even if more is needed.

  • It might be in the interest of the fundraising team to continue using petitions, because it can be a useful tactic for getting donations. The financial dependency on donors, and thus indirectly also lead-generating methods such as petitions, may make it attractive to portray petitions as more than a money-maker (and pretend it is also useful to make political impact).

Formal status

In some countries, petitions have a formal status. For example, in the Netherlands, all citizens have the right to hand in a petition to a public authority. In addition, there is something called a 'citizens initiative', which is basically a petition. If more than 40.000 people sign it, it has to be discussed in parliament.

In this guide, we do not go into the formal status of petitions, as it is written for an international audience, and laws are different in every country. A formalised status of petitions can make them a more impactful tool. At the same time, formalised procedures also gets activists to speak out in a neat and orderly way, which is nice for those in power, because nothing has to fundamentally change. Conflict is an essential element of change-making, and it makes our activism more impactful.

Hypothesis 1: Petitions do not cause policy changes


According to this hypothesis, petitions on their own are not an effective tactic to cause meaningful policy changes, even with large numbers of signatures.

In this hypothesis, we specifically focus on the use of petitions without combining them with other tactics, such as using the collected contact details for another purpose.

Testing the hypothesis

Find out if there is a correlation between petitions happening and policy changes occurring afterwards. Since correlation is not the same as causation, we need to do some further research:

  • If there is a consistent positive correlation, find out if any other factors might be able to explain this correlation. For example, activists may have been using other tactics at the same time.

  • If there is an inconsistent positive correlation, find out what factors were only present in the cases of success. If there are any, these could explain why some petitions are more successful than others. For example, look at factors such as number of signatures, media attention, having concrete demands & targets, etc.

  • If there is a consistent negative correlation, we can confidently say that petitions are likely not a positive contributor to policy changes. However, this does not exclude other uses for petitions (for example, as a means to collect leads).


Add data here...

Hypothesis 2: Petitions do not shift public opinion


According to this hypothesis, petitions do not cause a shift in public opinion.

One might be able to find correlations between a public opinion shift after a petitions with lots of signatures. However, correlation is not causation: perhaps other tactics happened at the same time, which created a shift in public opinion. Petitions could simply be an unacademic way of doing opinion polling.

Hypothesis 3: High effort actions are more impactful


A petition is relatively little work, both for the person starting the petition, as well as the people signing. According to this hypothesis, on average, actions that take more effort will make more impact than low effort actions such as petitions.

Since petitions are so little work, they occur all the time. That reduces their novelty, and thus newsworthiness. The more time, energy and risk you have to invest into an action, the more impressive your action will be. Personal sacrifice is good for the public perception of your action, and makes people more perceptive of your action.

Of course, this is only true to a certain extent: if you just decide to do your work very inefficiently, this requires lots of effort, but this does not necessarily result in more impact.

Testing the hypothesis

  • Categorise tactics on a spectrum of effort required.

  • Define impact and find datapoints that indicate impact.

  • Collect data on tactics used and their impacts, or reuse existing databases such as the Global Nonviolent Action Database. To make this step easier, limit the scope of your research to a particular cause and context (e.g. locality).

  • Test for correlations and account for confounding variables.

Hypothesis 4: Direct asks are more effective than indirect asks


Some activist organisations use petitions even when they do not believe they are an effective way to shift public opinion or create policy change. They see petitions as a stepping stone for people: after someone has signed a petition, you can ask them to do more. This second (or third/fourth/etc) thing that you ask people to do is the thing of which you actually believe you can make a difference with.

In this scenario, the petition is an indirect ask: instead of saying, "hey, do this thing that makes impact", you say "hey, do this thing that doesn't make impact, but afterwards you might be more willing to do the thing that does make impact".

According to this hypothesis, it is more effective to immediately do a direct ask, instead of using an indirect ask (a petition) as a stepping stone.

The conversion rate might be lower for the direct ask in comparison to the direct ask (the conversion rate is the ratio of people that act after a call to action). This makes sense: for example, it is much easier to convince people to sign a petition than to convince them to do civil disobedience.

However, the indirect ask does not actually deliver the conversion (doing the thing that actually makes impact). Only a small portion of the people converting for the indirect ask, also convert for the second call to action. Overall, according to this hypothesis, the conversion rate is lower.

Within the expertise of grassroots organising, it is a common recommendation to make clear and direct asks for commitments. Of course, online organising is not exactly the same. And this common practice is not necessarily grounded in data-driven academics. However, this practice based on the hands-on experience of many experienced organisers cannot be ignored either.

Testing the hypothesis

See what happens if you divide your mailing list in 2 segments:

  • The first segment, you ask to sign a petition. You set up an email ladder in which you motivate people to do a higher barrier thing that makes more impact.

  • The second segment, you immediately start to motivate people to do the higher barrier thing that makes more impact.

Then measure which segment converts better.

In the above test, we assume people are already on your mailing list, which allows you to communicate with your audience. Even if people are not yet prepared to do the thing you want to them to do in the first instance, you have the ability to directly communicate with them and change their minds.

If you want a group of people of whom you do not yet have contact details to take a certain action, a different approach is needed to test the hypothesis. One way to test this is by advertising two landing pages (using the same segment methodology as described above, except for replacing the first email with an ad).

For both tests, there are a few factors to take into account:

  • If you have a different call to action, a different email, ad and/or landing page might also be required. A fair comparison would be 2 different sets of emails, ads and landing pages, each perfectly optimised for their respective call to action. Of course, there is no way of knowing when an email, ad or landing page is perfectly optimised. It takes time to try out several things, to see what setup works best.

  • In both our tests, we assume a digital approach, comparing a petition with another digital signup form. However, if you find that a high ask is the only thing that actually makers impact, it might not make sense to use of digital marketing at all. Grassroots organising may provide a better return on investment: if you are asking people to do something big, this might just need to come from someone whom they are talking face to face with, rather than ads or mailings.


Add data here...

Hypothesis 5: Indirect asks reduce willingness to do more

If you are using a petition as an indirect ask, of course, you cannot say "hey, I know this petition won't be effective, but I want to sign it anyway". Nobody would sign. So you would need to convince people that signing the petition will make a difference, even if you know it does not.

According to this hypothesis, if you are convincing people it is a good idea to sign a petition, you are making it less likely they will engage in higher barrier call to actions. After all, if you are able to convince people that taking a minute to fill out a form is enough to change the world, why would anyone go out to the streets to protest? After signing a petition, people may also feel like they have already done their part.

A popular theory within marketing called 'foot-in-the-door technique' is that people are willing to do more immediately after doing something small. For example, you first ask someone to sign a petition, after which you ask them to join a protest.

At the same time, there is also a theory called 'door-in-the-face technique', which works the opposite way: you first do a very big ask, which most people will turn down, after which you make a smaller request. You start by asking: join my protest, and if they are not ready for that yet, you ask them to sign a petition instead.

This hypothesis specifically focusses on instances where the first and second ask influence each other in a specific way: in order to sell the indirect ask, you make the follow up ask less attractive. Comparing this in commercial terms: it is like first convincing someone that a cheap soap is just as good as the more expensive one, and then trying to get them to buy the expensive soap.

Testing the hypothesis

Given that this hypothesis relates to well-established academic theories, the best first step would be to see if anyone else has already done some research on a similar case. If it does exist, it will likely cover commercial marketing, not social change marketing, so the results would need to be translated to the context of activism.


Add data here...

Should I start a petition?

Escalation ladder

An 'escalation ladder' helps you determine the appropriate course of action depending on your context. The idea is simple: you start by asking nicely, and if your target does not listen, you increase pressure step-by-step. For example, you might start by sending a letter, then organize a protest making lots of noise, and finally you decide to use civil disobedience.

A petition is very low on the escalation ladder: it is a very nice and orderly way of asking for change. It can be a useful if nobody else has started a petition about this before. But if other petitions did not bring about any significant change, it is probably time to do something a bit more radical.

A good way to determine if a petition is the right course of action is to ask yourself: will your target be impressed with your petition? Will they feel forced to do the thing you are demanding? Or will they shrug their shoulders and ignore you? If they receive petitions with lots of signatures all the time, they are probably not going to be impressed if you start yet another one.

Severity & urgency

The severity and urgency of your cause also influences the tactics you should use. If something bothers you a bit, for example, you do not like the color paint used in the hospital, you are not immediately going to chain yourself to a hospital bed until they change the color. A more appropriate form of action would be starting a petition to show lots of people do not like the color.

However, as another example, if you want fossil fuel companies to stop destroying out planet, starting a petition likely is not going to shift the needle. After all, our globe is literally on fire and this is a matter of life and death for humanity. We are way beyond asking nicely.

How to make a petition?

Collect contact details

When selecting a tool to make a petition, make sure you are able to access the contact details of signatures. Also make sure to have an opt-in checkbox on the petition, so you are allowed to send email, text, and/or call people who have signed it in accordance with privacy laws*. This is needed for your follow-up journeys.

*There is nothing wrong with civil disobedience, but this law is actually nice to respect: it prevents our email inboxes becoming cluttered with spam.

Develop follow-up journeys

Petitions likely have limited potential to create significant change when compared to other tactics. To get the most out of your petition, combine your petition with other tactics. Even before you launch your petition, think what would be a logical next thing to ask someone after they have signed a petition. You can ask them something that is a bit more high barrier.

Clear demands & target

Having well defined demands and a clear target who actually has the power to bring about the change you are demanding increases the probability of success.

Creative delivery

Petitions can often feel ineffectual, but when you deliver them creatively โ€” with art, theater, or humor โ€” you can make public opinion more visible to a campaign target.

Online petitions are an effective way of spreading information, raising an outcry or putting pressure on a target. But online tactics alone are easily ignored by targets. To translate virtual signatures into real-world action, a number of netroots organizations have developed the art of creative petition delivery. While publicizing your message and the support it has garnered, creative petition deliveries put public pressure on your target.

Itโ€™s helpful to find creative ways to physically quantify the number of petition signatures (see: THEORY: Artivism). A number of well-labeled boxes rolled into a targetโ€™s office is a tried and true approach, but other unusual tactics can be highly effective as well.

For a petition asking the World Health Organization to investigate and regulate factory farms, the international multi-issue campaign organization Avaaz set up 200 cardboard pigs โ€” each representing 1,000 petition signers โ€” in front of the World Health Organization building in Geneva, providing the media with a visual hook on which to peg stories about factory farms and swine flu.

The location of delivery can also make a huge difference. In protest against a multibillion gas deal with Israel (see: STORY: Stolen Gas Campaign), the Jordan Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement handed the deputy head of parliament a petition to be delivered to the Prime Minister on behalf of the people. Taken by surprise, the PM stormed off during the session and his reaction generated increased public mistrust in, and negativity towards, the governmentโ€™s narrative.

But you donโ€™t always have to physically occupy the same space as your target โ€” attracting media attention can be an effective way to reach a target as well. In one instance, to deliver a petition against nuclear energy to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Avaaz purchased an ad in Der Spiegel, the German paper of record.

Or try a more outlandish media stunt. To deliver a petition against deepwater oil drilling in the Arctic, Greenpeace International sent its executive director to a controversial oil rig in the middle of the ocean, where he trespassed onto the rig to deliver the petition to the shipโ€™s captain โ€” at which point he was arrested and held for four days. Between the unusual way it was delivered and the media coverage that resulted, the petition was difficult for the target to ignore.

Sometimes less public tactics can be equally effective: to deliver a petition about cluster bombs to a UN conference debating arms munitions treaties, Avaaz first digitally delivered 600,000 petition signatures to the head of the conference, and then quietly distributed 1,000 fliers to conference attendees (see: TACTIC: Advanced leafleting), describing the issue and listing the number of people whoโ€™d signed the petition. Even the subtle hint of public pressure created a stir in the often obscure world of UN diplomats. The delivery had a big impact on the eventual outcome of the conference, which did not adopt a draft treaty to allow stockpiling of cluster bombs.

Creative petition deliveries allow organizers to turn online outcry into offline action. By becoming unavoidably visible to a campaign target (see: PRINCIPLE: Make the invisible visible), creative deliveries make sure the voices of thousands of petition signers are publicly heard.

Make the invisible visible: Creative petition deliveries give an abstract issue a physical and visual presence. Public figures and decision-makers can afford to avoid listening to public outcry as long as it remains distant and exclusively online. By bringing the voices of petition signers to a target (and the media) in a way that makes them impossible to ignore, creative petition deliveries amplify the effectiveness of online organizing efforts.

Real world examples

Potential risks

Sometimes you might have the urge to be overtaken by your imagination, leading you to construct complex scenes of creative delivery and eventually getting overwhelmed by an idea and its implementation. Keep it simple! Also, keep in mind that you need to be as straightforward as possible so that any member of public is able to understand the demand of your campaign.

Case studies

Share your experiences with petitions here...

External resources


The following resources were reused in this guide:

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