We Also Walk Dogs
Patrick Michael Kane and We Also Walk Dogs are the group of people who built, and continue to develop and maintain, the online tools of the advocacy group MoveOn.org. In 2009, We Also Walk Dogs created a spinoff of the MoveOn.org toolset to sell as a platform for progressive activists. As time goes on, Kane's firm continues to add elements to ActionKit, some that might look familiar to people at MoveOn.org and Credo, and others that were built specifically for ActionKit.
Kane founded We Also Walk Dogs in 1997, naming his firm after a Robert A. Heinlein short story about a firm that accomplishes seemingly impossible tasks.
When MoveOn.org's mailing list got too big for Eudora's BCC line, Kane says, the activists in the group turned to his firm to develop their online tools.
Over the ensuing years, Kane says, the systems WAWD built supported the growth of MoveOn's list to over 5 million members. They also built the tools that MoveOn made use of during Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, for example, a peer-to-peer phone banking tool that volunteers in staunchly pro-Obama states used to get lists of voters in swing states during the primary. (The Obama campaign also had its own, similar tool, and some volunteers used both at the same time — calling all the numbers on one and then getting more from the other.)
Kane says one of the big advantages WAWD has over other technology providers is its cache of lessons learned from MoveOn, from One.org and from Credo Mobile, among other clients. Over time, he says, he's been able to work with MoveOn on tests of specific features and design elements, measure the results, and "bake" best practices gleaned from those results in later iterations of his software. As a result, he says, WAWD tools are designed to be scalable up to and beyond the level MoveOn needs, and with intuition gleaned from over a decade of careful study of what activists need in online tools and how they interact with those tools.
WAWD's off-the-shelf platform for progressive activism, ActionKit, contains many of the tools that MoveOn uses: e-mail broadcast, secure fundraising, list building and advocacy tools, and reports and analytics. Kane says event management — for user-created and organization-created events, including house parties and the like — should be live this spring.
"ActionKit is really a direct response to our experience working with MoveOn and others," Kane explains. "[It's] a way to try to get both the kind of reliability that MoveOn and our other clients have come to expect and the flexibility of a custom platform into the hands of folks that may not need that kind of totally customized, totally bespoke platform, but still want to be flexible and responsive to political opportunities."
The beta version was released in 2009, and ActionKit 1.0 was launched in February 2010.
To make the most of e-mail messaging, Kane says each build of ActionKit has its own dedicated IP address. Internet service providers have IP addresses as well as domains on their whitelists (of e-mail servers whose outgoing mail is always allowed to reach the ISP's clients because the ISP trusts the server to regulate its outgoing traffic) and blacklists (stopping all e-mail from a server because the ISP believes that server is being or may be used by spammers) by IP. In theory, this eliminates any risk of a client's broadcast e-mails being blacklisted thanks to the missteps of another client.
ActionKit's e-mail functionality also includes some best practices learned from careful study of MoveOn.
"One of the lessons we learned very very early on at MoveOn, that's very well ensconced in the online organizing literature, is: For the love of God, you've got to do subject line testing," Kane says.
But watching people actually try to do it, WAWD got the idea that maybe it was too complicated for some people. So, in ActionKit, Kane tried to make A/B testing "trivial."
"If you want to test multiple subject lines you just put in multiple subject lines, one after the other," he says. "We're going to break those up across your mailed universe." They're also broken up in reporting, allowing the user to track open rates, click-throughs and other analytics, he says.
Kane says many pieces of ActionKit follow a similar approach. The WAWD team asked themselves what they'd have done differently if they'd had a second shot at building the tools they made for MoveOn, he says, and built the answers to those questions into ActionKit.
"The tool is designed to make easy things easy and to make hard things possible, and that's reflected in a couple different places," he says.
One of those places is an open web services API available to ActionKit clients that Kane says is a subset of the API that ActionKit itself is built on top of.
"We're essentially eating our own dog food," is how the developer describes it.
A client's web team could build extensions to ActionKit using this API; past examples include Moms Rising, which built a version of the petition application that displays recent petition signatures directly underneath where a user signs, Kane says.
Another feature specific to ActionKit is the ability for users to create PDFs, for example to turn an online petition into a real one.
ActionKit also comes with read-only access to a copy of your installation's entire database, says Kane — meaning if you aren't satisfied by the analytics that ActionKit creates for you, you can connect to the database, which is powered by MySQL, and generate queries and reports full of whatever tickles your fancy. Kane said he was surprised to find out that it wasn't just "alpha-geek" activists making use of this functionality — he reports that less tech-savvy users are also having success getting what they want by connecting to the database with third-party software like Microsoft Access or Crystal Reports 9.
Kane also seemed proud of ActionKit's new petition feature. Rather than "stuffing" the web forms of members of Congress (his word), ActionKit's new petitioning tool collects the information of petitioners on the organization's database. Then, using a proprietary database of legislative directors around the country, it e-mails and faxes these staffers of elected officials to let them know that they've got a petition waiting for them on whatever issue, with however many signatories, if they would care to pick it up from a secure URL with a password.
In his mind, it's a win-win for both the organizations and the staffers: Organizations are no longer fighting anti-spam mechanisms to push the results of forms filled out on their websites to the servers of Congress and legislatures, and the staffers, if they download the files they're sent, will get comma-separated lists of signatories. (The comma-separated value format, or CSV, is a sort of lingua franca understood by spreadsheets and database software.) Kane figures this is a "carrot" for staffers who are always hungry for data on their bosses' constituents and interests.
Kane was blasé when asked about social media.
"We're pretty well inoculated against the buzzwords of the day," he said.
However, he said, his research showed a five to seven percent increase in action rates when, through use of Facebook Connect, constituents using a web tool could change their Facebook status to announce that they had taken an action using the tool. He figures that proves that people will see on Facebook that their friends are getting involved in causes, and will follow suit.
Similarly, he said, ActionKit's fundraising tool has been tweaked so that there's a call to tell a friend on the same page where the constituent inputs all of his or her donation information. He says that testing shows people are more likely to finish the action if they know right away that they'll be able to tell their friends, too — and because they make use of that tell-a-friend functionality, more actions are taken.
The PCCC uses ActionKit for all of their online advocacy. They have more than doubled in size since starting to use ActionKit, Kane says. They test subject lines and bodies of emails; they do actions in ActionKit, as well as embedded within other CMS systems and on other websites.
Pricing model based on mailable supporters; first price tier is 0 to 100,000 mailable addresses and aims to be between Democracy in Action and Convio, pricewise; clients pay their own credit card and processing fees for online donations and pay for faxes on a pass-through basis; there's a set-up and migration fee; Kane wouldn't disclose exact fees.
Color of Change, Moms Rising, Presenté, Food Democracy Now, Brave New Films