Bacteria use a variety of mechanisms to direct RNA polymerase to specific promoters in order to activate transcription in response to growth signals or environmental cues. Activation can be due to factors that interact at specific promoters, thereby increasing transcription directed by these promoters. We examine the range of architectures found at activator-dependent promoters and outline the mechanisms by which input from different factors is integrated. Alternatively, activation can be due to factors that interact with RNA polymerase and change its preferences for target promoters. We summarize the different mechanistic options for activation that are focused directly on RNA polymerase.