Lessons for Mobilizing from the Digital Advocacy Institute
Yesterday, the inaugural Digital Advocacy Institute conference brought together an impressive array of speakers from leading advocacy technology vendors, expert strategic political consulting firms, and associations and interest groups with top-notch digital communications practices. Through this broad range of perspectives, the conference provided valuable tips and tricks for all sorts of digital organizing strategies and tools.
The expert advice dispensed broke into two general themes. First, the era of shock-and-awe through the sheer volume of communication that digital tools ushered forth when they emerged in the late 1990s is over. What matters much more now is the quality of the content within advocacy communications and how well that content sustains understanding about an issue.
Second, the tools of digital advocacy do not work to get people interested in a cause or concern. Instead, they connect communities and individuals who are already personally invested in an issue.
Yes, digital advocacy tools still primarily operate on massive scales and digital advocacy campaigns still try to organize lots and lots of people at once. But it was striking throughout the day how many panelists emphasized that even in this digital age, advocacy was still fundamentally about cultivating and building upon interpersonal relationships.
The work of digital advocacy, then, is the same as it was in the analog era — or the horse and buggy era for that matter. The key is knowing which of the bewildering number of tools out there now are best suited for specific advocacy challenges and diving deeply into using those.
Mass Communications Advocacy
Even panelists from companies that offer mass-scale communications tools agreed that merely blasting constituents or lawmakers with the same message via email is useless today. The volume of emails that supporters and legislators get is just too high for generic messaging to be effective at all.
As CQ Roll Call’s own Bryan Fratkin noted, the sophistication of the leading edge advocacy software packages available today have rendered one-sized-fits-all email blasts obsolete. Every interaction users take with a message can be quantified — as well as those they don’t, like leaving an email unopened. This capability allows messages to be customized to a personal level, creating more genuine interaction with end users.
Yes, sheer numbers of supporter emails or petition signatures do still matter in giving the impression of broad support. This is true, Eric Rardin from the online petition service Care2 noted, because of the competition between supporters on both sides of an issue. That said, mass communications like petitions never should be done without being part of a comprehensive campaign.
Rachna Choudhry from the advocacy email service PopVox emphasized that the pendulum for mass communication was swinging away from sheer qualities toward quality conversation. She suggested that when following up on a mass-email campaign with a lawmaker to highlight the best ten or so letters from each district. Presenting staffers with word clouds from a large batch of emails was another way to help decision makers understand where most participants’ attention was focused.
Even for a service like NGP VAN, which sent out 1.5 billion emails last year for clients, the goal of mass message campaigns is not overall impressions but moving those recipients into relationships with campaigns or organizations.
Target the Right Audiences
Several panelists urged advocates not to cast their nets for new supporters too widely when starting a big initiative. Targeting groups predisposed to support a cause is a much more effective use of scarce time and resources.
For example, Tom McMahon from the strategic communications firm New Partners suggested that national-level campaigns drill down to the state and local level and reach out to supporters on those levels of activity. It may be as simple as calling up the organizers of a local charity 5k run and offering a partnership. People often feel most comfortable working on issues on the community level, when they can join with other people they know personally. Leveraging that kind of enthusiasm can be very useful for a nationally-focused issue campaign or cause going up to Capitol Hill.
Sometimes, the right audience may organize itself and advocates simply have to find ways to facilitate that interaction. Choudhry mentioned that within the autism advocacy community, for instance, mothers of afflicted children requested the contact information of others whose letters about their children’s struggles that touched them personally. It wasn’t for the retweet value, but for a connection on a deeper level.
Nathanael Yellis from Heritage Action noted that his organization has very committed email subscribers who open anything the group sends them. Knowing that these hard-core supporters probably wouldn’t, for instance, come to DC for a lobby day, the organization invited them to join a Twitter action team that regularly generates a few hundred tweets to lawmakers when Heritage Action asks.
Don’t Assume a Community Isn’t Online, or Isn’t Listening
The AARP, which boasts exactly zero social media-savvy millennials among its members, nevertheless has a very strong social media component to its advocacy. Its online advocacy director, Alejandra Owens, noted even if advocacy professionals think a community isn’t online, that’s simply not true: they simply haven’t done enough research to find them. Moreover, targeting niche communities with valuable content has a multiplier effect because it impresses other similarly-sized communities when they see your organization doing it.
Ashley Spillane, the president of Rock the Vote, explained that her organization depended upon finding the right online communities to partner with for its content. With a small budget and staff, Rock the Vote can’t waste resources on content that won’t reach its slippery younger audience. Instead of limiting itself to traditional media stars, it’s reached out to popular content creators on YouTube who have millions of followers for help.
Rock the Vote also reached out to existing networks of video gamers to help promote its message.
Organize Your Spontaneity
As Owens said in her panel, there’s a lot of planning that goes into being spontaneous on social media. Her own group pulls head shots and crafts congratulatory messages for actors over 50 before the Oscars to use on AARP social media channels. Waiting for the actual broadcast would be too late.
Both Joon Kim of New Partners and Victoria Fulkerson of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce suggested creating an organizational-wide calendar for social media communications, highlighting key dates in the year when some kind of social action makes the most sense. Even for a small organization like hers, Fulkerson said, the idea of a calendar is scalable if every employee is brought on board to think strategically about social media communications in relation to their work.
The Digital Advocacy Institute, organized by the pharmaceutical company Lilly, will post full video of the conference online. Organizers created the hashtag #weadv for the event, and attendees (including @CQConnectivity) used it quite a bit if you want to catch up on it via Twitter.