Online advocacy best practices and principles to win your campaigns and change the world!

Online advocacy best practices and principles to win your campaigns and change the world!

Around the world, people are organizing and demanding change. After the 2016 election, protesting and advocacy is on the rise across the United States. How can you harness this unprecedented energy for your non-profit or political campaign to move policy and create change, while strengthening your organization? We’ll share some principles and best practices in online organizing that you can apply to your work. Note: if one of your goals is to grow your list while you’re creating this amazing change, be sure to read our guide to using effective online advocacy to grow your list for non-profits or campaigns.

First, consider that most online action does not exist in a vacuum. Online alone will rarely make the difference. Winning online campaigns usually have an offline component, even if it’s just a great petition delivery that then gets your organization some earned media coverage. Don’t neglect your offline planning in favor of purely virtual actions, or you’ll be limiting your impact.

To make your online campaigns more effective, you should consider the theory of change behind each petition before launching. What a theory of change means, is that you can explain how taking an action will help you solve the problem the action is about. Think through all the steps to get from point A to point B, if point A is signing a petition and point B is achieving your end goal.

As online activists get more and more cynical about actions that are purely list-building ploys, they’ll demand more than good intentions from advocacy organizations (and political campaigns too). Now if you are just purely list building, that’s one thing – but it’s best to be up front about that and not try to dress it up as an action. Political campaigns are especially notorious for useless petitions to nowhere.

An example of a missing theory of change is asking your members to email their Senators to do something like “end all war”. Good intentions, but not likely to work. Online actions need to be credible in order for people to want to take part, and to share it with their friends. So if this particular action is just a first step in a campaign plan, be sure to tell people that… and what’s next.

With the spread of #MeToo, various progressives and organizations have been trying to figure out a theory of change – how to hold people accountable for sexual harassment and assault, and change the culture so it becomes a thing of the past. There was some controversy about actors wearing black to the Golden Globes – it felt like a meaningless gesture. Sometimes gestures are important: a sea of pink pussy hats during the Women’s March built a feeling of solidarity, and made people feel like they were a part of something larger than themselves – a movement as opposed to a one-day event. Anyways, wearing black could be merely a symbol. But the actors took it to the next level, by talking about equal pay on the red carpet and during the awards show, but then doing something about it by setting up a legal fund so that people can take their discrimination cases to the courts and force change.

One of the most visible examples of (lack of) equal pay was when Mark Walberg was paid millions to reshoot ‘All The Money In The World’, whereas his Oscar-nominated coworker Michelle Williams was paid scale. When this news came out, public pressure forced him to donate his salary to the Time’s Up fund, to fight against future wage discrimination. That may not have been what peoples’ end goal was in mind when shaming him on social media, but now we’ve all learned that is a possible ending and can plan accordingly when future wage disparities become public.

Figure out who the right target is. Somebody that can be moved: maybe it’s not the elected official but it’s someone who would influence them. The right target might not be the obvious one.

A good example of a campaign with a theory of change was the campaign to get Bill O’Reilly off Fox News in 2017. In this case, O’Reilly & Fox are a match made in hell. Why would they break up? Progressive activists have been trying to hold him accountable for years – with little effect. Rather than appealing to Fox’s conscience (which doesn’t exist), activists this time went after the thing Fox News DOES care about – their money. By targeting donors and making Bill O’Reilly radioactive to advertise on (with an assist by the shocking news of his $32 million dollar secret settlement for sexual harassment), the advertisers on his show got whittled down to nearly nothing. At that point, Fox News said adios (much like with Glenn Beck years before).

Find the right message.

Make sure if you’re contacting Congress, you’re asking members to either co-sponsor (or stop co-sponsoring) an existing bill, or vote yes or no on a specific bill. When it comes down to it, as elected officials that’s all they’re likely to do. Asking them to “stop the war” or “work on clean energy” is a nice idea, but ineffective. And if you want to inspire them to write a bill, online advocacy is probably not the right approach.

Note that some CRMs let you do “multi content targeted actions” to set up “thank you/spank you” campaigns – so you can send a positive message to a legislator that supports you and a persuasive message to one who doesn’t. In other words, people in Vermont shouldn’t be sending Bernie Sanders a message asking him to defund war – he’s already a leader on this issue!

Also make sure you are allowing for customization of your message by your supporters. The idea of supporters going off-message may be scary – if you let people write their own email, who knows what they’ll say — but according to Congressional Management Foundation research, members of Congress and their staff are much more influenced by customized messages than mass emails (or mail for that matter). Letting your supporters speak for themselves will make Congress take their message more seriously.

Give your threats teeth, let elected officials know they’ll be held accountable for how they vote. Figure out what the elected official cares about, and you’ve found a good lever. Most politicians want to eventually be re-elected. So they all care about votes, volunteers, and money. You could have your members (who happen to be their constituents) make pledges of support, or withdrawal of support, based on what they do on an issue.

In Mark Walberg’s case, he is possibly used to some bad publicity regarding his acting. But one of the reasons why he is one of the most highly paid actors in the world, is his likeable image overall. He will go pretty far to protect that, giving up millions in this case to guard his future large paychecks. When the online buzz around his paycheck got so loud, he was forced to take action before his reputation took a permanent hit.

Plan an effective delivery of your petition.

Whether or not you have a self-delivering petition, sending emails to your member of Congress means you’re joining the vast undifferentiated sea of all the other advocacy groups emailing to Congress on all the other issues out there. And sadly it’s unlikely to make a difference, for several reasons.

To cut through the clutter and get their attention, you need to have a great delivery planned for petitions and actions.

The most effective online organizations deliver their petitions in person with great fanfare, and get video and photos to report back to their members. This way your supporters will know that you keep your word, and that their signatures are not going into a black hole. Also it’s an opportunity to get press, and use the power of earned media to increase the pressure on your intended target.

Here’s some tips on how to have an effective petition delivery to an advocacy target.

Consider easier targets than Congress.

They get bombarded with emails (on both sides of an issue) every day, and election years also mean substantive legislation is not likely to happen at all. Corporate targets are much easier to move. Consumer corporations are scared of losing business, so they listen to pressure. State and local elected officials can be more sensitive to online pressure too, because they see so much less of it.

For example, the progressive group UltraViolet often works on issues outside of Congress – like pressuring Lou Anna Simon (Michigan State University President) to step down, after the Larry Nassar abuse scandal. A few days later, she unexpectedly did. It’s a lot easier to get attention and make change when you’re pressuring a person or an organization that is unused to public pressure at a large scale.

There are two ways to go about this in most CRMs. You can either set up a petition and you handle the delivery, or a self-delivering action — if you can get the email address of a high-ranking official at a corporation with influence over the issue (or their public affairs dept.) or the local elected official. Just be aware you might be sending thousands of emails to somebody that is probably not used to it! How they react to that is unpredictable. Some corporate targets could shut off incoming email from your IP address in the middle of a heavy campaign, so action-takers may start getting bounce backs. Have a plan for what you do if this happens.

Be up front with the details on your online action. Be clear in your emails and on the action page itself what your theory of change is (how signing the petition will actually solve the problem), what the deadline is, and what the delivery plan is.

Take advantage of an automatic redirect opportunity. With most CRMs, you can easily redirect people after they sign a petition to a “tell a friend” page with social media sharing and email options to spread the word – or maybe a fundraising page to help pay for the campaign. Just don’t let them be redirected to nowhere, or it’s a big missed opportunity. (Note this holds true for when people first sign up for your email list, or even when they donate – good opportunity to redirect them to a tell a friend page there too.)

Also take advantage of the auto-responder. You can craft an email (usually with pretty similar content to the tell a friend page) that will be directly sent to the petition signer after signing. We’ve seen significant social media sharing coming from these auto-triggered emails, so they do work.

Make the action step easy to find and appealing to take. Try to make the action page text short enough that the form part begins above the fold – so people don’t miss the petition part. Consider eliminating a lot of your website navigation (like menu bars) on action and donation pages to focus people on action as well. If you have someone on your team who’s good at CSS they can do wonders in making the action page look better than the standard format that most CRMs spits out. Also make sure your actions look great and are easy to use on mobile devices.

Make sure your email has a call out box or a linked sentence encouraging action (“click here to tell someone to do something”) visible in the first 100 words of the email/ “above the fold”. Shiny buttons can work here too. Make it super easy for people to know what you’re asking them to do, and for them to do it.

If you’re a multi-issue group, you should aggressively segment your list based on issue-preference to keep total mail volume down and open & click rates up. . If someone cares about the environment, they may or may not care about ending the war. Try to send targeted emails, and then only if they perform really well consider doing a full list send. In most CRMs you can use groups or tags for keeping track of interests, and you can set up your action itself to automatically tag or group people who sign it. Then just make sure you use that targeting when sending future email blasts.

You can also separate out your list into actives and inactives, or figure out what types of activities people like to do and then cater to their preferences.

Take advantage of every channel to reach supporters with your action. i.e. if you’re sending an email, are you also putting a link to the petition on the front page of your website? Are you posting on Facebook with a link, are you tweeting it out, as well as retweeting and thanking all the people who tweet your petition (you should)?

It’s important to make sure your online and offline efforts are integrated too. If you’re talking about one thing in your email, another on your website, and something else on the doors or phones or by mail, that may confuse your supporters and limit your impact.

Finally, report back: win lose or draw. If your supporters care enough to sign a petition, they want to know what happens next. This is also a good opportunity for fundraising or follow up actions, if that makes sense on your issue. It’s hopefully pretty easy in your CRM to use action-history targeting to reach only the signers of a specific petition for follow-up emails.

Have more questions or need help making online advocacy more effective for your non-profit or political campaign? Contact PowerThru today to make your online actions awesome!


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