A few weeks ago, my colleague, Emily Goodstein, introduced me to her friend, Boris* who works as a sysadmin for a US Senator’s office. Over the course of our conversation, Boris shared some easy to understand reasons why some online advocacy tactics should be encouraged over others. So, I bring to you this article on the DOs and DON’Ts of conducting online advocacy campaigns.
DO: Encourage your constituents to tell their own stories. This best practice is confirmed by the Partnership for a More Perfect Union’s research on what will help sway an undecided decision maker. By getting your constituents to personalize their message, their opinion will carry more weight. Plus, although non-profit advocacy campaigns are now viewed as completely legitimate activities, there is still a not-so-healthy degree of skepticism about campaigns that generate oodles of identical form messages.
DON’T: Personalize your constituent’s messages for them: whether it’s through functionality that allows you to randomly rotate through multiple flavors of an action alert or some other robo-writing app, this is not in your organization’s best interest. Almost every congressional office uses a Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) platform to manage inbound constituent communications and those systems are employing available technology to identify all the messages that are part of a single organization’s campaign. Let’s face it, you’d need to invest a ton of time and energy into creating faux personalized versions of your messages that will succeed in pulling the wool over the eyes of congressional staffers. Unless you are going to hire a PR firm to manage a complex set of faux constituents for you, your time would be better spent on authentic efforts to get your constituents to understand why it’s worth their extra effort to personalize their message. (Note: And hiring a PR firm to do this isn’t wise either. In fact, nothing about faux constituents is wise.)
DO: Take the time to categorize your action alert with the right webform mapping code. Most software, including Convio Advocacy, let you categorize an action alert as being related to health care, animal welfare, national security, or about 50 other topics. By taking the time to correctly flag your alert, you will make it easier for the Representative’s or Senator’s CRM system to do its job and put it in the right legislative correspondent’s queue. It also doesn’t hurt for you to build strong relationships with the staffers who cover your issues.
DON’T: “Help” the staffers out by using a congressional staffer’s email address as the “target” of your action alert campaign. This is akin to conducting a DoS attack on the staffer’s inbox. When a staffer gets 1000 identical emails in the course of an hour, they can’t do their job. And, guess what they do about that? They ask their sysadmin to make it stop. In 5 minutes, Boris is able to honor a staffer’s request by blocking any messages coming from folks that aren’t in their contacts list. And, since these messages weren’t addressed to an elected official, they never get registered as constituent communications. At best, you are sending your constituent’s messages into the trash – creating zero impact with them.
DON’T: Disguise your organization’s involvement in the generation of the letters. Guess what?: congressional staffers have access to Google. You know how that professor used Google to look up a paragraph of text from someone’s mid-term and bust him/her for plagiarism? Well congressional staffers can do the same thing to find the organization’s website where the action alert is hosted. SEO baby!
DO: brand your organization and letters you send to elected officials. Unlike 5 years ago, online advocacy is now a respected form of communication—own that! Interact with Hill offices in a respectful way, present cogent arguments for policy change, and mobilize constituents so elected officials will take note when they see your organization’s name on letters. Before your lobbyist goes to meet with a member’s office on one of your issues, provide them a stack of all the letters that your constituents have sent to him/her on the issue that’ll be discussed in the meeting. We call this the “thud” factor.
DON’T: Think online advocacy, alone, has the power to win a campaign. Just as with your fundraising campaigns, multi-channel is where it’s at.
DO: Approach every legislative campaign with a well-planned and well-executed strategy. Use all the tools in your toolbox. Focus your efforts on influencing the fence-sitters and thanking your biggest supporters. Don’t waste too much time on trying to get your biggest opponents to do a one-eighty.
At the end of the day, effective communications with Congress are all about authenticity. If you want to lay the groundwork for a winning campaign – this year, next year, and five years from now – it’s in your best interest to be sensitive to the congressional staffers who are receiving, reading, and responding to your constituents’ messages. In the short term, they’ll understand that your organization’s campaigns are legitimate. In the long term, you’ll have built relationships with staffers who may wind up in positions of higher authority in the future.
*Name changed to protect identity