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Hate him or love him, President Trump has turned political advocacy into a national avocation. Not in decades have Americans shown such determination to follow current events and participate in civic life. The stakes are high, the rules of engagement have changed, and the challenges for nonprofits and trade associations are daunting.
But even with the unprecedented level of engagement from American citizens in the public policy arena, that doesn’t mean campaigns and advocacy groups are automatically going to harness an unprecedented level of engagement. Rather, it will depend on how well organizations and their consultants and government affairs agencies understand the new rules of today’s environment.
The Old Ways Don’t Work
Given the Republican control of the House, Senate and presidency, Republican consultants and center-right agencies are in high demand because of their connections to the party in power. These outside experts are encouraging clients to execute quickly on their advocacy strategies to ensure that elected officials hear about their key priorities before the playing field gets too noisy.
Online petitions, which used to be a common method of advocate acquisition, oversaturated the market and platforms such as Change.org no longer even offer them. Many associations and nonprofits are going through a process now where they are culling their email lists to focus on their most active advocates – usually about 10 percent of their total list. When campaigns all flood the same channel, the channel gets more expensive – and potentially, in the short run, less effective. The results become less proportional to the spending, and marginal return on investment declines. Consequently, the quality of the communications become more important than the channel itself.
Facebook is convenient because it collects engagement data and it facilitates widespread and visible social sharing activity. It’s also a key channel for lawmakers – 100 percent of the House and Senate actively use Facebook to communicate with their constituents, and as a result, are highly attuned to constituents who communicate with them through their official Facebook pages.
While it’s risky to bet every dollar on one channel, it’s even more foolish to spend without measuring the effects. To balance their strategy across text messaging, radio, email, social, mobile, TV, and other mediums, campaign managers must constantly experiment and measure with whichever channel is optimal today.
The Influx of Tech
Consultants and agencies are finding new opportunities and new capabilities by deploying best-in-class technology platforms for advocacy campaigns during the first 100 days of Trump’s administration. They are also moving away from one-size-fits-all platforms that don’t allow for flexibility and lack the specialization required for innovative campaign management.
Organizations are using CRMs, texting platforms, email platforms, social management platforms, and advocacy platforms to run integrated campaigns that engage advocates, track their activity, and make it easy for them to target lawmakers across multiple channels. Digital agencies and consultants well-versed in these tools are finding a potential edge, especially in measuring campaigns.
Technology permits consultants to choose how they measure victory before launching a campaign. Metrics on communications to lawmakers, social shares, media mentions, click-throughs, et cetera. can illustrate how components of a strategy contributed to political outcomes ranging from cabinet appointments to new policies. I cannot overstate the importance of this change. Consultants and agencies have an opportunity to leverage technology platforms to help advocacy campaigns act, measure, and adapt on the fly.
Again, strategy isn’t about spending. The best campaigns will direct powerful tools and a modest amount of funding towards high-value action. To accomplish that, I advocate a new ladder of engagement for consultants.
Skip to the Top
Let’s define “engagement” as any action that your advocates take to further your cause. The ladder of engagement ranks the values of actions this way:
Traditional Ladder Social Media
As you can see, social media defies the hierarchy. An unfocused Facebook rant could discourage potential advocates, creating little or no engagement. Conversely, one emotive tweet could reach national news media, provoke a response from the president, and cause a blizzard of action at minimal cost. It’s like playing blackjack with infinite chips. Why wouldn’t you test out new social tactics and messaging until you win a jackpot?
On the new ladder of engagement, any organization, regardless of its size, will be able to skip to the top rung of visibility, defying the old spend-to-win rules. The stakes of the Trump presidency, the rise of nonpartisan technology, and the new rules of engagement will breathe life into civic participation.
Jeb Ory is co-founder and CEO of Phone2Action, which supplies social advocacy and civic engagement tools to connect constituents with their elected officials.