A Groundswell of Support: Six Keys to a Real Grassroots Advocacy Campaign

This piece is part of StrategyCorp’s Groundswell series on grassroots advocacy. 

How many people write letters to their elected officials anymore? Stuffed in an envelope, then addressed, stamped, and dropped in a mailbox?

Long before COVID-19, advocacy went digital. Emails, not handwritten notes. @Replies, not letters to the editor. Hashtags, not bumper stickers. It’s 2021.

Alongside these updates, the paradigm shifted: Bottom-up methods of effecting change have become the norm. And the top-down model—elite stakeholders influencing decisions from their policy perch—is diminishing, or so it seems.

Up is now down and down is now up. Influencing policy has gone grassroots.

Internet entrepreneurs have noticed. By our count, there are at least 50 English language campaign apps and platforms available (for a fee) that do everything from collect petition signatures to upload selfie videos for a decision-maker to see.

Most people have been invited to make use of these tools by a well-meaning friend or neighbour: protect this historic building, oppose that tax hike, tell your city councillor to put up a new stop sign. Or take the climate voter pledge, and if you’d like, throw in a few bucks while you’re at it.

Click. Click. Done.

Stay out of the sand trap

When 600 people send an automated email like this, it is real grassroots action or just repetitive slacktivist flotsam?

Well, what do its recipients think?

Ask nearly any staffer, but start with the most junior ones tasked with constituent contact: what happens to the 600 identical emails that arrive on a hot topic? Same subject line, same body text? The answer: inbox filters.

You’ve probably heard of “astroturfing,” a clever label for fake grassroots. But this isn’t that. Usually the emailers are real stakeholders, citi`zens with validly held opinions, who took the actions requested of them. No actors were paid to send emails or tweet at local politicians. It’s not phony; it’s just not very persuasive.

Call it the sand trap, because it’s adjacent to the grassroots and easy to get stuck in. (It also means your last shot probably landed with a thud.)

How can an organization be more successful? And what should we look for in a strategic campaign firm? Here are six keys to effective grassroots advocacy:

1. Build support, not an app

Remember that while digital tools can automate message delivery, they can’t automate passion for the issue. Even with many more channels to reach audiences, the motivating factors for engagement remain mostly unchanged.

The right grassroots strategy asks the big questions to find and activate that critical base of support: Whose lives are affected? So what? Why should the recipient of this message care? What happens if people do nothing?

Worry less about technological capabilities, especially in the early-going. Great campaigns locate and animate advocates, then provide an outlet to communicate with key decision-makers.

2. Educate and persuade with perspective

We see it all the time: advocacy efforts don’t take off because the issue hasn’t been properly explained. Most stories need to be told from beginning, with as little jargon as possible.

Myopia is a typical cause. That’s where the company or organization needing grassroots support is too close to the problem to describe it in ordinary terms. A related concern is key players fallaciously assuming a level of common knowledge about their industry or policy issue.

Using the grassroots metaphor, stay out of the weeds. In internet parlance, ELI5. An (inadvertent) insiders-only campaign is rarely effective; inherently, the pool of potential advocates will be too small if only those in-the-know understand what’s being communicated.

A good strategic campaign firm adds this layer of perspective. Their goal is to build the case block by block, while avoiding superfluous details, so that the broadest possible audience can engage.

There are techniques to ensure the messaging is being done right. If polling is part of your campaign, include message testing in your research. The exercise of writing poll questions on detailed policy matters is one we often find clarifying, especially if the survey-takers we’re aiming for are typical uninitiated members of the public. If polling or surveys are not viable options, A/B testing of different messages in social ad sets can be both revelatory and inexpensive.

3. Don’t play the numbers game

Sixty thoughtfully written and unique emails from grassroots supporters, each explaining why the issue is important to the author, will go further than the 600 identical ones. We promise. Or maybe you only need 31? Or 73? It’s hard to say. That’s because a good strategy firm will set the right expectations for you: there is no magic number that spells success.

That means no bots, no blast texts, no form emails. Because when the spam folder doesn’t catch it, the inbox filter will. And even if the email volume is brought to lawmakers’ attention, they know how long it takes to fill out a few fields and hit submit.

Instead, focus on quality and storytelling. Each advocate needs to let the targeted reader know why this matters. Cultivating ground-level voices will also pay dividends down the road. Anyone who takes the time to write an authentic email is a prime candidate to submit testimony at a public meeting, sign an op-ed in the local paper, or invite friends to a coalition Facebook page.

(Now, just to be clear—a good campaign needs to build capacity by attracting signups and opt-ins. It’s critical to collect data and amass a big group of supporters. However, this doesn’t mean every time someone signs a petition that a prefab email should fly out the door.)

4. Be creative and import some inspiration

The best viral content is original content. And the best advocacy ideas are the ones that your target has never seen before. Look for a firm that draws on the experience of its staff trained in other political environments, especially the cutting-edge practices in the United States. Many places in Europe and Latin America are also known for innovative campaigns.

The array of digital communication options is growing daily, so there’s no reason to limit yourself to what’s been done already.

Some of the most effective advocacy these days is DIY and user-submitted content like short videos (think of TikTok or Instagram Reels). Put your audience in a position to show their enthusiasm. Even stodgy politicians like a little entertainment, and it’s never against the rules to make an issue fun or engaging.

5. Go offline (and then bring it back online)

There’s a whole world out there beyond LED screens. Really. The first challenge is targeting well, since less is known about an audience unlinked to any digital profile.

That’s also why one goal of every analog communication should be to bring the target recipient into the campaign’s online fold. Marketers sometimes call these offline-to-online conversions. In your case, can you get an email address, a follow on Twitter, or an online petition signature?

Let’s use direct mailings as an example. When targeted smartly, mail still works (very well, actually). Consider including a reply card on all mail pieces, ideally with return postage paid. That will allow a good campaign to collect an email address or social handle to incorporate this supporter (or persuadable skeptic) into future digital communications. Every reply is helpful, even without any new data, as there are many services that can match physical addresses to social media accounts.

Something as old-school as large newspaper ads can also work in the right context. What if the ad page can be used as a placard to wave at a Zoom public meeting or as a selfie background with your campaign’s hashtag? What if it includes an ordering form for a lawn sign? Always consider possibilities for interaction between the unplugged and plugged-in world.

6. Avoid fuzzy social media math

Just because a good grassroots firm can’t say which constituent email or Instagram post is going to tip the scales doesn’t mean there’s no way to track a campaign’s success.

Set out the key objectives, then look for measurables that emphasize action rather awareness. Don’t be afraid to stress-test them. See what happens if changes are made and look for proof of concept. Often the best campaigns’ KPI data is a lagging indicator; in other words, the campaign will feel bigger than it is, although the metrics should eventually catch up.

If you have the budget, look into surveys or polling. Is the needle moving?

Bottom Line: Build sustainably, engage authentically

There are no shortcuts. Be skeptical of “just add water” sales pitches. Great advocacy campaigns require genuine people sharing authentic stories, not technology that captures dittoes and forwards them on. As your organization invests in advocacy, avoid that sand trap and make sure you partner with a strategic firm that follows these six principles:

  1. Target and cultivate potential supporters
  2. Communicate without being in the weeds
  3. Remember that usually 60 > 600
  4. Think creatively and outside your political context
  5. Use offline tactics and convert them to online engagement
  6. Meaningfully track success

Seek expert advice

For many organizations, this kind of campaign is a once in a decade proposition, so it has to be done right. For others, it’s easy to get stuck in a one-size-fits-all campaign routine. If you’re not sure how to design an effective approach, or you think your organization could be running a better advocacy program, please reach out. We are happy to work with you to create winning ground-up campaigns or advise you on your existing efforts—just shoot us an email at digital@strategycorp.com when you’re ready.

About StrategyCorp Groundswell™

From planning to execution, our Groundswell™ integrated campaigns win by building and mobilizing support for your project, proposal, or policy position. First, we research and set the message. Then, using targeting technology and social media, we identify potential grassroots and coalition supporters. Finally, we activate your base, converting constituents into advocates for your issue. We’re tracking and measuring as we go along, always using analytics to guide our strategy.