What has been almost true for several years has become a reality in 2020: if you are doing political advocacy, it is by definition digital. Your story, your advocates, your opposition, are all taking shape online, with or without your participation.
As we enter the last few months of a most tumultuous year, let’s look at some of the trends shaping online advocacy and how they can help or impact you.
Across Canada it feels like election season. Multiple provinces have active races, while some are waiting and preparing for the shoe to drop. Governments have spent staggering amounts in 2020, and lobbying to get a piece of the pie is moving from altruistic—we are all in this together—to competitive, pragmatic, and action-oriented. The well for government funding might not have run dry, but we are in a new chapter. In this heightened environment, groups seeking favour and funding from elected officials and decision makers are more motivated than ever to activate supporters, build coalitions, and influence media.
As the House of Commons and many provincial legislatures resume in the fall, many of us, including the decision makers, remain working from home (for those who are still working and even have this option) or are bracing for rolling WFH episodes as the pandemic continues. And for many in the public service, just like in other fields of work, this has been exhausting. Zoom fatigue, news fatigue, childcare fatigue, work fatigue—just reading that list is enough to make you tired.
This state of general lethargy means that how we advocate for policy change has shifted more toward digital, and attention has never been more tested and sought after. Digital advocacy will leapfrog ahead in 2020 as organizations embrace it more than ever out of necessity. We have learned that we can adapt and grow in a matter of days and weeks, achieving changes that historically would have taken years to implement.
It also means that the fatigue afflicting the bureaucracy and elected officials seems to be less true for advocates, whose industries are pivoting in multiple ways. If 2020 has shown us anything, it is that rallying to change the status quo is top of mind. Some advocacy partners we work with report that they are seeing record average digital conversion rates for advocacy activity; more than 50% over the same period last year in some cases. Activists are energized and will take action.
It is a good time to ask people to act.
What are some tactics to consider as attention shrinks and advocacy tactics flourish?
1. The white paper is dead; long live the white paper
While a white paper can be an essential medium to capture your point of view and show value for advocates, there is an opportunity to rethink the traditional white paper or multi-chapter report. The opportunity to brief officials and policy influencers face-to-face comes with more challenges and can no longer be assumed. Look to digital opportunities as a way to reach your audience, learn how they engage with your content (do they scroll, do they click, do they share with friends and colleagues), and integrate more dynamic, engaging features to tell your story.
It is smart to “storify” the central tenets of your white paper with the user experience of Instagram and other social platforms. Here’s a great example (with content that might be helpful too).
2. Find unique opportunities to get in front of new audiences
New events and online communities are popping up, allowing you to reach more people with new ideas. Consider reaching your audience through non-traditional avenues such as online seminars and conferences where you could contribute as speaker. Virtual conferences are becoming more cost-effective and less time consuming for both speakers and attendees. These indirect avenues of open dialogue can display confidence, public acceptance and authenticity, in place of what were often only closed-door meetings with public officials.
3. Find like-minded people and team up
Now is not the time to do it alone—finding common ground, solutions and coalitions of support is really important in this environment.
Advocacy by association and coalition is leading the way with influencing policy development: government needs to appease and show fast progress across the board, and they simply have less bandwidth to deal with everyone individually. In this environment of time and attention scarcity, bringing together diverse perspectives that align on the road ahead is more likely to make a positive impact.
Lobbying (digitally and otherwise) by coalition contributes to informed policy with multiple stakeholders at the table to get results to Canadians fast. Government will be more receptive if your cause reflects this mindset.
4. Email is dead; long live email
Consider your inbox during the early days of lockdown; an avalanche of emails updating you as a customer on store policies, response to COVID-19, how staff and customers are keeping safe. Parliamentarians and their staff suffer from the same inundation both at work and at home. While emailing during a WFH situation will never disappear, consider giving air cover to your policy or issue visibility through other tools at your disposal. With hyper-targeting and a bit of strategy, surrounding your audience can be both cost-efficient and effective at conveying your key messages.
Yet, disciplined, measured and strategic email is still the most accurate barometer you have for testing the affinity of your most interested and engaged advocates; it is your best direct line to personal attention. Email metrics and building your email list will remain a staple of good digital grassroots activity today and beyond 2020. Rethink your subject lines. Consider how you structure your emails. Consider what value you bring to a reader in the 1 to 3 sentences they might choose to scan.
5. It’s a world of advocacy toolkits
Make it really, really easy for partners, influencers, and supporters to understand what you stand for, what you are asking for, and how they can help. The best advocacy toolkits are a grab bag of things that serve a broad range of ways to support:
- Social media posts and imagery
- Digital backgrounds for video calls
- Various support options and levels of commitment
- Video and motion graphics to explain what to do and why
Create communications that supporters can easily adapt to the audience and the medium of their choice.
6. Set your advocacy free
There is a crescendo of self-propelled movements causing real change, gripping national and international attention. These passionate and historic social movements are being driven by activists showing up in very personal and meaningful ways.
Tactically this has taken many forms. An organization can help and enable advocacy with advocacy toolkits, frameworks, and constant helpful communication, but they can also accept and encourage loosening the reins. Provide free and open access to the tools, data, words and graphics you have to drive a movement. We are no longer a society of single-issue advocates, and organizations should not be either.
Two examples of this happening: Google Docs has become a critical organizing tool for most mass movement driven by supporters, and Carrd, a simple and quick website builder, has become a quick tool to create action hubs used widely by the Black Lives Matter movement and others.
We hope this helps in your own digital planning as governments and interest groups continue to respond and position themselves at a very unique time. The 2020s will give rise to more challenge and opportunity to many aspects of communication; digital advocacy is no exception.
Megan Lockhart is a former Senior Director, Digital & Advocacy Strategy at NATIONAL Public Relations