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Give me your grassroots brain, give me your advocacy thinking

|January 24, 2017
Field of grass

It’s a good time for grassroots and digital advocacy thinkers. If you’ve run political campaigns online, launched grassroots movements, gotten excited about micro-targeting, swing districts and ridings, along with activist progression models, now is a time to shine. Your brain is in demand today. You can help.

This is a call to arms.


Colleagues, peers and industry pundits wrote many predictions as 2016 became 2017.

Quoting and/or paraphrasing, many of these trends are representative of grassroots thinking. Or to switch the perspective, if you think in terms of grassroots and advocacy, you have been well-primed for public relations and marketing trends in our time. These trends beg for an advocacy mindset—whether you’re a consultant or work in a company, association or non-profit.

Here are some examples of what I mean.

Grassroots Thinking to Grapple with Dark Social

Dark social is the stuff happening online that can’t be tracked. This includes private social media groups, sharing within messaging apps, stripping identifiers from URLs, and sharing and messaging tools like Snapchat where analytics can’t read what’s happening. (It’s almost as if people didn’t want their every online movement catalogued).

Movement-building and advocacy are all about influencers, and discovering the job-to-be-done that will motivate, inspire and recruit. Advocacy is about finding those who will not only share a message, but also proselytize and recruit.

Mark Penn started talking about microtargeting in the early to mid 2000s. Somewhere around 2004, before social was a thing, I ran a campaign where someone in a rural town personally recruited, via email, over 500 other people to a cause (this was memorable). Her conversion rate? Something like 85% (this was astonishing). I studied her profile to death and emulated personas based on any insight I could find. Yes, the identification of influencers is much more exciting and scientific in the age of big data and social media, but if you’ve been working in digital advocacy at all, this is not new to you. This is where your head is already. You just have more toys today.

Data-Driven is the Language of Digital Advocacy

I have a confession to make: I have trouble with the phrase “data-driven”, even though it has been a guiding mantra of my career. Data-driven excitement today sometimes implies that making judgements based on data is a new idea or worse, that everything done before the buzzword was coined was somehow not data-driven. That we’ve just been making decisions with a Magic 8-Ball and blind faith.

Yes, we can be more data-driven now than ever, because there is more data and more ways to sift through it, and the ad agencies have caught up to the notion. But if you’ve worked in grassroots organizing or digital advocacy, you’ve always relied on your data. Advocacy only works if you have advocates, and you don’t know who they are, or how committed they are, if you don’t have data. And you can’t earn their data (behavioural or provided) without a data-driven campaign, period. That’s been true since before political campaigns used the internet, took a great leap forward with the '04 George Bush run (and Howard Dean in the primary), and was remade and improved with Obama’s digital ground game in ‘08 and ‘12.

Data-driven isn’t new. You’ve been doing it all along if you’ve worked in grassroots. You can just do it more now, if you know the tools and methods. Amen.

Account-Based Marketing, Owning Your Own = Natural Advocates

Organizations with customer lists—email addresses or other identifiers—can do a lot to reach and activate people. Folks have already opted-in and said “talk to me”. We can use anything from retargeting based on email id or Facebook custom targets or a new content strategy for mass email.

In grassroots, this might be called “starting with your natural advocates” or “securing the base”. Use what you have, well, to reach people who have declared their natural affinity. Honour the relationship with those who have signed on to hear from you.

Why should your natural advocates care? Why should they take action? What message will they carry, and perhaps most importantly, what will spur them to act for the movement/cause/brand/idea, and spread the word? This is account-based marketing applied. This is speaking to your grasstops—or your employee advocates, or your supply chain, or your donors. This is the digital advocacy feedback loop in action, starting with existing relationships and those who’ve already raised their hand.

You Had Me at Mass Email

The death of email was foretold when social media started, when texting soared, when Facebook gave you an email address, and when Google started messing with inbox layouts. Yet it has not gone anywhere. Email is the landline of the internet, but chords aren’t being cut.

But email has changed. While open rates aren’t what they used to be, it’s all relative based on the quality of your message and affinity of your list. In 2016 alone, we’ve managed several campaigns with 50% plus open rates, due to tight cultivation of natural advocates, smart writing, and a poignant cause. Email is still the stalwart rudder of digital advocacy.

With a strong email list, you can make a lot happen. With the dark social rise and a finicky Facebook algorithm that’s more pay-to-play than organic, it’s a great time to be a mass-email grassroots thinker because you can own your audience and measure everything.

Always On

Always On speaks for itself. It’s the smart, current, newsroom mentality applied across all channels with frequency and agility. It’s stock and flow content, planned, multi-channel, relevant, measured, strengthened by a feedback loop.

Political campaigns have to be always on, shrewdly applied to the right channels for the right people at the right time, and have always had to be so to be anywhere near effective. It’s just evolving into more and different today. Always On is a prerequisite for advocacy online done well. It’s what advocates expect and need to stay interested.

Apply Advocacy to Everything Digital

Anyone working in grassroots organizing, digital grassroots, campaigning and advocacy have a mindset. That mindset is data-driven, nimble, always on, always doing more with less with every channel and every tool. This mindset serves the industry well today, as we have more advanced toys to play with and more and better data. This is the mindset of the now and future communicator, whatever the discipline, whatever the industry.

Give me your grassroots brain.