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What is Digital Advocacy? Everything Beginners Need to Know
Digital advocacy has transformed civic engagement by mobilizing constituents through technology. Learn everything you need to know in this comprehensive guide.
While advocacy campaigns have been around for centuries, the modern definition of advocacy has changed. Today, any organized effort to influence public perception of an issue, the policy-making process, or particular legislators is considered political advocacy. This definition includes both traditional and digital advocacy campaigns.
Advocacy groups conduct their campaigns quite differently than they did even a few years ago. Digital apps, social media, and the rise of mobile browsing have altered the way people connect with their representatives. This has subsequently reinvented how constituents participate in the legislative process, like sending emails and social media messages instead of letters, for example.
This may sound a bit complex, especially for fledgeling grassroots advocacy groups looking to launch their first campaign. Fortunately, many digital advocacy practices make running an advocacy campaign more convenient, while also empowering advocacy groups to make an even bigger impact.
To help your advocacy group understand the essentials and adapt to new best practices, this article will answer three fundamental questions about digital advocacy:
- What is Digital Advocacy?
- What Do Digital Advocacy Tools Do?
- How is Digital Advocacy Changing the Advocacy Landscape?
Once you have the answers to these questions, your organization will be equipped to start asking more specific questions about your own advocacy preparedness. This can include assessing your techstack, investing in new resources, and studying examples of past campaigns.
But first, let’s start with the most pressing question: what is digital advocacy?
What is Digital Advocacy?
Digital advocacy describes efforts to mobilize constituents to participate in political advocacy through the use of technology. In other words, digital advocacy campaigns are campaigns that leverage advocacy software to engage with their supporters, stay organized, and even simplify key advocacy activities.
Of course, more goes into a digital advocacy campaign than just using software. Each advocacy campaign is different and will be shaped by the organization’s goals, resources, and audience. However, there are similarities, including how these campaigns are run, advocacy best practices, and the benefits they can earn:
Running a Digital Advocacy Campaign
Advocacy campaigns take time. Many last months, and some can even span years. However, while timelines vary most advocacy campaigns—both traditional and digital—will generally have the same five phases in this order:
- Preparation. Before sharing your advocacy campaign with the public, your organization will need time to prepare. This includes establishing your campaign timeline, setting measurable goals, creating external marketing materials, and ensuring you have the right software to power your campaign. This last step is especially important for digital advocacy campaigns as most of your activities and communication will take place online.
- Advocate Acquisition. Advocacy campaigns need activists to succeed. Start your campaign by gathering support with volunteer recruitment postings, advertisements, events, information sessions, and more. For digital advocacy campaigns, this will primarily involve posting on social media platforms, as many of your volunteers will do their advocating there.
- Advocacy activities. After assembling and training your volunteers, you’ll be able to launch your campaign in full. Campaign activities will vary widely, but for digital campaigns, they will usually consist of a concentrated email and social media messaging effort. During this, you’ll need to coordinate with your supporters and encourage them to reach out to their representatives within the same timeframe to make an impact.
- Assessment. Your team will be able to review your advocacy group’s overall accomplishments and determine if you ran a successful campaign. Success will be more obvious for campaigns targeting specific bills, while awareness campaigns may need to take other measurements into account.
- Downtime. Despite the name, your advocacy campaign should strive to stay busy during lulls in activity. After reviewing your campaign’s data, make an effort to stay in touch with your volunteers. Continuing to post and email regularly will let your supporters know your organization is still active, making them more likely to be engaged in your next campaign. Losing touch with too many supporters in between campaigns can prolong your next campaign’s recruitment phase as you’ll need to replace lapsed volunteers.
The exact activities performed during these phases will vary. For example, nonprofit advocacy groups may use their downtime as an opportunity to engage supporters gained from their advocacy campaign with other opportunities their organization offers.
Digital Advocacy Best Practices
Advocacy requires patience as sometimes even the most well-run campaigns may not influence legislators the way they hoped the first time. However, there are strategies your advocacy group can use to give your digital advocacy campaign it’s best chance at success, including:
- Create an engaging, shareable message. Digital advocacy campaigns’ greatest asset is their ability to spread far and wide. One or two viral posts can get far more eyes on your campaign than traditional methods, and a well-written email has the potential to be forwarded through personal networks to someone who can make a difference. Ensure your marketing materials are both engaging and encourage supporters to share, comment, and favorite as much as possible.
- Make getting involved easy. Your supporters are dedicated to your cause, but they have responsibilities and can’t spend all day on their computers completing tasks for your campaign. You can attract more supporters and earn higher volunteer follow-through rates by making participating in your campaign as easy as possible. This can include creating message templates, pairing supporters with their representatives for them, and even telling them exactly when to act.
- Consider what platforms are the most effective. Not every communication channel is equally effective for advocacy. When choosing your platforms, consider who your audience is, then seek out platforms they are likely already using. Plus, some platforms are more effective for certain types of content than others. For instance, you can share full stories about your campaign on Facebook, and use Twitter for quick progress updates.
Implementing some of these practices will require research of both your audience and available digital advocacy tools. However, some best practices can easily be accomplished with the right software tool. For example, many advocacy messaging tools already come equipped with email templates and some even have elected official databases and matching features.
Digital Advocacy Benefits
Traditional advocacy campaigns still have their place, but for the most part, digital advocacy campaigns have too many potential benefits to pass up. Whether you are running a hybrid or fully virtual campaign, with the right strategies and resources, you can look forward to:
- Reaching more supporters. Door-to-door campaigns will likely only ever put your advocacy group in touch with your community. While this can be a powerful support base, taking your advocacy campaign online provides access to a wide range of potential audiences.
- Advocating faster. Online communication moves fast, and if your campaign starts to gain traction, you can likely expect a quick uptick in support. Plus, email, text, and social media posts move far faster than traditional mail, allowing you to instantly get in touch with your supporters, which can be instrumental for strong, coordinated campaign pushes.
- Collecting key data. You can improve your future campaigns by learning from your current ones. With the right digital advocacy software, you can gather data about your supporters, allowing you to build stronger connections with them. For nonprofit organizations, this can even lead to converting advocacy volunteers into supporters, increasing your overall network, and earning more donations.
Additionally, nonprofit organizations have another benefit. Volunteer work conducted online will still count towards corporate volunteer grants, allowing your nonprofit to earn additional revenue while your supporters conduct outreach online.
What Do Digital Advocacy Tools Do?
Digital advocacy tools enable advocacy groups to influence public policy through collective civic engagement. In other words, the term “digital advocacy” encompasses all online activities citizens take part in to influence legislation.
Of course, specific digital advocacy tools have their own unique features. Advocacy software includes a wide range of platforms, and many of them are made for niche activities. Solutions like these can be instrumental for specific campaign activities, but will not be useful for others.
To help your organization find the right digital advocacy tools for your campaign, here are a few software solutions to consider and advice on what to look for when assessing providers:
Digital Advocacy Software
Digital advocacy campaigns inherently need software to function. However, the exact tools your organization should invest in will depend on your organization’s industry and your campaign’s goals and activities. To understand the breadth of advocacy platforms available, here are a few to consider:
- Action alerts. You can coordinate when your supporters get in touch with their representatives and make doing so as convenient as possible with action alerts. Action alerts are automated messages that urge recipients to take immediate action. They include a message template, recommended subject line, and elected official matching tools, helping your supporters get in touch with their representatives as soon as possible.
- Supporter management tools. You can increase your organization’s engagement levels and run more effective campaigns by organizing your supporters. Look for advocacy software that lets you segment and filter your supporters by various traits, creating unique supporter lists for various campaigns.
- Canvassing software. Canvassing is an effective way to get your local community on board with your campaign. You can improve your canvassing efforts by using digital canvassing tools. This software allows your volunteers to canvas from the comfort of their own homes, ensuring they can get in touch with supporters when it’s most convenient for them and avoid wasting time walking to empty houses.
- Bill-tracking tools. If your campaign centers around a specific bill, consider investing in bill tracking software that will allow you to monitor each step of the legislative process. This will help your organization establish a timeline for your digital advocacy campaign and provide timely updates to supporters.
Most digital advocacy groups can benefit from supporter management and communication tools, but as you can assume, not every advocacy campaign will need to track legislation. This demonstrates how some software is more universally useful than others, while niche solutions can shine for specific campaign types.
What to Look for in Your Advocacy Solution
Given the number of available software solutions, be sure to do your research before investing in a digital advocacy platform. Consider both your organization’s highest priorities and your budget. Then, create a list of potential providers. Here are a few core features to look for as you assess each solution:
- An all-in-one platform. If you’re just getting started with digital advocacy or are looking for a more streamlined software solution, consider investing in an all-in-one platform. All-in-one advocacy software ensures all of your core tools, including your CRM, marketing tools, and advocacy management features are integrated and available in one system.
- Supporter engagement tools. Engaging your organization’s members is key for long-term support. Look for platforms that allow you to personalize your messages, stay in touch with supporters while they’re on the go, and collect supporter data, allowing you to further tailor your communications to their interests.
- Mobile-friendliness. Digital advocacy allows your supporters to interact with your advocacy campaign as long as they have access to the internet. Ensure that they can continue participating in your campaign from their phones by investing in mobile-friendly tools. Look for software that allows you to create messages that adapt to mobile and reach out to supporters through text.
As you narrow down potential platforms, don’t hesitate to reach out to providers to ask specific questions and request a demo. This can also be an opportunity to assess each provider’s customer support experience, which can help factor into your final decision.
How is Digital Advocacy Changing the Advocacy Landscape?
The rise of digital advocacy is changing the way that public affairs practitioners, lobbyists, and association professionals perform their roles. To many nonprofit organization staff and lobbyists, political engagement from the grassroots level to the membership level is essential to meeting policy goals. Digital advocacy is increasingly becoming the source of success for policy victories by purpose-driven groups by providing:
- Mass adoption of advocacy tools. Both advocacy organizations and political bodies have increasingly adopted digital advocacy tools, demonstrating how they have transitioned from an optional investment to a must-have for these groups. Often, in order to participate in advocacy campaigns, organizations must have some level of digital advocacy experience.
- High return on investment. Digital advocacy software is intuitive and cost-effective for most interest and advocacy groups, making it possible to participate in the legislative process at increased engagement levels. While most digital advocacy tools come at a cost to an organization using their services, the ROI on investing in an online tool makes the upfront cost worthwhile. Digital advocacy is efficient, effective and a key component to any strong government relations program.
- Increased accessibility. Many traditional advocacy activities, such as door-to-door canvassing and rallies, can be inaccessible to individuals with disabilities, as well as those who live in remote areas. Digital advocacy overcomes these barriers, allowing you to bring your support base together, independent of outside factors.
However, keep in mind that digital advocacy tools are only effective when your team puts them to good use. Implement best practices, stay up-to-date on advocacy trends, and reach out to software providers with strong knowledge bases to ensure you are leveraging your digital advocacy tools to their fullest potential.
Digital advocacy has become the new normal for modern advocacy campaigns, and your organization can make the most of this change through researching current trends, investing in the right resources, and implementing advocacy best practices.
To help your advocacy organization learn more about digital advocacy’s potential and how to get started, explore these resources from Muster:
- 5 Advocacy Examples to Inspire Action and Motivate Change. Get inspired and learn tips for your own campaign with these examples of successful advocacy campaigns.
- Grassroots Advocacy 101: A Guide for Those New to Political Advocacy. Interested in starting your first grassroots advocacy campaign? Learn the basics with this comprehensive guide.
- Nonprofit Advocacy: 4 Ways to Grow Your Org’s Impact. If you’re part of a nonprofit organization, learn how advocacy campaigns can engage your members and further your cause.