How to Change Hearts and Minds in the Age of Digital Advocacy
Do you know what techniques political insiders use to win you over? No, we’re not talking about the campaign tactics Trump and Biden used to get you to the polls. We’re referring to under-the-radar grassroots strategies, such as those used to restart production on a certain chemotherapy medication for children.
In recent years, grassroots campaign leaders have become just as sophisticated as their electoral advocacy peers — who focus on specific political candidates or ballot measures — at getting you to share that Facebook post to prevent animal cruelty.
But what exactly is grassroots advocacy? In short, a grassroots advocacy campaign is an organized and sustained effort to mobilize individuals to influence — perhaps enthusiastically support, vehemently oppose, or just neutralize — a specific policy or issue. Nonprofits often leverage grassroots advocacy tactics, but they can be used by anybody.
We asked our community of industry experts to open their playbooks, revealing strategies that grassroots campaign leaders use to sway you every day, even if it’s just to make Baby Yoda an official emoji.
Their techniques are extensively researched, highly nuanced, and consistently effective. You may have already said “yes” to more than a few of them. Let’s take a look at the 14 grassroots campaign strategies that get results.
The “Flood” campaign curates advocate messages over a specific period of time, then delivers them all at once. Often combined with digital advertising, the Flood campaign is designed to create awareness and demonstrate a substantial number of constituents who are unified and mobilized for a specific cause at a given time.
Believed to have its origins in boxing, the “One-Two Punch” is a quick combination akin to a jab and uppercut. Sports analogies aside, in advocacy, this can be implemented by releasing several campaigns in rapid succession to overwhelm the target. By combining an email campaign with a follow-up call campaign shortly thereafter, the One-Two Punch can have an impact.
The “Petition-Backed” campaign has several moving parts and may include grasstops. First, create a petition where you gather a significant number of signatures around an issue, position, or policy. Then, with grasstops and/or advocate outreach, make your targets aware of the surmounting mass appeal of your campaign. Successful Petition-Backed campaigns generate peer pressure, group identification, FOMO (“Fear of Missing Out”), communal fellowship, and viral reach on the advocate side, while demonstrating broad support or opposition on the target side.
Successful “Tweet Storm” campaigns generate peer pressure, group identification, FOMO (“Fear of Missing Out”), communal fellowship, and viral reach on the advocate side, while demonstrating broad support or opposition on the target side. This campaign is similar in process to the Petition-Backed campaign but uses social media — in this case, Twitter — as the vehicle to ignite activity and garner mass appeal. Then, with grasstops and/or advocate outreach, make your targets aware of the surmounting mass appeal of your campaign. As an added benefit, this strategy takes your campaign public. For extra impact, add elected officials to the tweets and hashtags.
Thank and Spank
While not new, “Thank and Spank” works well when combined with other campaign techniques. This campaign essentially thanks those targets who are on your side (co-sponsored a bill, voted in favor of the organization, etc.) and spanks those who are not by publicly shaming and drawing attention to their actions or lack thereof. This campaign approach can easily be broken out by chamber, co-sponsors, or votes to focus your efforts. More often than not, those being “thanked” in the campaign align with the organization while those getting “spanked” do not.
A “Media Blitz” can play a role in any advocacy campaign. In this strategy, the media are included as targets of the campaign. After researching and determining which media outlets (local news, blogs, etc.) are covering or likely to cover the issue, add them to the mix of targets to create additional pressure on elected officials. Writing letters to the editors combined with well-crafted emails and tweets can create just the media spectacle your campaign needs.
“Slow Drip” alludes to a gradual demise resulting from numerous minor problems that add up over time. This can be an effective strategy if you have a longer period, perhaps several months, to manage the campaign. Often coupled with digital advertising to attract and assemble additional advocates, the Slow Drip campaign delivers a barrage of constituent messages at predetermined intervals to wear down the target until they are no longer a threat.
Shock and Awe
When facing an unwanted and looming outcome (such as a floor or committee vote), the “Shock and Awe” campaign can be effective in thwarting a particular legislative proposal or at least delaying it to buy time to battle another day. Getting its name from military strategy, Shock and Awe has the most impact when the campaign has highly motivated advocates. Frequently combined with a digital advertising campaign to amass supporters, Shock and Awe utilizes all modes of contact targeting — including in-person meetings, emails, calls, text messaging, faxes, and social media — hitting the target hard from all sides simultaneously.
Carrot and Stick
The metaphor “Carrot and Stick” refers to a motivational technique that combines reward and punishment to encourage certain outcomes. When used in an advocacy campaign, the proponents emphasize the positive outcomes of accommodating their position while outlining the fallout if the target does not acquiesce — thereby incentivizing a positive outcome.
“Mounting Pressure” is a tactic frequently used in party politics and elections, but it can also be used in advocacy campaigns when there is growing disdain for a particular position embraced by legislative leadership. For example, advocates can target committee members and reveal deficiencies of the committee chairman’s proposal. This is to generate peer pressure on the chairman to rescind the proposal before the committee. Depending on time constraints, other advocacy tools could be used including email blasts and text message campaigns. If behind-the-scenes pressure is needed, a grasstops operation may be mobilized.
The “Dual-Track” campaign might require enhanced coordination, but the impact can be impressive and rewarding. When the opportunity presents itself, several advocacy groups coordinate to launch simultaneous attacks on the same target — but from different viewpoints — and in the process, stretch the target’s resources and render them less effective. Depending on the time needed to accomplish the goal, various advocacy tools can be used from targeted emails to text messaging. A grasstops effort may be mobilized if behind-the-scenes pressure is needed.
Odd Man Out
The “Odd Man Out” campaign is designed to highlight a particular legislator’s position as not aligned with others or the overall legislative body. By directing advocacy activity towards acknowledging those who are aligned while mentioning those legislators who are not, the campaign places peer pressure in hopes of forcing a concession. Depending on the time frame needed to reach the goal, a number of advocacy tools can be used from emails to text messages. If behind-the-scenes pressure is needed, a grasstops operation may be mobilized.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
The common expression “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” — when you’re presented with two undesirable or unacceptable choices — describes when two or more advocacy campaigns are launched simultaneously, leaving the target with no political cover. The first campaign criticizes the target’s current position while the second exposes the target’s previous position as counter to its current one. By exposing the target as a flip-flopper, you have them right where you want them: between a rock and a hard place.
“Strange Bedfellows” is when two or more groups with extremely different ideologies coalesce their campaigns around the same issue. This kind of campaign can initially confuse the target and stretch their resources so much that they lose effectiveness. Once again, depending on the time needed to accomplish the goal, various advocacy tools can be used from targeted emails to text messaging. If behind-the-scenes pressure is needed, grasstops efforts may be mobilized.
Grassroots advocacy leaders use creative techniques to win you over every day. And while they differ on many accounts, the most successful campaigns all have one thing in common: a meticulous game plan. We hope these 14 grassroots strategies guide you in creating even more compelling campaigns that get results — and change hearts and minds along the way.
Steven Marciniak is the Founder and CEO of PolicyEngage a software company that helps public affairs professionals track legislation and regulations, engage advocates and donors, and monitor media.