5 Hurdles of Digital Advocacy in 2019

We live in a loud world.

Let’s face it – from the hum of fellow commuters’ headphones to the chime of a virtual home assistant thinking she’s been summoned, we are constantly stimulated with noise.

But in the Digital Age, it doesn’t stop there. The online world is a crowded space of news, not-news, facts, opinions, humans, robots and ultimately benefits and drawbacks.

The Public Affairs Council launched its Surround Sound report in tandem with the 2019 Public Affairs Council Digital Media and Advocacy Summit. It found that 90 percent of staffers see Twitter as an effective way to communicate with their constituents, but 46 percent say social media is least beneficial to political discourse. In other words: our leaders use social media as a credible, trusted soapbox of their own, but people’s individual conversations can be noisy and distracting.

I’m a member of the digital strategy team at APCO, and we pride ourselves on constantly pushing our client partners to be more than just noise. Whether it’s a coalition advocating for change or a CPG brand rallying loyal customers to take interest in CSR efforts, our partners want their messages to be heard by people who care – and as many of those people as possible.

So how do you pivot from shouting into a void to delivering the right messages to the right people? These days, digital users are used to encountering opinionated discourse: around 50 percent of Americans have engaged in some form of political or social-minded activity on social media in the past year (Pew, 2018). That’s why at APCO, we often dig into our public affairs roots and take a similar approach to brands and organizations. Knowing people are willing to be active advocates – and knowing brands are expected to take stands on issues – creates the perfect environment to implement this public affairs mindset.

While this is a tried and true method, nothing is set in stone; the digital advocacy landscape is different in 2019 than it was in 2009. But these five hurdles of digital advocacy are what we expect to hold true over time – however our digital landscape changes.

  1. Advocate communications is not “one size fits all.”

People who support the same brand or organization might come from very different places and have very different motivations.

Let’s take the environment. When you read “climate change,” what comes to mind? For some, it might be, “Yes, that’s important.” Others might agree from an environmental perspective, but find the terminology alienating, preferring to talk about one specific aspect, like extreme weather. And some might simply feel nothing or even aversion.

This underlines the old “to each his or her own” philosophy. As algorithms and AI become smarter, so must our communication with people. We won’t get people’s attention if they feel like one of many; it’s our job to make them feel heard and connected to a cause. To effectively and efficiently communicate with everyone who supports our brands and organizations, we must take the time to get to know our audiences and their preferences – even around specific phrases. We can then use tools to easily customize the way we talk to them without reinventing the wheel, helping people feel heard and more likely to take our desired action.

  1. Policymakers are inundated with noise as much as the public.

Our representatives filter through thousands of comments from the public on a daily – even hourly – basis. Think about it this way: when Jim from a vendor sends you an email to discuss your paper needs, will you forward that along to your administrative team or, more likely than not, hit “delete?”

There’s no shame in the game, just remember this applies to legislators, too. When they receive emails from people outside their district – out of their state, even – they’ll similarly ignore it. Direct, purposeful communication to people who are capable of change speaks volumes when a bill ultimately passes or a company policy is modified. We must give advocates of issues – or even brands – the tools they need to be clear and concise about who you are, what you want and how you think they can help.

  1. For high impact, expect a need for high effort.

According to Phone2Action’s State of Advocacy report, 98 percent of all actions sent to legislators in 2018 were via email; phone calls and social only made up two percent. Go against everything your parents told you: a written note is overrated, and a phone call is the ultimate sign of thoughtful, extra effort. Clicking a button to send a prepopulated email off into the abyss is certainly much easier than dialing a number – and you might feel like you’re reaching more people – but the extra dose of effort that comes with having a real conversation with someone could mean much more impact in the long run. To really make your voice heard, do it – literally.

  1. Until there is national legislation, it’s up to us to protect our own online communities.

Since its inception, one of the greatest superpowers of the “world wide web” is that it connects people with common interests or qualities who otherwise would have never interacted. It’s a web of connectivity and power… but one that requires serious responsibility. Until governments decide what exactly that means, it is up to us – people who use this power for the greater good of brands and organizations – to create safe spaces for our communities, protecting them and hearing their concerns.

  1. Somehow, ~digital~ is still a bandwagon.

Believe us: digital isn’t going anywhere. Whether you’re a digital novice or an early adopter, there’s room to grow in the space and try out new ways of reaching and mobilizing your target audiences. It’s our job to help make the connections. We speak C-suite as fluently as we speak public affairs and marketing, and we can prove that digital advocacy is not just a passing trend, but the future – and present – of successful communications.