Just as campaigns are developing more sophisticated strategies for reaching voters, advocates need to develop new methods if they’re going to be effective in the current legislative environment. From DC to Sacramento bills are piling up, giving groups with overlapping interests the chance to coalesce around concerted lobbying efforts.
Consider California’s intractable housing crisis. Competing local and regional interests in a large, diverse state have collided with hyper-empowered committee chairs, making it challenging to pass substantive housing legislation.
In this environment, our agency joined a multi-firm effort assembled by a California nonprofit that launched an unprecedented effort to pass 18 housing-related bills during Sacramento’s 2019 legislative session.
Our job was to drive awareness and advocacy through digital channels. Given the issue framework, we knew it was going to be an uphill climb. But our success helping push through more than 10 pieces of this legislation was instructive. Here are four of the lessons that we learned being part of a multi-pronged advocacy effort:
Use emotional language to connect with the widest swath of your audience.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s so easy to go down the rabbit hole of explaining legislative policy details. In our experience, this just doesn’t work. Instead, we spoke to the policies at a human level, in plain English, and gave it an activist tone. We focused on the impact of the housing crisis on everyday Californians.
Also, the words you use to describe people really matter. Early on, we made the decision not to use the words “renters” or “tenants” in our copy. Instead, we talked about “hard-working Californian families, veterans, and teachers.” Our performance went through the roof after we made this shift.
Establish unselfish, rapid-response collaboration across teams.
Our people, process, and products team included a PR firm, lobbyists, a grassroots organizing agency, and our team doing digital advocacy and paid media, led by our nonprofit client.
Working seamlessly across teams and leaving territorial agency BS at the door was absolutely critical to our success. To this end, the client asked agencies to share information frequently and work in lockstep with one another. Intelligence on legislative targets from our lobbyists drove the campaign, but the agencies often only had a day to bring the combined weight of digital, earned, and grassroots efforts to bear on a target.
Together we built processes that allowed us to turn all of our teams on a dime. The ability to quickly pivot as a group helped save key legislation more than once. Above all, working across teams, in good faith, and around a shared goal, was essential to our success.
Don’t be precious about creative: use what works.
Over the course of the campaign, we ran more than 450 digital ad variants across Facebook, Twitter, display, podcast audio, and other platforms. What works will sometimes shock you, but it’s the results that truly matter — whether engagements, clicks or emails to legislators.
Thankfully, we were working with a client who was able to respond and approve pivots quickly. They were committed to putting weight behind what worked, period. And over time, we learned what was most effective: simple-but-striking stock photography of families, mothers, and children. The human stories drove notably better results than some of our earlier “bigger idea” approaches.
Our creative was, of course, informed by research. But we found getting in market quickly and letting constituents tell us what moved them to action was far more powerful than months of back and forth, which we didn’t have, on developing big-picture campaign creative.
Test targeting strategies and optimize for impact and efficiency.
The intelligence from our lobbyists allowed us to be highly efficient with geographic targeting. But in a state the size of California, we still had a tremendous amount of ground to cover with limited dollars to spend. We had to hone in on the constituents most likely to take action to keep from blowing our budget.
Just as we did with creative, we tested a huge variety of in-platform and third-party targeting options. Some worked. Some didn’t. And some wore out over time. The key was to continue shifting to what worked to keep our costs-per-action as low as possible, maximizing constituent activation and impact against persuadable legislators. Once we found our most responsive audiences, we built surround-sound campaigns with social, audio, geo-fence and retargeting, to make sure our messaging got through.
Jordan Ruden is Co-Founder and Jacob Lepiarz is an Account Director at Craft & Commerce, a digital media agency serving purpose-driven brands, non-profits, foundations, advocacy organizations, and civic agencies.