Integrate or die: words seen on Epolitics.com before and for good reason, since standalone online campaigns rarely work as well as ones combined with concrete action in the physical world. For a good example of how the virtual can combine with the real to yield results, see Food and Water Watch‘s campaign last year to get federal approval for schools to buy hormone-free milk through the National School Lunch Program. As described by Sarah Alexander at a June 17th Digital Capital Week presentation, Food and Water Watch followed a strategy that wound online and offline action tightly together to get the best out of both, in part through leveraging the results of a van trip through the states and districts of crucial legislators. Note: the cow costumes didn’t hurt.
Although the van tour was just one piece of a larger campaign that included district meetings, Hill visits and email-driven phone calls to legislators, it’s perfect for our purposes because it demonstrates how a group can use a real-world event to build an online advocacy presence. The tour required one rented van and some door magnets, cost about $6000 (not including salaries) and took the work of two staff and four interns to plan and execute.
The road trip took twelve days and covered six states, targeting the districts of midwestern congressmembers and the states of senators with leadership roles on relevant committees, and the activists spent much of their time at state and county fairs, talking directly with constituents of the targeted lawmakers and even getting people to make phone calls to legislative offices on the spot. Plus, they asked people to sign postcards about the issue, which they then delivered by hand to congressional district offices along the way (also great opportunities for photos).
So far, so good, but that’s only half of the action, since everything the Healthy School Milk or Bust Tour did had an online angle. Wireless cards helped the Food and Water Watch folks write from the road, letting them turn out a constant stream of blog posts, Facebook updates, Tweets and Flickr photos, all displayed on a central hub on the group’s website (now serving as an archive page). Besides their own dozen-odd blog posts, they also got six traditional (and local) media hits and collected close to 1000 email addresses along the way. These weren’t just casual recruits, either: of the 916 new list-members recruited, over 830 were active a year later, with a high rate of opening emails and clicking on actions.
The political results? A regulatory change that allows schools to use federal lunch money to buy hormone-free milk, and one achieved without arousing the ire of farm-state congressmembers who might be inclined to block a measure not as agribusiness-friendly as much of U.S. ag policy has become. Another takeway: cow costumes work! Sarah found that people were actually MORE likely to talk with her when she was wearing the costume than when she was in street clothes — serving as a natural icebreaker, it immediately made folks smile. Plus, it set up plenty of good photographs to place on Flickr, Facebook and the blog, all helping to keep online supporters engaged and giving them something to pass along to friends. Nice work! All around, an udder success…..(please don’t hurt me).