Don’t Just Spam Congress: Creative Ways to Put Your Supporter List to Work

Cross-posted on K Street Cafe

Congress does not lack for citizen input — every year, hundreds of millions of emails, faxes, letters and calls crashland on the Hill, and some congressional offices are so overwhelmed that they’ve basically stopped accepting electronic communications from constituents.

Advocacy groups often contribute to the problem by using their own supporter lists to add to the mountain of messages, sometimes generating tens or hundreds of thousands of identical (or near-identical) emails from across the country. But as research from the Congressional Management Foundation shows, form emails are just about the least influential way to contact Congress, with many staffers believing (though without any real evidence) that they’re often generated without citizens’ knowledge.

It helps when conscientious organizations and their vendors steer constituents to contact only their own representatives, as does the practice of encouraging activists to add their own words to any pre-written text. But in a week in which emails to Congress spiked beyond anything we’ve seen before, and actually forced the House to put a throttle on incoming messages, lets look at some uses for your supporter list that DON’T involve sending large amounts of lookalike text to our federal representatives.

1. Spam OTHER People

Congressional offices may bow and break under the weight of constituent contacts, but that’s not always true for other levels of government. Federal agencies are less likely to receive blasts of comments on rules and regulations, and I’ve seen agency officials step back and reconsider an action when they’re deluged with citizen messages (though of course, we’ve all also seen agencies ignore vast amounts of public input and do exactly the opposite what’s asked). State legislators may also provide a more fruitful target, as can corporations conscious of their public image (it helps if your list members are customers — target the CEO personally for extra fun).

One more thing: while mass identical emails are almost always going to be taken less seriously than individual constituent/customer contacts whatever the target, they CAN demonstrate that sheer numbers of people have their eyes on a topic.

2. Don’t Just Send Identical Emails

It’s true that list members often just want to click-and-be-done — it takes TIME to write a custom message, while hitting a link to send an email or sign a petition automatically takes none at all. And since your activists may be on many lists these days, their expectations can stop you in your tracks if you start asking for more. In any case, most online advocacy vendors find that fewer than 10% of list members will take the time to edit or add to a pre-written message, and you’ll probably see response rates plummet when you start asking for real writing.

But that’s part of the point — in online advocacy, there’s generally an inverse relationship between the difficulty of taking an action and its effectiveness. Writing your own message takes time, even if you base it on organization-provided talking points, and Congressional offices know it. Consequently, they’re more likely to take a personally prepared message seriously, giving it as much weight as (for instance) a constituent phone call. Which leads us to…

3. Pick Up The Phone!

Lists are good for a lot more than generating emails, and phone calls are often a good place to start. Congressional offices have been handling calls for a long time and seem to have a better idea of how to weight them overall. As with custom emails, you’re likely to generate fewer of them, but offices are going to take them more seriously than they will petitions or mass emails and faxes.

A major drawback to phone calls is that they tend to provide very little follow-up information, since relatively few list members will report back even if asked (though you can create a quick questionaire page to make it easy on them). As discussed a few days ago, a lobby team (or citizen volunteer Hill visitors) may be the best measuring tool, since they’ll hear directly from staffers. Be sure to prepare your callers well — arm them with the House and Senate switchboard numbers (duh), the name and bill number of the measure in question and quick bullet points to get across to the staff member who answers. And be sure to cry havoc and loose the dogs of war only when they can do some good, i.e. when your issue is actually up for consideration.

4. Organize Real-World Action

Let’s take a bigger step into meatspace and get into some REAL real-world action. Sure, commando strike teams can take a lot of work to organize and train, but groups such as and the Obama campaign have created mini-online industries to support their offline work, providing volunteers with step-by-step guides to holding house parties, fundraisers, local press events and the like.

For instance, it’s natural to think in terms of the Hill only when you’re working with Congress, but what about district offices? Even a relatively small list can turn up a few people fired up enough to stop by and chat with district staff, who might not be experts on the issue but who can pass the word up the chain. And your super-activists, those who take action frequently and have become educated about the issues, often make excellent citizen representatives locally or on the Hill (if you can get them to town or catch them here — how many of your list members happen to have a vacation trip to the Nation’s Capital planned for this year?).

If you’re willing to let your supporters take on local responsibilities, activists can hold press events, speak to groups, run fundraisers, gather signatures, etc. — all recruited and organized online. In-person training always helps, if you can afford the field staff or travel costs, but it’s a question of leveraging as much as you can with the resources you have.

5. Solicit Real Creativity

Now let’s REALLY get all crazy and stuff — let’s try to tap into the collective creative mind of our supporters (dude, whoa). That’s really what social media is all about: throwing a lot of brains at a problem and seeing what comes up. has specialized in getting its members to generate video ads to such success that commercial brands have copied the tactic, and many other organizations have found success in asking supporters to help come up with slogans, comment on policies and experiment with creative ways to spread the word online.

You don’t have to ask for something complicated, since sometimes the most effective tool is a good story, whether it’s in written form or told via audio or video. Of course, much of the end product is going to be schlock whatever the medium, but the best pieces may well be better than anything you or your communications consultants can come up with. Also, once people have contributed their mental effort to your cause, they’re wedded to you — at least to an extent. Let’s tap those bonds!

6. Raise Some Money

I hate to end on the prosaic, but what the hell, this is politics — which means that money matters. Your organization may be rich enough not to need to shake that tree, but most aren’t, and you might well be surprised at what falls out if you’ve nurtured your list. If you’re using any of the mid-level-and-up online advocacy systems (DemocracyInAction, Convio, Grassroots, Capitol Advantage, etc.), you may already have a fundraising module, and if not, shop around (some providers are quite a bit cheaper than others).

Online fundraising is a specialized art too big to take on today, but at its heart, most fundraising tactics come around to taking advantage of the connections you’ve built with your supporters.

It’s All About the Relationships

Recruiting a core group of activists is really about building relationships — email is a prime relationship-building tool (social networking, email’s possible successor, perhaps even more so). If you want your supporters to be there when you need them, either for advocacy or for fundraising, they need to have a reason. They need to care.

Advocacy helps, in part by building a habit of interacting with your organization online, but also by creating an emotional connection, a sense of belonging. You want your supporters to be pulling for you! Tapping their creativity and their social connections — at the very least asking them to do more than just spam Congress on occasion — might be a good place to start.


Written by
Colin Delany
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  • I wouldn’t disagree with (most of) what you’re saying, but it’s stale.

    Sending email for comment periods and to state legislators are old hat. Same with phone calls, meetups, and fundraising. And corporations do more than Congress could dream of to throttle off consumer complaints to CEOs.

    Can you to delve more into different creative actions? Groups have been encouraging people to type up stories or take a picture of themselves with a sign for a while. I’d love to read about the creative things groups are doing with those stories and pictures to encourage a sense of community and how the rates there compare to straight text petitions.

    One thing I do disagree with: encouraging a custom message doesn’t need to drop your response. By focusing on the intersection between the issue and how people relate to it (as opposed to the policy angle, for example) and then not providing much of a sample letter you can get a rate well above 10% of people editing their actions.

  • Ouch! Steve my friend, to you and me this stuff is old hat, but I speak to clients and in front of groups every month to whom it is entirely new ground (trust me). So you’re going to contend that just because you’ve heard these ideas before that there’s no use in pulling the pieces together concisely and in one place?

    P’shaw, says me — if this kind of article weren’t needed, the e.politics Online Politics 101 PDF wouldn’t have been downloaded more than 20,000 times now.

    BTW, if you want to see more specifics, write ’em up! I’d be happy to publish.

  • I direct people to download epolitics 101 all the time. Saves me time, it does.

    Creative actions:
    Go after known associates of targets, from donors to board members to outspoken supporters to relatives. Yes, relatives.
    Find a way to show people the growth of your list locally. (You were one of the 23 people who did X in your Congressional District)
    Organize call-ins to talk shows at the local level (thanks Wellstone Camp)
    Target specialized media (ethnic, religious, association, etc.)
    Do something newsworthy, eg
    “activists are collecting dead bugs to deliver to Congressman Porker today. If he votes for the bailout tomorrow, activists say they will ‘squash him like a bug’ in the upcoming primary.”
    and then build a web app where people can squash ‘bugs’ to deliver….

    Get as many of your supporters to treat politics with the same passion they have for say, keeping a job or getting laid.

  • […] Also note that e.politics managed to sneak into the article, with a solid quote about using your activist list for something OTHER than just mass identical emails to congressional offices, which in turn fits neatly with the idea of the ladder of engagement. Check out Sara’s article, and see also the Congressional Management Foundation’s findings on engaging Congress through grassroots activism, as well as an e.politics piece from last Fall about finding creative ways to put your supporters to work. […]

  • Sometimes the basics are the best. I understand what Steve is saying, but I personally think that this list is quite helpful. Many of my friends do not “know how” to voice their opinion while others think that they have no voice in government whether local or national.

    I think the internet does open up a vast world of new possibilities for political involvement, such as the UK Public Engagement Deficit Reduction Project that is using Facebook as a platform for expanding public involvement.

    Sometimes, you just need to build some momentum around a cause that you care about in order to be heard. Often times this can take reaching out to your immediate network, but sharing your involvement publically. I am always looking for new ideas though.