Using Online Advocacy to Acquire Supporters and Donors

Guest article! Good advice from our friend Laura Packard at PowerThru Consulting on how organizations and campaigns can use online advocacy to build their lists. For another recent example of this practice, see the success of NAACP’s Trayvon Martin petition.

How to Grow Your List with Effective Online Advocacy

By Laura Packard, PowerThru Consulting

Use online advocacy to grow your email list like this seedling

Based a class on growing your email list via online advocacy offered through

The dirty little secret is that a lot of online advocacy doesn’t necessarily accomplish anything offline AND it isn’t growing your list either. So you need to think strategically about online actions.

One online advocacy principle to keep in mind before starting an action is to consider whether you will likely gain as much as you will lose from natural churn — people unsubscribing, old email addresses bouncing and so on.

So how DO you make your action more effective? Here are some online advocacy best practices to follow.

  • First, make your action awesome. Go back and reread this on how to make your online action effective! Keep in mind that you’re trying to devise actions that not just your “friends” (people on your list) but “friends’ friends” will like. What will people want to share, not just do themselves?
  • Do great outreach to get the word out about your action beyond your list. If you want your action to reach people not only on your email list, you have to do more than email it out. So — reach out to the traditional media as appropriate. Send emails to friendly bloggers online who write about your issue. Take advantage of “self-serve” media options like posting about it at DailyKos and the Huffington Post. Talk to likeminded groups and see if you can get them to share it around also. Post about it on social media – Facebook it (and use a nice photo that includes your logo) a link to the action and tweet it out. Specifically ask people to share and like and tweet the action out. And spend time on the days you’re NOT releasing a new action building your audience on social media with engaging posts and questions. That way when you launch a new action, you’ll be sure to have a bunch of new people to show it to on social media. (more social media tips here)

  • Make it easy for people to share. You’re hoping to get good viral growth from it, right? This means have a good tell a friend page set up after people take the action, set up an autotriggered message too that encourages sharing etc. Most CRMs have tools you can use for this, and we have some special Salsa-specific add-ons developed by PowerThru. Work with social media to help your actions pop – this means doing things like having a good image to go with the action for social media sharing, a good premade tweet etc.
  • Do good targeting for your action. Every time you email your list, you are putting an unsubscribe button in front of your audience. If your action doesn’t connect with their interests, they may click unsubscribe. If they really hate it, they may mark you as spam and this could hurt your deliverability to EVERYONE on your list. If you’re not careful, you may find that you lose more people than you gain every time you try to do something. So if you’re running campaigns on different issues, make sure to use Groups or Tags to keep track of people’s interests. Also if you’re writing about something that’s very localized, use targeting so you’re not inviting people in New York to take action on something in Texas. You may want to target based on whether people have already gotten an email or two from you this week — so you don’t overwhelm your list.
  • Practice good list hygiene, so your list stays active and healthy and your foundation is strong. What does this mean? This could be a whole session in itself. Make sure bouncing email addresses are turned off. If you don’t see activity from a supporter in a year, consider dropping them from your list. (More about this here from Drew in last month’s blog post on improving email deliverability) Merge down duplicate records. Salsa-specific tip: Pass on the Email variable when sending Salsa actions to your email list, it will cut down on typo’d emails and that will improve your stats and therefore deliverability with the big email providers. How do you do this? Tack on &Email=[[Email]] at the end of the URL of every action when you send it to your list. This way the email form is pre-filled on the action, dramatically cutting down on typos.Doing all the above steps are great, but unless you capture lightning in a bottle, it’s hard to grow via actions only, because you can lose as many people with bounces/unsubscribes as you gain through new signups. That’s why the final two recommendations are key.
  • Mix in paid acquisitions where appropriate. We helped RootsAction grow their list in 2011 with tens of thousands of new supporters by mixing in Facebook ads pushing their most popular actions online, picking up new email addresses at less than $1 per. We also helped them with paid acquisition through or Care2, pushing their actions to new audiences and picking up supporters at $2 or less per. Whatever your budget and existing list size, there is a good paid option for you. Facebook can work well for smaller lists, whereas Care2 or offer suppression capabilities and are better for larger organizations where you don’t want to pay to acquire someone you already have.
  • Mix in list swaps/joint actions where appropriate (especially if you have no budget). Look out there and find good groups that you can work together with on your issue. We’ve brokered swaps between like-minded organizations of all sizes, and a fair deal is one in which both groups benefit. Perhaps the larger organization sets up an online action, and the smaller organization sends their membership to it and gets the signers or a portion of the signers. This is what USAction and GunFreeKids did (see example here) Perhaps both organizations set up their own versions of the action, and then exchange lists of signers a week later — this is what DailyKos and USAction did with a joint action around appointing Barney Frank to the Senate. Perhaps one organization sends something to their list, and the other organization sends a different issue to their own list, and then you exchange roughly equal amounts of signers later. Finally, maybe you build something cool together that everybody sends their lists to (for example, with several groups partnering on it). Also, make sure whatever you do, that you have a disclaimer somewhere on the action that lets people know they are signing up for both organization’s lists. You want to be transparent with this.Don’t have somebody to partner with? You could always try setting up your action on, and then your partner is MoveOn. (Sign up here as a progressive organization.) It’s free for progressive organizations, and we’ve seen some success for clients that have tried it out. One thing to keep in mind is that you can download some of the names — people who come in via sharing or via your special link — but you can use their tool to email all of the names. You could then direct them to an action on your site and capture some of them that way.

One last thought: It’s unlikely you will significantly grow your list without mixing in list swaps and paid acquisitions. What looks like growth may be people you already have, typo’ing their email addresses as they take actions, and what viral growth you have being swamped by bounces and unsubscribes in the end. So make your actions count. Don’t do an action for the sake of doing action — it should have a goal, and a plan on how to make it great.

Have more questions or need help making your organization’s online actions more effective? Contact PowerThru.

Written by
Laura Packard
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