Reach your imaginary advocates

There are moments when someone presents an insight, in an area you think about all the time, that is so completely perfect that you really feel like smacking your forehead, for not thinking of it earlier.

To give you an example:

Last spring, in my Advanced Advocacy Practice course, my good friend Jerry Jones, an organizer with Communities Creating Opportunity, was talking with my students about power. He talked about how people are often reluctant to build power, or even to claim the power they have, because of power’s negative connotations. We’re afraid of it. I talk about this a lot, so my students were nodding.

And then he said, I talk about power in the context of electrical current. Because just like electricity, power can be dangerous.

If it’s not channeled, power can maim. It can cause chaos and destruction. But, put to the proper use, power can be tremendously valuable. Indispensable, really. (Having just come through a power outage with the kids, I concurred.) We should have a healthy respect for power and what it can do. But we shouldn’t shy away from it just because it can hurt people. Because, without it, we give up so much.

And that was so totally beautiful and simple and clear. I saw literally all of my students start frantically writing, at that moment, to get down on paper the image he had created for them.

Recently, reading through some of Beth Kanter’s archives, I found something that struck me almost the same way. She had a guest post about audience research, discussing how nonprofit organizations should think about those to whom they are trying to communicate, in order to increase the likelihood that we are preparing messages that will resonate with those precise targets.

The author recommended creating fictional profiles for these members of your audience, so that, in your mind, you are preparing messages for particular individuals, even if those individuals do not exist.

And it hit me:

That would work with advocates, too.

Because rather than thinking, “What would make people–in general–respond to this advocacy alert?” “What would move ‘the public’ on this issue?” “Or, even, what would appeal to ‘our advocates’ at this particular time?”, we could craft much more effective calls to action if we were thinking as though we were specifically trying to get an individual to advocate.

Today, with sophisticated technology and the ability to build databases with a tremendous amount of information, we can characterize our advocates fairly precisely. We can track who opens which emails, who has requested information about state legislation v. congressional action, and who lives in which legislative districts. We often know a lot about our core advocates, in particular, sometimes even what brought them to the issue in the first place, what their greatest passions are, how often they have contributed financially to our organization, and what their number one issue priority is.

But, then, when it comes time to mobilize people, the targeting that we do usually stops at the asks we make of them (like, is she in this senator’s district or not?), instead of how we make those asks. So we can end up crafting communications–newsletters, blog posts, calls to action–that speak more to ourselves, or to a lowest common denominator, or to a different target entirely.

So it ends up sounding as though we were appealing to some other advocate entirely. And it falls, predictably, flat.

So what if, as this post recommended, we instead thought, “What would make our Board President Carol call her legislator about this issue?” “What would get Susie, a single mother of one young child, get motivated about proposed cuts to early childhood education?” “What messages would Megan–mother of 3 and part-time pastor–feel most comfortable carrying to her senator about gun control?” And, then, we approached the creation and delivery of our advocacy communications with an eye towards how they would be received by those particular individuals, real and imagined.

We would think about graphics that might catch their eyes, specifically, and the types of advocacy actions that we’d like them to take on (keeping in mind a ladder of engagement), and the messages that would connect with them and then move them to where we want them to be. It might make advocacy communications more real for nonprofit staff, too, especially those most comfortable with more 1:1 interactions. I mean, yes, here we might be talking about pretend 1:1 conversations, but, still.

To be certain, that type of targeting would mean that some who see our advocacy information will be turned off. Since we’re not trying to engage everyone, anyway, that’s OK.

What do you think? Do you do this, at all, in your advocacy work today? Does it sound helpful or contrived? Or both?

Who are you talking to, when you make an appeal to your advocates? And how do you know if they’re hearing you?

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