The web is all about metrics. Unique visitors, sessions, page views, time on site, impressions, click-through rates, cost per click, number of engagements, cost per engagement, and more can all be tracked for a web-based issue advocacy campaign.

Inevitably, internal and external clients get excited by the biggest numbers. How many eyeballs are seeing the content? How many people took action? They want to see lots of trailing zeros.

But not all traffic is created equal.

Judging Results Based on Specific Goals

At the end of the day it doesn’t matter how many millions of emails you sent or impressions you got or unique visitors who came to your site if what you really need are letters to Congress. Conversely, if you are fighting to build awareness of an issue, it may be better for millions to see your message than hundreds or thousands to contact Congress.

Ultimately, every campaign — and every project within that broader campaign — needs to have well-defined objectives to make it possible to develop an accurate assessment of the results.

Issue Advocacy Branding Campaigns

We often think of major consumer companies when we contemplate the concept of a “brand campaign.” We don’t think twice about a soda company, a car manufacturer, or a bank running ads that tout the overall benefit of the brand rather than selling a specific product.

The goal of a branding campaign in business is to build awareness of a company or product line so that it is easier to make the actual sale when the time is right.

As we shift into the world of politics and public affairs, the same concept can be applied — although most in this space don’t really think of it as a “branding campaign” per se.

But that’s exactly what it is when a candidate launches a bio spot in the early days of a campaign. Or even as the campaign runs more issue-specific ads as Election Day draws closer. It is not until the later stages of the campaign that the more action-oriented “Vote for Candidate X” messaging starts to take on greater prominence.

In effect, the candidate’s campaign has been running a branding campaign to make it easier to ask for that vote at the polls when the time was right.

In the world of issue advocacy, far fewer people contemplate the value of brand advertising for the issue itself. But it should not be overlooked. Not all issue advocacy campaigns need to be centered on the concept of “Call Congress Today to Help Stop X” or “Tell Congress We Need Y.”

Organizations with sufficient foresight (and budget) will begin to engage on an important issue before the vote draws near and the ask becomes urgent.

One of the reasons that issue-oriented branding campaigns tend to be less popular is that it is harder to measure, and as noted metrics are often the focus in the world of digital communications.

How do you gauge success of a branding campaign for an issue?

Ultimately, this is a difficult question to answer. Very few campaigns have the budget to go into the field to do regular survey research on an issue to determine how well an issue-oriented branding campaign is working.

This means that much of the “research” becomes more anecdotal. Are you hearing that folks are getting the message? Is there buzz on the issue?

In the online environment there are several things you can look at for signs that a branding campaign may be working on your issue that are less anecdotal:

  • Is the amount of non-sponsored web traffic increasing? In other words are folks coming to your web site without clicking on an ad?
  • Are more web sites providing unsolicited links to your content? This demonstrates the issue — and your organization — are more top of mind with influencers.
  • Are the number of search queries on your issue increasing? This one is a bit harder to nail down and may be the result of the issue becoming more ripe or derive from the activities of other organizations, but it is worth keeping an eye on nonetheless.

Basically, what you are looking to measure is the level of unaided awareness of and sympathy for your issue.

Issue Advocacy Action Campaigns

When it comes to an action campaign, the deliverables matter most. It is very much like an e-commerce campaign that is judged on the success of how many widgets get sold.

Since action campaigns are so much easier to track, they tend to be the most popular ones to deploy in the online space. Are you getting petition signatures? Email signups? Letters or calls to Congress?

But even within these obvious metrics, there are less obvious ones to consider. Are the actions being taken the most useful ones? In other words, are they coming from the most influential people? Are they from the most significant geographic areas for the campaign?

Quantity vs. Quality of Web Traffic on Advocacy Sites

Remember I said that not all traffic is created equal, right? That’s where one of the biggest differences between branding and action campaigns play out over the course of the campaign.

Branding is largely about eyeballs. You need to get as many people as possible in your target group to see your message several times in order to drive the point home. In this orientation, clicks don’t matter, impressions do.

Action is about attracting likely activists. It’s not about the largest number of eyeballs or even the greatest number of clicks, it is about finding those individuals likely to have the greatest pre-existing sympathy for your issue who can be easily convince to take action.

The people who will write a letter to Congress are an entirely different breed than those who may be interested in learning about and even paying attention to an issue. Think about it. How many people outside of the political/policy sphere do you know who regularly contact their Member of Congress — or state rep, county council member, or other public official?

The tension between the desire to get a high quantity of web traffic and the need to get the highest quality will always be present in a digital issue campaign. Understanding your objectives at the outset — and determining whether you are in a branding mode or an action one — will help guide quality decision-making.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Chip,

    I like this article, but I approach online advocacy from the standpoint that metrics count, but it's a longer process through which the metrics are counted.

    Back in the day when I used to do this stuff, I based every single campaign on the final objective (GOTV?, winning on an appropriation in the house, blocking a legislative initiative?) and then worked backwards.

    Again, it all depends upon budget, but as you touch on, not one size fits all in online advocacy campaigns. I view is as an evolution, moving a potential supporter from unawareness to fervent activism. And throughout the process, there are many steps along the way.

    For example, first, you need to introduce your prospective activists to the issue. And where marketing meets online is that, still, most statistics say that you have to touch someone between five an seven times to get their attention. So you have to get creative -email is not the cure-all.

    Once you have their attention, then you can really begin to educate them. Presumably, education will lead to converting them to see yours (or your client's) point of view.

    At each step in the process, people will peel off; as you move through the process from unawareness to activism, you can and should track the actions of your supporters — and find ways to reward them along the way.

    At the next step presumably someone will go from being convinced on the issue to being convinced that he/ she need to become active, either recruiting others or taking some sort of action that you have built into your online platform. And I am really wish-washy on emails to Capitol Hill simply because there is so much noise and congressional staffers have said for years that because of the preponderance of astroturf, email is marginally effective (unless done very well, like offering a carousel of 20 different letters with the same theme, or, in what lowers your count considerably, having people compose their own letters).

    Now on to the super-activists. Your statistical analyses have presumably enabled you to draw a line between “asks: and “dones.” (your database should give your stats that will tell you this). Those who have been most active on your issue can be carefully culled from the stats that show their effectiveness (people recruited , LTEs placed, etc). Then you can reach out to them and perhaps even make them in-person representatives for your issue, be it for the media or more a face-to-face meeting with an influencer.

    I realize that this comment is so long that Leo Tolstoy is rolling over in his grave, but where stats come in is in pulling people through the activism process — and rewarding them along the way (best example that I can think of was the RNC's GOPoints system in which, depending upon what you did, you got anything from a bumper sticker to a golf umbrella, all branded).

    I agree with your premise that “it is about finding those individuals likely to have the greatest pre-existing sympathy for your issue who can be easily convince to take action,” but I would layer in some additional demographics and view it as more of an elegantly Machiavellian process than looking for the quick hit on those who can be easily convinced.

    All of this is presented with the HUGE caveat that time and money are factors, but I would rather build a base of 10,000 emails that turn into 50 super-activists.

    My two (thousand) cents.

    Mark

  2. Chip,

    I like this article, but I approach online advocacy from the standpoint that metrics count, but it’s a longer process through which the metrics are counted.

    Back in the day when I used to do this stuff, I based every single campaign on the final objective (GOTV?, winning on an appropriation in the house, blocking a legislative initiative?) and then worked backwards.

    Again, it all depends upon budget, but as you touch on, not one size fits all in online advocacy campaigns. I view is as an evolution, moving a potential supporter from unawareness to fervent activism. And throughout the process, there are many steps along the way.

    For example, first, you need to introduce your prospective activists to the issue. And where marketing meets online is that, still, most statistics say that you have to touch someone between five an seven times to get their attention. So you have to get creative -email is not the cure-all.

    Once you have their attention, then you can really begin to educate them. Presumably, education will lead to converting them to see yours (or your client’s) point of view.

    At each step in the process, people will peel off; as you move through the process from unawareness to activism, you can and should track the actions of your supporters — and find ways to reward them along the way.

    At the next step presumably someone will go from being convinced on the issue to being convinced that he/ she need to become active, either recruiting others or taking some sort of action that you have built into your online platform. And I am really wish-washy on emails to Capitol Hill simply because there is so much noise and congressional staffers have said for years that because of the preponderance of astroturf, email is marginally effective (unless done very well, like offering a carousel of 20 different letters with the same theme, or, in what lowers your count considerably, having people compose their own letters).

    Now on to the super-activists. Your statistical analyses have presumably enabled you to draw a line between “asks: and “dones.” (your database should give your stats that will tell you this). Those who have been most active on your issue can be carefully culled from the stats that show their effectiveness (people recruited , LTEs placed, etc). Then you can reach out to them and perhaps even make them in-person representatives for your issue, be it for the media or more a face-to-face meeting with an influencer.

    I realize that this comment is so long that Leo Tolstoy is rolling over in his grave, but where stats come in is in pulling people through the activism process — and rewarding them along the way (best example that I can think of was the RNC’s GOPoints system in which, depending upon what you did, you got anything from a bumper sticker to a golf umbrella, all branded).

    I agree with your premise that “it is about finding those individuals likely to have the greatest pre-existing sympathy for your issue who can be easily convince to take action,” but I would layer in some additional demographics and view it as more of an elegantly Machiavellian process than looking for the quick hit on those who can be easily convinced.

    All of this is presented with the HUGE caveat that time and money are factors, but I would rather build a base of 10,000 emails that turn into 50 super-activists.

    My two (thousand) cents.

    Mark

    • Mark- I agree on most of your points. There’s a role for both branding and action efforts within most all campaigns. It is not an either/or proposition but rather one that depends on the most important need at any given time.

      And while I agree that often 50 super activists are the most powerful tool in your arsenal, it is frequently necessary to have broader air cover partnered with it to increase awareness, comfort, and pressure on policymakers.

  3. Mark- I agree on most of your points. There's a role for both branding and action efforts within most all campaigns. It is not an either/or proposition but rather one that depends on the most important need at any given time.

    And while I agree that often 50 super activists are the most powerful tool in your arsenal, it is frequently necessary to have broader air cover partnered with it to increase awareness, comfort, and pressure on policymakers.

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