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Engaging Online – What Worked in 2020 for Digital Advocacy Evangelists

by Anne Wainscott-Sargent, FiscalNote

From defending neighborhood movie theatres to pushing the envelope in social engagement, advocacy and creative professionals shared what worked in 2020.

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Advocacy has always had its champion innovators, scraping by on low budgets and compensating with high levels of imagination and execution. But if 2020 taught practitioners anything, it was how to be particularly creative in the face of a crisis.

From doubling advocate databases and conducting hugely successful virtual fly-ins, to using social media to mobilize supporters and capture lawmakers’ attention to change legislation, we’ve seen advocacy pros turn what was an existential threat into their most productive year ever.

We talked to some of the leaders and innovators in this field who share their best practices and discuss where digital advocacy is headed after the events of the past 16 months.

Expanding the Outreach

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When COVID-19 shut down most of the economy in 2020, few groups felt the pain like the country’s 5,800 movie theatres. For Esther Baruh, government relations director for the National Association of Theatre Owners, the urgency of the crisis facing her members prompted the mostly B2B-focused advocacy organization to rethink everything as they realized the need for a public-facing campaign for the first time. 

“We had to pivot, and we had to engage our members to both talk to the Hill but also talk to moviegoers and make sure they felt invested,” recalled Baruh in a recent FiscalNote webinar. Her group needed to reach lawmakers fast, and the best way was lobbying not just owners but the general movie-going public.

“We wanted the campaign to feel very personal,” said Baruh, who worked with creative agency Engine on the campaign dubbed #SaveYourCinema.

The call to action was simple: “COVID-19 has put movie theaters at risk of going dark for good. Tell your legislators that you demand action now.” The audience was then sent to the campaign website where they could submit a letter to their Congressional representative. 

And boy, did they. According to Baruh, 1 in 4 people who visited wrote their representatives. “We got over 365,000 letters into the Hill during a fairly short period of time. We didn’t launch the campaign until July 2020 when the pandemic had been going on for some months,” she added.

Enlisting Influencers in the Cause

The campaign included an earned media campaign leveraging press releases to drive traffic to the campaign website, as well as a creatives letter to Congress signed by a long list of Hollywood A-list directors, including Ridley Scott, Ron Howard, Clint Eastwood, and Stephen Spielberg. 

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“We had some phenomenal partners in the talent community who really rose to the occasion,” said Baruh, whose group also tapped theatre members’ subscriber lists and other businesses that felt the impact of movie theatres closing — such as ticketing sales software firms and concessions companies — with whom they had pre-existing partnerships. They also joined other industries in the performing arts, including a program called Save Our Stages, which provides grants to live music and live performance venues.

“The story kind of told itself,” she noted.

These collaborative efforts were “phenomenally effective,” said Baruh adding that in December, the entertainment industry received $15 billion in aid from the Congressional stimulus bill, and another $1 billion in March when the Biden administration passed the American Rescue Plan.

“For every dollar we spent, we gained about $350,000 for our members in terms of direct assistance,” Baruh said. 

Asking the Right Questions to Drive Engagement   

Baruh wasn’t the only advocacy veteran to find inspiration and success in reaching audiences through personalized engagement. Brittany Abdool, social and digital vice president for Social Driver, an interactive marketing agency based in Washington, D.C. that specializes in reaching diverse audiences, has spent the last decade helping national associations, startups, and Fortune 100 companies leverage digital strategy and creative services to connect with people and elevate brands.

With in-person meetings impossible during the global pandemic, Abdool and her team had to think of how “to engage virtually in a way that is memorable” when their client, the Association for Accessible Medicines, needed help launching a campaign to attract lawmakers to their 10th-anniversary celebration of the Biologics Price Competition and Innovation Act of 2010, which made life-saving treatments possible and accessible to patients. 

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Given that the AAM wasn’t a well-known entity, and neither was the Act, Social Driver’s team needed to ask a series of questions that assured that they were engaging their target audience: “Is the content educational?” “Are we solving a problem for the audience?” “Is it entertaining?” “Does it empower your audience?” “Does it elevate them?”

Leveraging Emerging Technology to Reach Your Audience 

“When we sat down, we looked at all the tactics that move this from not just being a social media post or a press release, but to something that is really fun, and we realized that the augmented reality lens was the perfect solution to be able to educate and make it entertaining while working in an all-virtual environment,” Abdool said.

The lens was designed to activate physicians, patients, and policymakers in the journey and potential of biosimilars. Thousands of people across the country were able to engage in the celebration using the augmented reality lens to raise awareness. 

According to a Dec. 3, 2020, Social Driver blog post, the lens has been used more than 7.2K times on Instagram, generating over 10,000 views. The lens was also featured on AAM’s Biosimilars campaign website to continue to engage users and was shared by the American Marketing Association in San Diego as an example of ways organizations are leveraging social media to raise brand awareness. 

“The interactivity and virality of #b10similars are unlike anything our association — or maybe any association — has ever done. The novelty of being a first-mover in using an augmented reality lens in advocacy is great, but the real value is being able to expand our visibility to highly trafficked but underutilized platforms, like Instagram and Snapchat,” stated Erica Klinger, senior director of marketing at AAM.

Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone

So, how do you get advocacy organizations to go outside their comfort zone and try new digital strategies? Abdool advises that any campaign gets buy-in on goal alignment from three audiences: “the board room, the showroom, and the war room.” 

“For the board room, you need to ask, ‘What do the business leaders care about?’ ‘What’s going to move their bottom line at the end of the day?’ With the showroom, you’re talking about your audience – ‘Where are they located?’ ‘What do they care about?’ ‘What are they talking about?’ The war room is the marketing team – we need to make sure we don’t lose sight of what’s going to be most effective with our audience, giving them something that they care about and in a way that they can digest,” she said. “Once you start to set your goals against each of these sections, you start to have a strong narrative for supporting the outcome.”

Deploying Micro-Campaigns to See What Works

Abdool also advises trying out a new digital campaign by doing micro-campaigns throughout the year when you aren’t activating your base in a crisis. This approach gives you time to test different types of creative assets. 

“Doing micro-campaigns let you see what works for your base and what doesn’t,” she explains, “so when you have that moment where you have to activate them, you know exactly what’s going to work. It’s also a good way to get buy-in because you can do it on a smaller scale,” concludes Abdool.

Choosing the Right Advocacy Tech Stack

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