The essential four
- Email communications: your most important and powerful tool.
- Your website: first impressions, enabling people to do things and attracting new supporters.
- Expertise: develop it or hire it - but don't ignore it.
- Campaigning actions: things for people to do.
- Tracking and analysis: knowing what works (and doesn't work) and why, so you can spend your time and money wisely.
- Time: having the time, effort and focus to deliver a campaigning action.
- Budget: having budget to spend on creative content, promotion and/or external help.
- Plan: deciding how you plan to contribute to the campaigning objectives using eCampaigning.
- Feedback channels: listening to supporters and learning how to engage them.
What is 'essential'?
By essential I mean that if you do these things it is possible to get good results for the effort you put in and you can regularly repeat your successes.
You could, of course, ignore them and go straight to using social networking sites and social media (blogs, photo sharing, video sharing, bookmark sharing). You might even achieve something (if you get lucky). But my experience is you'd have a hard time repeating your success since re-mobilising your supporters from the first initiative is difficult or ineffective, resulting in having to do all the same basic promotion, recruitment and mobilisation work over again.
These essentials enable you to build on past success and make sure it's repeatable. If you want to have a higher impact with your campaigns though, don't stop there. For example, you may be able to do great campaigning without tracking and analysis, but you'll achieve more with your resources if you're able to analyse and learn from your experience.
This article is written with the assumption that you're campaigning as part of an organisation, with at least some staff and resources to oversee the eCampaigning, and a campaign with a medium to long term lifespan. It also assumes that part of your campaign strategy (you do have one - right?) is to recruit and mobilise a key stakeholder group. This may simply be 'the public' but if you have done a power analysis of your targets then it is likely to be more specific. (See 'campaigning gaps' article for more on power analysis.)
If these assumptions do not match your situation, for example if you're campaigning as an individual, or with a very short-term campaign, your ideal approach may be different.
The essential four
Email is your single most important tool. You need to collect supporters' email addresses and send email communications to them at least every two months, and ideally more frequently. email is the key tool because it allows you to talk directly to supporters, very quickly, with a high degree of control over the message and its appearance. It's the widest standard for person-to-person messaging on the internet, and that means it's highly accessible and widely used.
Facebook, MySpace or other social networks are a great way to go beyond the essentials (or to use for campaigning as an individual), but social networking sites are still minor players when it comes to messaging, and they too depend on email to bring people back to their sites.
Do you need proof? In 2008 there are 1.6 billion active email users, yet only 530 million registered users of social networking sites in total. The issues with email, such as spam, are manageable. Since social networking sites require an email address for registration, social network users must still have an email address.
The exception to email being your single most important tool is if the supporter profile you are planning to engage simply doesn't use it, for example those who are not computer users, or who rely wholly on mobile phones.
Your website is the main place where new supporters will get a first impression of your organisation and hopefully subscribe to your emails. Furthermore, the content you publish and the campaigning actions you run will attract new people every day.
As a minimum for campaigning purposes, the website should have:
- The ability for people to subscribe to your email communications,
- Information about your campaigns, regular updates of their progress and what your supporters can do.
If you wish to go one step beyond the minimum, then having campaigning actions that people can complete on your website is very important. This not only makes it quick and easy for supporters to participate in your campaign, but it is also one of the main ways that people will opt in to your emails.
There are free services and tools for online campaigning actions, but, crucially, free services often prevent you from accessing the data of who took the actions (and thus new people who subscribed).
Having the tools in place for eCampaigning is actually relatively easy. However if you don't have the expertise to use them then it is likely your eCampaigning efforts will have poor results. This sounds obvious, but many organisations simply add eCampaigning to the role of an existing staff member. The minimum expertise needed is:
- Email marketing: what is effective and what isn't
- Web usability: how to make priority actions/content as obvious and easy as possible
- Campaigning: how to mobilise people and influence targets This is a minimum, not an ideal.
If you can only afford to hire one new person and already have campaigners and a web producer, then focus on getting someone with direct marketing expertise and some knowledge of the Internet - that is a good base for the skills and knowledge needed for eCampaigning.
To get people with these skills and/or knowledge you can:
- Let them learn from scratch on the job (the most expensive approach due to lost opportunities over the 1-2 years their learning could take);
- Send them on training;
- Hire an external consultant and have a staff member shadow this person (expensive but lower risk);
- Hire someone with the skills and experience (these people are very hard to lure away from current jobs);
- Allow them to do extensive research online to identify and acquire the theoretical knowledge before starting (time-consuming).
Having regular new campaigning actions online doesn't just have impact on your campaign targets, but is also important to retain supporters and recruit new ones. The more frequently you run new campaigning actions, the faster your supporter base will grow. It may also help to keep your targets aware of your campaign and help achieve the campaign objectives. However, your actions do need to be genuine, timely, compelling and specific to work well.
Going beyond the essentials
Tracking and analysis
Tracking tools are essential for learning what is working and what is not. You can then either refine what isn't working and/or switch to focus more on what is working. You can do eCampaigning without them, and many organisations do, but you will be even more dependent on staff expertise to know what works, and you increase the risk of wasting time and budget.
Tracking and analysis mean three things:
- Completion tracking: If you know what drove each supporter to take a particular action (including basic subscriptions) you can focus on what's most successful. Most systems don't have this capability, but hopefully over the coming years this will change. (note: FairSay's free eCampaigning tool for the Open Source Plone CMS has completion tracking built in.)
- Email tracking: How are emails performing vs. past emails? What are supporters opening, which links are they clicking on, and how many email addresses are invalid? Most bulk emailing systems have this capability but you may need to configure it, and you'll definitely need expertise to know what it means.
- Web tracking: How are visitors behaving on your website? If you don't have completion tracking, web tracking plus information on where users are coming from can be an acceptable substitute. Google Analytics is the best free service, but it requires basic technical skills to implement and some expertise to configure, tag links and understand the results.
Tracking and analysis can ensure that you optimise your activity. Making changes with an understanding of what is working best can produce a strong multiplier that can lead to dramatic improvements in your effectiveness. For instance, if more people open and read your emails, more are likely to go to your web-based action. And if you attract people with the right expectations, they're more likely to do the action, and you'll recruit new supporters more quickly.
Setting-up, promoting and managing an eCampaigning action probably takes a minimum of 5-10 days per eCampaigning action. Why? Here are some of the things you need to do:
- Distill the policy ask into a headline and a brief campaigning ask.
- Get your campaigning ask approved (skip this step if you believe it is easier to apologise than ask for permission).
- Write the launch email to your supporters. If you want an image you'll need to find a suitable one you have the rights to use (not easy). If you need a design then triple this time.
- Configure the online action for people to take and test it thoroughly to ensure it works. This includes looking at the design of the page, the form fields people are asked to fill in, the content for the page, the supporting content and the cross- promotion messages on the thank-you page and in thank-you email.
- Get organisational signoff on the email and online action or revise things until you do (see above!) In some organisations this can take weeks on its own.
- Ensure that there is a feedback channel for supporters and potential supporters.
- Set up the email so it goes to the right supporters with the right content.
- Launch the email to supporters and monitor the initial results to ensure there are no technical problems.
- Promote it in as many places online as you have time for.
- Write, set up and send update emails to supporters if the action is running for longer than a few weeks.
- Deliver the campaign action results to the target (if there is one) - even if they received it via email. This helps you increase your campaigning impact.
- Review the campaigning action (including analysing the tracked results) and learn how to improve next time. Phew! If you know what you are doing, this will take 5-10 days effort. If you are new to the whole thing it could take double or triple that time. What tends to happen in practice is you just skip many steps and thus lose the benefits each step brings to your campaigning.
Having some budget for eCampaigning would definitely help - especially if you wish to send people on training or get access to the tools necessary for good eCampaigning.
Budget for promotion (not only advertising) is very important. Without promotion all the effort you put into your campaigning has limited effect. Promotion is even more important if you have spent money to create some content and need to ensure you get a good 'return' on it.
Having an eCampaigning strategy and plan should be essential. In reality organisations do eCampaigning for years without a strategy or plan. A strategy can provide focus and goals that can help determine if the eCampaigning is generating the results required. Planning should also involve research into targets, supporters and the profile of people that need to be recruited.
Listening to supporters via a feedback channel like a contact email address or polls and surveys is also an important activity that many organisations neglect. Having feedback can help improve your eCampaigning and ensure it engages supporters.
Author: Duane Raymond is a campaigning strategist and analyst, and director of FairSay. firstname.lastname@example.org