Mind the gap - the most common campaigning mistakes

I have been working with campaigners to help them make full and effective use of the Internet and new media (aka eCampaigning) since 2001. In that time it has exposed many gaps in how campaigning is managed which limit not only eCampaigning, but general campaigning effectiveness.

Campaigning Gaps

Strategy

Surprisingly, many organisations seem to lack a campaigning strategy at all. They have their campaigning objectives, but little beyond that guiding them in their ongoing activity. Some have documents they call a strategy, but on inspection they are closer to a list of aspirations and are not that useful in guiding or reviewing campaigning.

Influence research

While most organisations do an excellent job researching the issues and what to do about them, the next step for campaigning is to research how the campaigning objectives can be achieved.

This generally involves:

  • A power analysis: where and how are decisions made and who makes or influences them.
  • Identifying strategies and tactics to apply the pressure needed at the right place and time.
  • Identifying specific targets and researching what their position is on the issue and what strategies and tactics are most likely to influence them (and help them influence others).
  • Setting goals that relate directly to the strategies, tactics and targets. In too many cases this impact research is simply not done at all. Since campaigning is part art and part science, intuition is useful. But undertaking and implementing influence research (the science) helps campaigns achieve better results for the time and budget they spend on achieving their objectives.

Creative actions

All too often, the usual suspects and usual methods are used for campaigning actions (offline and online): standard petitions and letters to targets. The result is bland actions that do not appeal to journalists or the public.

Mind The Gap: Skywriting Image
Australian campaign network GetUp delivers a petition in a creative way - skywriting above Parliament House.

Where possible, creative actions need to:

  • Be clear from the outset whether the action priority is mass participation, media coverage or campaigning impact. All three are important but what is most important for this action as part of the overall strategy?
  • Pick targets that serve the priority identified. A public figure, company or brand that is widely loathed or divisive is good for getting people to take actions, but if they will not listen then impact is low. A less 'public' target might be more easily influenced.
  • Use innovative but simple ideas that capture the imagination of the public, journalists and your target. either be more creative with petitions or letters or go beyond them with competitions, phone-ins or other ways for people to participate - not just support.
  • Tell a story. Be specific and personal. Using a specific situation to demonstrate the larger issue is far more effective than bland general issues. Mixing that with a personal story - a real person with a name -further increases its effectiveness.
  • Deliver the results in an unusual way. For example, GetUp skywrote 'Get Up, Vote no' above the Australian Parliament House in order to deliver a 100,000 signature petition against legislation that would put children in immigration detention.

Participation

Participation (supporters influencing the campaign planning and implementation) is surprisingly rare, in many campaigns. While people can support the campaign, they can't usually influence it in any way. Organisations like GetUp www.getup.org.au are succeeding because they operate on the basis of participation, seeing those taking actions as members, not just supporters. While many people only want to support campaigns, others want to do more and will work with those who provide that opportunity. The campaign will be more successful because of it.

Segmenting

Segmenting is a powerful way to get and keep people involved in a way that is relevant to them and predict who is most likely to be a potential campaigner for an issue so they can be approached.

This is already used for fundraising, but does not seem to be used much for campaigning. The exception is US political campaigning where advanced segmenting (aka modelling) is a necessity for winning elections.

Coordinated actions

Coordinated action that use a range of approaches simultaneously are also rare. Media, Internet, demonstrations and other tactics should be planned and used in combination - not independently as currently happens far too much.

Learning

Every time a new campaign is launched, or a new coalition formed, it seems everyone forgets the lessons from the last time. Both within organisations and within the sector, silly mistakes are made again and again that prevent a campaign being as successful as it can. The sector needs to learn how to learn.

eCampaigning gaps

Skill and knowledge gap

There are simply too few people with a full grasp of successful eCampaigning and the skills to deliver it. While the number is growing, acquiring these knowledge and skills through experience can take years.

Those that do acquire them are then in such demand they can move to better opportunities in other organisations and thus significantly set-back an organisation's eCampaigning activities.

A lack of persuasive analysis and reporting

Practitioners are not doing analysis and reporting that persuades senior management and trustees of the importance and potential of eCampaigning activities. As a result, the necessary extra people, budget and authority is not allocated - perpetuating the cycle of under-investment and under-achievement.

This is partly due to:

  • Inadequate reporting tools,
  • Un-integrated advocacy tools which make unified reporting difficult,
  • The lack of widely-accepted best practice performance levels,
  • Confusion over key performance indicators, how to calculate them and what they mean,
  • Lack of time, skills and/or knowledge to integrate, analyse and report on results.

Lack of promotion

Mind The Gap: Painted Words ImagePromoting an online action tends to be poorly planned and resourced, with most energy going into a campaign launch rather than promotion. even when it is considered, it is rare that a promotion strategy is formulated or budget is allocated.

While promoting actions through existing participants and prominent placement on one's web site is essential, more forethought on promotion and support acquisition can help ensure a campaign has well- informed goals and a plan to achieve them.

Lack of on and offline integration

Most planning for campaigning online seems to assume that the whole process has to be online, a fatal assumption. Targets are more influenced by offline activities, and supporters want to get physically involved locally. Digital media (Internet, Mobile phone, etc.) are a great way to reach out and for key groups (public, journalists, policy makers, researchers) to reach the campaign - but not for every element of a campaign.

Absence of supporter care

It is quite common that support for people who email in is forgotten about in the official plans and thus either does not happen or is picked up by a web editor or other person without the time and strategy in place to provide proper support.

Organisational issues

A range of organisational issues present major barriers to making full and effective use of the Internet and other new media, even when people have the necessary skills, knowledge and experience.

These include:

  • eCampaigning practitioners are involved late in the campaign planning process.
  • The lead time is too short for implementing a campaign on the Internet and with other new media.
  • The budget allocation is insufficient for delivering the part of the campaign using the Internet and new media.
  • There are not enough people with the right skills to do a 'best practice' eCampaigning .
  • IT staff are a bottleneck (when they exist) to implementing new tools since campaigning has to compete with other IT organisational needs, and getting IT staff time requires longer lead-in times than campaigning allows.
  • The perception that eCampaigning operates independently of other forms of campaigning like media, local groups, face-to-face advocacy and direct mail actions.

Knock-on impact of the general campaigning gaps

  • Without a clear and specific strategy, eCampaigning practitioners must make a range of decisions without the benefit of guidance from a unified approach.
  • Without influence research, e-actions are often ineffective.
  • Without creative e-actions, the action fails to attract new or existing participants.
  • If people can't participate online, the most valuable volunteers will go elsewhere and your campaigning will have less impact. The issue of participation is campaigning organisations' single biggest mental obstacle to moving from the first major phase of the web (aka Web 1.0) to the emerging phase of the internet (aka Web 2.0).
  • Without segmentation, the email communication is less relevant to everyone.
  • If the Internet activity coordination occurs in isolation to other campaigning approaches, then the impact of e-actions is diminished.
  • Without the ability to learn from past campaigns and not repeat the same mistakes, e-actions are less effective than they could be and thus the campaign underperforms.
  • If the eCampaigning seems to be ineffective, it may well be that it has more to do with the campaigning gaps than anything specific to the internet or your technology.

Technology

If all the above gaps were resolved, there would still be some gaps with the technology. The biggest issues with most eCampaigning technology:
  • Best practices are difficult or impossible to implement (unless you build your own technology, and that is expensive and time-consuming).
  • Integration with key systems (email, supporter databases, tracking) is almost non-existent (unless you build your own technology, see above).
  • Tracking and reporting is terrible (partly due to the integration issue), providing little of the real information you need to make organisational decisions. The right technology can also help resolve some of the other gaps by reducing the effort and technical skills and knowledge needed to set-up and manage campaign actions online.

Going beyond the Gaps

The reasons for these gaps include overworked campaign staff, short lead times, low budgets, shifting priorities and more. These constraints will not go away, but addressing some of the gaps may give campaigners the space to be even more effective.

Duane Raymond is a campaigning strategist and analyst, and director of FairSay. duane.raymond@fairsay.com

by Duane Raymond published Sep 15, 2008,