As America Isolates, Online Advocacy Explodes

April 15, 2020 Hailey Nievergelt

As America Isolates, Online Advocacy Explodes

By Jeb Ory


Americans are staying home to protect the nation’s health, but they are not staying quiet. The truth—perhaps surprising—is that online advocacy has seen a massive boost in recent days as people take to digital channels to express their views.


At Phone2Action, we are seeing firsthand just how well nonprofits and other groups can activate their audiences. Organizations of all kinds used our platform, which provides cutting-edge advocacy tools, to launch more than 1,000 campaigns last week. 


More importantly, supporters working from home answered the call. Nearly 1 million people took action, sending almost 2.4 million messages to Congress. On March 21st alone, more than 215,000 people sent roughly 481,000 messages, including more than 3,000 tweets.


The lesson is clear: nonprofits have an unprecedented opportunity to connect with supporters and advocate for resources at a time when supporters are clearly listening. For organizations that want to show their value, serve their audience and do some good, now is a great time to engage. 


Increasing Digital Sophistication


In a world where face-to-face meetings are not taking place, digital advocacy is more important than ever. Nonprofits can advance the mission and show their value to donors and supporters by giving people an outlet to communicate.


However, as is always the case, it takes some strategic thinking in order to be heard. Thousands of organizations are communicating about Coronavirus policy. The organizations that cut through the noise are those who are taking a more sophisticated approach to digital advocacy, with strategic campaigns and modern tools. 


For example, email is the workhorse of our industry, but there’s no doubt that it is getting tired. Many organizations are even decreasing usage. While email lists grew by almost 8 percent in 2019, according to the Blackbaud Luminate Online Benchmark Report, the number of emails actually sent declined by almost a percentage point. “In recent years, more email volume has led to worse email performance,” the report said. “We see this as an indicator of email-sending organizations striving to find a new balance.”  


Text messaging can be part of that balance. Many of the organizations that had the best performance last week used text messaging, SMS shortcodes and custom keywords (e.g. Text INFO to 52886) to deliver their campaigns. 


People can respond to a text message on their phones and take action immediately, wherever they may be. They are opted in, so they want to hear from your organization, and the numbers show as much. Text campaigns have a 99-percent open rate, click rates far higher than advocacy email and conversion rates routinely run to double digits. 


We see more and more organizations building a list and adding a text program in order to combat communication fatigue. When addressing your core supporters about advocacy, it’s the right tool for the job. 


A ‘Day of Digital Advocacy’


Most organizations with a direct stake in the Coronavirus response already have their campaigns running, but many more nonprofits have taken a wait-and-see approach to advocacy. This is certainly understandable. The wrong communication at the wrong time can appear tone deaf. 


Yet, all organizations have a mission to serve and will be forced to return to advocacy at some point soon. Those who do so now and take a thoughtful approach may see big returns. 


Of course, the details of that approach will be different at every organization. Some may feel it is best to aid in the response to COVID-19, providing resources or helping specific communities. Others may remind supporters that, even in a world of social distance, there is social good to be done on a variety of important fronts.


At Phone2Action, we created an initiative of our own called #HearUsOut ( or text HearUsOut to 52886) that simply allows members of the public to connect with their legislators and communicate thoughts on COVID-19. What they say is up to them. Some of our clients have used this as a means to connect their audience with public officials.


Whatever the message, one sophisticated approach is to host a “Day of Digital Advocacy” that calls upon supporters to get active in a number of ways. Many Washington advocacy groups are doing this to replace congressional lobby days that were cancelled this month and next. 


A digital advocacy day starts with an email or text campaign that calls for action. A second phase might encourage supporters to tell their story. Your organization can amplify these stories by staging a “take over” on your social media sites that highlights these stories and drives even more action. Finally, give your advocates feedback with a live map that shows people taking action on your campaign all around the country. The combination of tactics can produce powerful results. 


Despite all that has happened in the last week, now is a good time to begin reaching out to your audience and providing them a means to act on the causes they care about most. Just because people are at home does not mean they are tuned out. In fact, there is much evidence to the contrary.


As the numbers show, your audience is listening.


Jeb Ory is the CEO of Phone2Action.


Blackbaud Luminate Online and Phone2Action integrate to provide powerful grassroots advocacy.

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