It’s the first question any online organizer should ask, and one of the hardest to answer: “Should we still be asking our activists to send emails to Congress? Do they really matter?”
Do you like simple answers? The simple answer is YES! Email advocacy matters, and you should do it!
The more complicated (and also more honest) answer is: Email advocacy matters if you do it right. So if you’re going to do it, you need to do it the right way.
First, look who’s talking.
By all accounts, form emails to the Hill are alive and well. The 2015 M+R Benchmarks Study showed that nonprofits on average send 12 advocacy emails to their supporters each year — about one per month (see how we’re really good at math there?). Some of these are list builders for future campaigns, and some might be identifying folks on your list that might be up for doing more. But, some of these action alerts are driving messages into congressional inboxes. And those are the ones we’re talking about today.
Okay, but is anybody listening?
But wait! Didn’t I read somewhere that form communications are among the least effective ways to communicate with Congress?
Yes. Taken on its own, a single form email doesn’t have the impact of a constituent picking up the phone or hand-writing a letter. But email is WAY more scalable than higher-touch contacts, and therein lies its power. As M+R’s own Bill Wasserman likes to say: “Politicians can’t read, but they can count.”
When congressional staff tally up the communication they receive on a given issue, email is where the numbers are — and numbers prove the breadth of your support. Numbers show your power. Numbers show how many people are paying attention to how a lawmaker votes. A handful of very personal letters or calls, no matter how compelling, simply can’t do that on their own. As the Leg Director for a prominent Dem House office told us over tacos: “I often ask our leg correspondence team how many letters we’ve gotten on specific issues and bills.” She does this when she’s deciding whether to co-sponsor a bill, how to vote, or even if she should take a lobbyist meeting.
Of course, form emails are not all it takes to win. Realistically, you want to have a combination of things — a flood of emails, some constituent calls or visits right at the key moment, and strong follow up from your lobbying team to drive home all that constituent concern the office is hearing. And don’t forget that the combination should be coordinated. The LD from the taco caucus also told us: “The most coordinated groups say outright, ‘We understand ### of your constituents wrote in about our ‘ask’ and we’d like to meet with you to discuss it further.’”
Quantity counts — what about quality?
Anything you can do to help your supporters personalize and customize the letters — or delivery of the letters — will help show the office that they care more than just enough to click a button.
But, no matter how good you are at writing those click-and-send email communications, you just can’t fake authenticity. Even if you can swap in more than one form letter to choose from (which is a tall order for some online tools), good luck trying to trick a congressional staffer into thinking these aren’t form messages. Like a bag of burnt popcorn, they’ll smell it a mile away. All it takes is two of the same letter. (See “numbers” above.)
That’s not to say personalization doesn’t matter. Personal stories can have a big impact, not just on staffers but on your own lobbying program. Many people who want to send an email to congress also have something to say — or a story to tell. So by all means, let supporters know why personalizing their emails to Congress makes them that much more powerful. Then, cull those letters for personal stories, reach out to those constituents who have something compelling to say, and get them to join you for an in-person lobby visit. Or print out a bunch of the stories and include them as a leave-behind.
Your ultimate goal is for a staffer or Member to hear those stories so they stick. That rarely happens just from an email, so make sure you’re doing all you can outside of email to show your targets the impact of their decisions on real people’s lives.
Better, then, to focus on leveraging those emails in a custom way, so that they generate the most impact possible. Can you print them out and re-deliver them in person? Can you hold a press conference? Can you have a group of constituents meet in a Member’s district office immediately after flooding their inbox? Can you hire a blimp to amplify your message across the sky? Generating lots of letters is like having water in the pool — making a splash is up to you.
One last thing: should my organization name be in the emails to Congress?
In other words, should my form letters start: As your constituent and a member of XYZ organization, I urge you to support…?
This is a tricky one. If your organization’s membership brings with it gravitas and import on the Hill, it may be wise to include it. But it’s worth thinking about the effect of not leading with your org name. Think about your audience, and think about what they’re looking for.
Remember that thing we said earlier about authenticity? If you’re an elected official, you want to hear your constituents writing to you out because they care about an issue. Their organizational affiliations are secondary.
As an organizer, your goal is to connect those constituents with elected officials, to help them make their voices heard.
And as a strategic digital advocate, your main goal of a form email letter is to get points on the scoreboard that each office keeps of the number of constituents who are pro- and anti- a policy, and then your lobbyists are your voice to negotiate behind-closed-doors to get things across the finish line.
Once you’ve met these two goals effectively, then you make sure you get the credit you deserve to increase your rapport with the Member’s office. One easy way to do this is to have your lobbying team tell the office Legislative Aide the tally of letters your org’s supporters sent in their next meeting or conversation. BTW, it’s not about bragging — it’s about demonstrating your strength and power, and increasing the effectiveness of your voice.
So keep sending email, and keep asking your supporters to make themselves heard. But don’t stop there. Coordination is what matters. That’s how you win. And we really want you, and your supporters, to win.
— M+R (@MRCampaigns) August 19, 2015