Nearly every high-profile national organization uses new media to mobilize grassroots supporters and put pressure on lawmakers. But a new study showing that as many as half of congressional staffers believe online form messages to be fake has renewed the debate about the political efficacy of online advocacy. Do lawmakers really listen?

There have been plenty of long, theoretical arguments on the subject (a few highlights are posted at the bottom of this post).  We thought it might be more useful to offer these five quick, concrete, actionable tips on how to maximize your online advocacy program’s real-world impact:

  1. “Online petitions” should only be the first step. For most organizations, easy online advocacy actions such as petitions or letters to Congress are the best way to recruit large numbers of new supporters. But don’t stop there! Think of your online petition as an entry point for a new activist or a way to begin engaging your list on an issue, and then build up to higher impact actions like phone calls, letters to the editor, and offline events.
  2. Make high-impact advocacy easier. Congressional offices pay much more attention to phone calls than online messages (as long as they’re from actual constituents!). But picking up the phone is much harder than filling out an online form to send a letter, and many supporters can find it intimidating. Make sure you’re guiding your advocates through the process and arming them with information, and consider using online tools to make calling and writing letters to the editor easier. For instance, M+R recently helped AARP create, implement and roll out a tool that helped constituents call their legislators with just one click. When users clicked the “call now” button, a personalized link made action-taker’s phone ring immediately, automatically connecting them to their own Members of Congress — no dialing required!
  3. Integrate online and offline work. If you’re offering an offline petition, make an organizational commitment to deliver the petitions at a lobby day or press event, tell supporters what you’re going to do, grab some video or at least a few good photos while you’re doing it, and then report back to your activists on how it went. (This is a great idea, whether you’re delivering petitions to Congress or to a non-legislative target!) Hold virtual lobby days so that your supporters are writing and calling at the same time that representatives of your organization are visiting Capitol Hill. And help your most hardcore supporters meet with lawmakers on their own. The Human Rights Campaign ran integrated campaigns in 2009 and 2010 that helped ordinary supporters set up meetings with their Members of Congress in local district offices. The sign-up tools and promotions were all online, but the online effort was backed by a strong field team that followed up with constituents to provide them with the resources and support they needed to be successful (and to ensure that their meetings actually took place!)
  4. Take advantage of social networks. A recent study found that 64% of surveyed Hill staffers think Facebook is an important way to understand their constituents’ views. Direct your supporters to their representatives’ Facebook pages and ask them to write on their walls. Encourage your supporters to tweet members of Congress who are on Twitter. Last year, the ENOUGH Project flooded the Facebook walls of ten members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee with messages in the hopes of getting the conflict minerals bill out of committee. 48 hours and over 500 messages later, two of the ten — as well as another three who had not been targeted — decided to co-sponsor the bill, which passed into law a few months later. During the health care reform debate, Organizing for America built a “Tweet Congress” tool that allowed users to enter their zip code to find their Representative or Senators, making it easy for them to connect and apply pressure via a new medium.
  5. Go local. Capitol Hill is crowded and noisy. New tools make it easier than ever to reach supporters, and easier than ever for supporters to contact Congress — so more people are doing it than ever before. To avoid being drowned out, reach out to members of Congress in their home districts. M+R’s grassroots mobilization team puts organizers on the ground in key states and districts to mobilize local partners, recruit and train activists, push an issue in the local media, provide support to national online organizing, and facilitate congressional contact at town halls and district offices. We use online tools to connect supporters to organizers, generate grassroots momentum, and turn out attendance at locally organized events. It’s a highly effective combination!

Further Reading:

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