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Three Digital Trends Reshaping Grassroots Advocacy

Three Digital Trends Reshaping Grassroots Advocacy

April 2024

By Courtney C. McKay

In today’s lightning-paced, digital-first world, grassroots advocacy continues to evolve at a staggering rate. With advocacy tools becoming increasingly sophisticated and disruption around every corner, it is essential for public affairs and digital communications professionals to stay ahead of the curve to reach the right audiences and achieve the right results. Here are three significant technology trends transforming the future of grassroots advocacy.

1. The Third-Party Cookie Crumbles

One of the biggest disruptions happening in digital advocacy this year is the deprecation of third-party cookies. Cookies, small files placed on your computer or other device when you visit a website, come in two varieties: first-party cookies and third-party cookies. First-party cookies are managed by the owner of a website to keep you logged in or save items in your online shopping cart until you make a purchase — and these aren’t going anywhere.

What is going away are third-party cookies, which are created by and send data to a third party, such as a social media website. These cookies are used to track a user’s online activities across websites, enabling advertisers to target individuals with personalized ads.

While most browsers restricted cookies from third-party advertisers years ago, Google’s widely popular Chrome browser still allowed them — until this past January. After years of delays, Google started phasing out third-party cookies for 1% of its Chrome users at the start of the year, a number that will slowly increase to 100% by the end of 2024. While hailed as a victory by privacy rights groups, some industry experts say this simply forces ad buyers into more branded solutions, such as those offered by Google, in order to continue conducting advanced digital advertising campaigns.

(Note: Just days after this piece was published, Google announced it is once again pushing back the deadline for third-party cookie deprecation in its Chrome browser, delaying the process until at least 2025 and giving the industry yet another brief reprieve.)

Regardless, digital advocacy professionals will need to get creative with new ways to run online campaigns, engage advocates and target key audiences. According to Sue Zoldak, founder and owner of the strategic consulting firm The Zoldak Agency, there are a number of practical steps organizations should take now to get ahead of the cookiepocalypse:

  • Assess and grow your first-party data. “This is a great time to engage in data hygiene efforts,” Zoldak says. Your organization likely has a sizable amount of data collected from the individuals you interact with directly, but the success of future campaigns depends on how clean and extensive that data is. Remove duplicate records, delete inactive users and consider asking customers, members and stakeholders for more information, such as their congressional district, a cell phone number or the advocacy issues they care about most. Digital agencies can help you authenticate your data by matching it to voter records or mobile IDs and appending personal email addresses to your entries. And, while third-party cookies are still active, you also may want to consider running a retargeting campaign to grow your first-party list — while you still can.
  • Create a post-cookie identity strategy. A number of ad tech companies have their own proprietary identifiers (such as Epsilon’s CoreID) that are even better than cookies, says Zoldak. “A CoreID can anonymously track and match your physical address, your phone number, your IP address, your device data and other things a cookie never could do,” she explains. Now is the time to pick a post-cookie identifier and create a strategy for your organization, enabling you to build an audience pool and begin audience modeling.
  • Get to know Google Analytics 4 (GA4). “Website analytics will be a critical piece of the puzzle going forward in a cookie-less future,” Zoldak adds. Google’s latest iteration of its web analytics platform, GA4, focuses on new ways to measure advertising performance, among other updated features. Zoldak recommends getting familiar with GA4 as soon as possible. “Not doing so may increase the chances that your website traffic is no longer being tracked how you want it to be,” she says.

Zoldak will be speaking on this topic at the Digital Media & Advocacy Summit in June. If you have a question for her, ask it [ here ] and she may answer it from the stage.

2. Breaking Up with Online Platforms

We’ve read the headlines: Another company announces it is leaving X (formerly Twitter) and pulling its paid advertising campaigns from the service over policy concerns. Federal and state agencies ban the use of TikTok on government-owned devices. A major industry voices ethical concerns over the use of artificial intelligence (AI). How do you traverse the potential landmines of online platforms and determine whether or not the risks to your organization’s reputation outweigh the benefits to your grassroots digital advocacy strategy?

As Stacie Manger, director of digital and UX strategy at the American Forest and Paper Association (AF&PA), explains, when it comes to using online platforms for advocacy efforts, you need a customized approach, especially as the pace of change accelerates. “It is impossible to ignore the breadth of technology platform changes that are occurring,” says Manger. “These platforms are making changes to privacy policies, accessibility and inclusion, how certain types of speech are managed and more.” As a result, it’s never been more important to think critically about the platforms you use.

AF&PA, which represents paper and wood products companies, is doing just that. The association is developing what Manger describes as “a digital platform and communications governance structure to assist in our decision-making regarding the use of a platform,” a set of benchmarking questions designed to be helpful in pivotal moments when time is of the essence. “Our process aims to recognize that increasing your presence on a platform requires staff capacity or budget, pausing could mean losing out on visibility and exiting has its own process and challenges,” she says. “These are important scenarios to consider to ensure a plan is in place before these decisions are made.”

When deciding how to invest in your digital advocacy resources, Manger says the most important thing is to understand your desired result and ask questions to help you achieve that objective. “It is impossible to develop a path forward without first assessing the value each individual platform adds to your efforts,” she explains.

To that end, helpful questions to ask when evaluating the use of online platforms include:

  • What is our goal?
  • Who is our audience?
  • Where are our audiences most active?
  • Do we have the budget, time and content necessary to launch an additional platform presence?
  • Is the platform meeting our metric goals?
  • Are we seeing robust engagement?
  • What are the reputational risk considerations?

Manger says digital governance conversations are crucial to all advocacy organizations, but it’s just as important to make sure your governance policies aren’t overbearing or unwieldy. “Governance defines what you value, how decisions are made and how you hold yourselves accountable,” Manger shares. “This, in turn, helps you achieve results to advance your goals and your organization.”

3. The ROI of SMS

While AI might be getting all the buzz these days, it’s the trusty text message that has seen a resurgence as a helpful tool for digital advocacy. Mark E. Hayes, vice president of communications at the Farm Credit Council, says his organization has found great success using SMS for grassroots digital advocacy campaigns.

The Farm Credit Council represents the Farm Credit System, a nationwide network of cooperative lenders that makes loans to farmers and ranchers, rural homebuyers, rural infrastructure providers and agribusiness. When it comes to policy, the farm bill is a critical piece of legislation for the organization. “Something that all lenders in the agriculture space agree on is the importance of a strong farm safety net, and specifically the importance of a strong federal crop insurance program,” explains Hayes. In the lead-up to the 2018 Farm Bill, Hayes and his team were looking to grow their grassroots advocacy base to oppose amendments meant to weaken this insurance program — and they turned to text messaging to do so.

While the team continued to use a variety of tools to mobilize their advocates, text messaging had a crucial advantage: a sense of urgency. “You might leave the notification badge for your emails in the thousands, but very few people have unread texts,” Hayes jokes. Another plus was that most people don’t leave home without their smartphones. “As we looked at our core audience of advocates, which is … farmers and ranchers who are in their tractors and out in the field, they don’t typically spend a lot of time behind a computer, but they always have their phone,” he says. “So, when we were looking to reach people — and reach them quickly, which is usually the case with grassroots advocacy — we found that texting was the best and most effective way to reach our core advocacy base.”

The Farm Credit Council used the Phone2Action platform, now owned by Quorum, to help their advocates take action — and they saw text messaging vastly outperform their emails. Individuals who opted in were texted a link taking them to a mobile landing page with a pre-written letter addressed to their member of Congress asking them to protect crop insurance. To increase the number of advocates who participated, the organization also used gamification and the software’s data visualization tools to foster healthy competition, specifically the platform’s virtual map, which automatically added digital map pins showing congressional districts where advocates were taking action — and where they hadn’t yet.

As the farm bill reached the committee level and then the floor level, Hayes and his team were able to send out quick alerts to their advocates asking them to contact their members of Congress with a message tailored to the moment. Thanks to these efforts — paired with more traditional advocacy tactics, including in-person meetings with lawmakers and their staffs — the Farm Credit Council and a broader group of ag-related organizations succeeded in preserving the federal crop insurance program in the final legislation. Now, the team is planning to ramp up another text messaging campaign this year, since the current extension to the farm bill is set to expire in September.

As Hayes points out, text messaging was just one tool in their toolbox. It takes a full complement of resources — and supporting strategies — working together for effective grassroots advocacy. Ultimately, the most successful advocacy and public affairs professionals are the ones able to harness the power of these tools to achieve their goals no matter what trends come their way.

Discover these trends and more at the Public Affairs Council’s 2024 Digital Media & Advocacy Summit June 10 in Washington. 

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