Effective Advocacy Campaign: How the National Corn Growers Association got 38,000+ Nonmember Advocates to take Action

by Ann Dermody // Aug 24, 2016 Success Stories

Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 11.14.21 AMToday you’re going to learn how one organization convinced almost as many non-members as they have members, to comment for them on Regulations.gov. And they did it in one and a half weeks.

The Result: A whopping 38,404 nonmember advocates nationwide took action in a single advocacy campaign. And a huge number of those people were not necessarily sympathetic to, politically aligned with, or even aware of the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) and their ongoing issues. Here’s how they achieved such a spectacular outcome: A big, diverse chorus of voices that not only included NCGA’s traditional base but also extended well beyond it, took an action of public support on an important issue. Talk about moving the needle…

Who Are the National Corn Growers Association? NCGA has more than 40,000 dues-paying corn farmers nationwide, and 48 affiliated state organizations. Their mission is to create and increase opportunities for corn growers and their members who farm throughout what is often referred to as the American heartland.

Like You, NCGA Needs Advocates “NCGA members produce field corn. Not the corn you eat, but the sort of corn the things you eat, eat,” explains Steve Uram, Marketing Manager for NCGA. That includes corn for animal feed, ethanol and other food products.

Members are mostly family farmers whose operations range from a couple of hundred acres, to several thousand. Family farmers like them own 96 percent of all corn farms in America, and they grow 90 percent of America’s corn. As a trade association, with state affiliates, corn growers have dual membership with NCGA and their state chapter. As you might expect NCGA’s members are heavily impacted by new laws, new and existing regulations, and even trade deals. So being able to mobilize grassroots responses, and even extending their reach beyond traditional advocates, is critical to protecting and advancing their members’ interests.

Do These Challenges Sound Familiar? This year NCGA was addressing several challenges on the legislative and regulatory front. One issue – the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS)– has been in the EPA’s crosshairs for a while, and had been a common call to action received by their members. For the past three years, the EPA has proposed reducing the minimum level of biofuels to be blended in the nation’s gasoline supply below levels established by Congress. In response, NCGA has had to mobilize their members to take action and comment on regulations.gov in the compressed open comment period following each proposal. “We’re always looking for ways to increase demand for corn growers, and for the last 10 years plus, ethanol has been a big outlet, “says Uram. “It’s a huge market and a huge opportunity lost.”

The Pain Points Uram and his team knew from grassroots experience that the most effective campaigns are ones that have an easy ask—if the issue affects corn growers’ bottom line or pocket books, then the call to action was easy to perform. But this was the third year running they’d be asking for action on a campaign based on the EPA lowering ethanol volumes.

Pain Points Form into a Strategy “First, we identified ways to reach out to our members through all the usual grassroots channels,” says Uram. “Because we had several issues requiring member grassroots around the same time, we decided we’d do that with a big direct mail campaign, social media, and email outreach.” But Uram knew that to get the EPA’s attention on the RFS, they’d need a far bigger outreach tactic. Not just the farming families of the Midwest, but finding new supporters who weren’t farmers at all. “It’s great that EPA hears from our same members, on the same issue, for the third year in a row, but we thought if someone there [at EPA] is paying attention, wouldn’t it be great if they heard from people in California, Nevada, Massachusetts, or Florida? People outside the corn belt. To get letters that don’t all begin with ‘As a corn farmer from the Midwest …’ might have a greater impact.” So NCGA decided to run two concurrent campaigns. One, a direct mail campaign that would only go to their members and ask them to take action on several issues NCGA was fighting. The second, a cost-per-advocate model would be aimed at nonmembers, and would seek to make a connection beyond their normal audience on issues that concerned those potential advocates. For the cost-per-advocate (CPA) model, the NCGA chose CQ’s advocate acquisition service. Plus, this would mark the first time NCGA had undertaken a CPA campaign using digital ads.

Collaborating Internally on the Right Approach While Uram and the grassroots and membership programs team at NCGA knew the policy side of matters, they also knew other parts of their organization would have good intel into how ethanol was perceived in the wider world that they needed to target. “If you’re a corn grower you might wake up thinking about ethanol every morning, but if you’re not, as most people aren’t, ethanol probably doesn’t cross your mind most days. Maybe once a year, if we’re lucky,” says Uram. The team knew they had to find a way of making it personal to the people who had barely, if ever, thought about ethanol. So their first stop was the communications group at NCGA to see what they were hearing on the ground.

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“It was definitely a team effort here,” says Uram. “Not just government relations and grassroots in a corner. We knew we had smart people in the association, so we said, let’s pick their brains. We’re all aligned with the same issues, but we come from different perspectives.” “People generally like farmers, and think they’re honest and hardworking people, but when they see the words corn and ethanol, it might not have the most positive association,” says Uram. “We wanted to figure out what were the best words to use for people to see us a little bit differently, and to expand the pool.”

The Message Is Everything. At this point NCGA had a 45-day turnaround period prior to the commenting deadline on July 11. “From a grassroots point of view, you’re trying to turn the Titanic, and that takes a while,” says Uram. NCGA knew the direct mail campaign would take longer to yield results, so they worked on that first, getting it out the door to members before the July 4 holiday. Then they set to work on their digital CPA campaign. Based on their internal collaboration, NCGA identified three messages that could potentially resonate with nonmembers:

  • Clean air
  • Lower gas prices
  • Energy security

Rather than place an all-or-nothing bet on one of them, they used CQ’s advocate acquisition service to run, and test, all three. A good CPA model, like the one NCGA used, allows you to micro-target geographically as well as pinpoint demographics such as age, gender, political persuasion and so forth. Initially, NCGA came up with a small list of states they wanted to reach outside their traditional membership. “But then we decided to go big or go home,” says Uram, and they opened the campaign up nationwide. They guessed their three messages would appeal to three different demographics.

NCGA launched three digital ads, each with a different message. This one dealt with energy security, which they hoped would appeal to a military demographic.

NCGA launched three digital ads, each with a different message. This one dealt with energy security, which they hoped would appeal to a military demographic.

“We knew energy security and the standpoint of the Middle East versus homegrown biofuels would probably lean more conservative, or be more military focused,” says Uram. “We thought the people who paid attention to the clean air message would likely lean a little more to the left, or maybe [to people who] have small kids or fit a soccer mom profile. For the savings at the pump message, we thought the appeal would be more of a hybrid. If you can save a few bucks at the pump, that’s good for everyone.” With the messages defined, and the digital ads in place, it was time to launch the campaign.

Setting the “Go Big or Go Home” Goal Because the campaign would run nationwide, NCGA set a huge target to reach. “Our goal was 31,000 comments in two weeks,” says Uram.

How the Digital Ad Campaign Worked Potential new supporters were shown an ad online while browsing and reading sites that were already part of their daily routines. The specific ad each saw – Clean air, Cost at the pump, Energy security – was mapped to each person’s demographic profile. Once they clicked on the ad, they were brought to a landing page where they saw a letter that NCGA had crafted to comment on the EPA.

Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 10.19.42 AM

Depending on which ad advocates clicked on – in this case the cost at the pump – they were brought to a landing page that further explained the rule. The page also contained a form potential advocates could fill out their details on to take action.

Also on the page was a form to fill out their name, address and email, so that NCGA had the contact information they needed to do outreach in a future campaign.

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Of the three ads the NCGA ran, the clean air message got the biggest response. Here’s the landing page advocates were brought to when they clicked on the ad.

The Whopping Results “We saw a couple of thousand roll in the first day,” says Uram. “But we were told it would be day three or four before we’d see the bigger numbers. That’s exactly what happened.” Ten days in, NCGA had captured 38,404 nonmember advocates – almost as many as their entire membership. Notably, the message that resonated with most advocates was the cleaner air one. The ability to run multiple messages was critical in achieving the result. What’s more, the comments had all been gathered a week ahead of the commenting period deadline of July 11. That’s going from a dead start to 38,000+ comments in 10 days.

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Incidentally, the result of their direct mail campaign to members also yielded a very healthy 10% response rate.

A Big Head Start On Your Next Campaign As all the comments had been collected a week before the deadline, NCGA immediately proceeded to put them into their database, broken down by what ad each advocate had clicked on. “So we knew what their interest was, and whether they were members or nonmembers,” says Uram. Although (by design) most of the advocates are not corn growers, NCGA can reach out to them for future advocacy campaigns on ethanol-related issues, based on what ad resonated with them. “The Thursday before the deadline, we took all those email addresses and sent everyone a message from NCGA to say ‘thank you,’” says Uram. “We explained again what they’d done, citing the ad they’d clicked on, so they’d know who this was coming from.” At the end of the ‘thank you’ email they added a final call to action asking advocates to share the link with a friend they thought might be interested. “We didn’t necessarily think that would yield a whole lot of links, but when you’re saying thank you, it’s an easy final ask to forward to a friend.”

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The NCGA sent a “thank you” email to each of the advocates who took action, based on what ad they had clicked on.

When Thinking Outside the Box Pays Off, Big Time For NCGA, expanding their outreach efforts to find and engage new advocates beyond their membership resulted in a huge response on a key issue. Knowing that they have a group of non-member advocates will pay dividends in future campaigns. “If you think of this as a “game” where you’re trying to get as many comments as you can, you have to figure out, what are the messages that work and who could be potential advocates?” says Uram. For NCGA, he says, sitting down with our communications team to work that out was key. The results speak for themselves.

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