It’s Time to Update Your Advocacy Tools

by John Haughey // Jan 19, 2016 Digital

Tablet With Arms And Tools On HandWhat goes into your engagement toolbox is what comes out, in terms of your advocacy efficacy. In an era of ever-more channels and digital options, pausing to assess and retool can seem a luxury few have time for.

But do it. Do it now. Here’s why.

According to communications professionals who orchestrate engagement and advocacy programs for associations, trade groups and nonprofits, if you are not constantly refining your advocacy tools and tactics, you’re wasting time you’ll wish you had when you’re forced to overhaul an outdated toolbox.

Four things to consider:

* When to retool

* How to assess your advocacy tools

* Timing for introducing new advocacy tools

* What you can do now

The When:

While the best advice is to be constantly tweaking, ever on the alert for the next big thing, there are times in the calendar year that lend themselves to reorganizing tools and re-plotting tactics.

Abigail Zenner, government affairs associate with the American Planning Association (APA), said late summer is an ideal time to revamp engagement tools and tactics. Congress is on summer recess and elected representatives are in their home districts, making them available for face-to-face parlays with members in the association’s 47 chapters and 21 divisions.

“The toolbox is a work-in-progress. We are looking at it, updating it all the time, but we use August as a time to emphasize engagement with members at the chapter level,” she said.

By assessing email calls-to-action originating from its Washington, D.C., office, Zenner said, the APA realized it was best to create “a whole different set of (email) platforms” originating from chapter presidents to engage local members, and call upon them to contact Congressional representatives while they are available in their home districts.

Late summer is also a good time to revisit engagement strategies for the National Association of Enrolled Agents (NAEA), said senior communications and marketing director, Gigi Thompson Jarvis.

“Because our members are tax preparers, summer works pretty well for introducing new resources. They would never know about anything we introduced during tax season,” she said.

The NAEA’s toolbox contains client newsletter articles, print ads, enrolled agent logos, brochures, video PSAs and commercials, along with press release templates “and a lot more,” Jarvis said. “We try to update this member resource frequently.”

For Brian Wachur, director of marketing and membership for the 70,000-member National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), there is no ideal time to pause and retool.

“We try to improve things all the time, because there is really little variation in the pace of activity during different times of the year – a byproduct of our members not being on the same academic schedule,” he said.

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The How:

Wachur said the best way to examine the adequacy of your toolbox is to start from the standpoint of what members need and what would be more helpful for them.

In gauging the effectiveness of engagement with its 300 affiliates, NAEYC asks two questions: 1) What do members need from the association? and 2) What is their capacity to use it?

“It’s no use developing a program an affiliate doesn’t have the resources to use,” Wachur says. “We can think of all this great stuff with all the bells and whistles, but it’s not going to be effective if they can’t put it to use.”

The best way to determine if your association’s engagement toolbox is reaching members is to define your message and your goals.

If emails are the primary contact channel and “a template has been around for years, maybe that template needs to change,” Wachur points out.

This is especially good advice if the email templates you are using were developed before the advent of your social media presence on Twitter and Facebook.

But email should not be your exclusive channel. “You need to have a good social media system in place,” Wachur says. “Social media, marketing, member relations – have these people at the table to get the strategy in place, to establish the communications capacity. Have that in place and understand each role.”

The Timing:

Thompson Jarvis says sometimes members will tell you when they need a new tool.

“This summer, we are putting together a webinar and a policy manual for social media – many of our members want more information on how it can be used to promote their businesses,” she said.

Catherina Hurlburt, communications manager for the 130,000-member National Association for Music Education (NAfME), said her association tries to introduce new tools and programs before national and regional conferences.

Last summer, NAfME repackaged blogs from session presenters to promote its October national conference, and circulated them to members via email, Twitter, Facebook, and on its website.

That helped create interest among members in the more than 300 professional development sessions that took place at their October conference. It also drove registrations, generated conversation, and answered needs in the various music education teaching strands and grade levels.

NAEYC did something similar in timing its new initiatives, by introducing a mentorship program and a Young Professionals Advisory Council in anticipation of its annual conference last November.

“How do you push this out? You do it all – emails, Twitter, Facebook” and website content, Wachur said, but he adds one new tweak. “I guess you could call it dealing it down,” he says of the practice of handing the push to local affiliates to coordinate and continue after the conference.

The Here and Now:

Wachur said associations must realize they live in a post-email world.

“Social media is getting very close to meeting and exceeding the reach of email,” he says. “Not long ago, (social media) was supplemental. Email was the go-to, but it’s not like that now. It’s just as important as email. This is not new, but I’m still surprised when I see the numbers.”

APA’s Zenner said her association is incorporating more podcasts designed for professional development, into its engagement toolbox.

“Previously, it was a strategy used more for outside advocacy, but we’re using it more often now for member engagement.”

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In addition, she said the APA is using webinars to explain the process of telling members’ stories, and to provide an understanding of what they do as part of the association’s advocacy efforts.

Last summer they focused on the land-water conservation foundation. “Our members go out to various parks and Tweet photos to elected officials,” she said.

This type of engagement serves two functions, Zenner says. “We are communicating with members, and our members are communicating with elected officials. This strengthens our relationship with membership. As our membership gets used to the idea, they know they have the power. ‘Here are the tools – you are empowered to be your own advocates.’”

Examples of engagement/advocacy toolboxes:

National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)

American Planning Association

California Society of Enrolled Agents

The Pennsylvania State Education Association

International Association of Public Participation Practitioners (IAP3)

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