One of the pervading themes in the Raleigh municipal elections for 2019 was the divide between those candidates interested in slowing growth and those interested in tackling the issue head-on. The Raleigh area sees a net growth rate of about 60 new people per day; it’s less a question of “How do we slow growth?” and more of “How can we be proactive and prepare for the growth that’s coming?”
While traditional political actors were spending thousands of dollars in advertisements, spurred by political action committees, an opportunity presented itself to raise awareness about salient issues without being directly in the political fray. Thus, a 501(c)(4) was created: The Alliance for Progress in the Triangle, Inc. (APT). Its charter states the purpose:
The Alliance for Progress in the Triangle, Inc., is organized for the purpose of promoting the social welfare and public good of the citizens in the State of North Carolina, by:
Empowering local communities through education and advocacy focused on smart growth, sustainability, and progress in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina; and building a grassroots network of citizens to advocate for affordable housing, sustainable development, mass transit, and other issues important to local citizens
A portion of the money raised by the 501(c)(4) could be spent on political communications. The rest was left to administrative costs and to informing the public about pressing issues. APT focused its spending on three buckets: transportation, housing affordability and environmental stewardship.
The hub of any digital campaign is its website. The APT website was simple and to the point. Its homepage described the purpose of the organization, relevant information about the entity and a form to contact the executive director.
On a separate tab, the website hosted information about the environment, including local stories that would be of particular interest to Triangle residents. The top of the page, to which all the digital advertisements linked, featured a call to action:
Raleigh will be nearly 5° warmer by 2050. Tell City Council to act before it’s too late.
Below is a screenshot of the website’s environment page, including the CTA and a button to email the entire Raleigh City Council at once:
Below, the page featured articles about climate change, green policies and environmental stewardship more generally. Clicking anywhere on a box would send the user to the article:
APT also has a Facebook page, which was the central platform used to advertise. The Facebook page was very basic; it was not used for regular posting, only for running advertisements. The page could easily be revived for long-term use. A simple logo was commissioned to use for brand consistency and to ensure the ads were of high production value.
Ads for the Facebook page were divided into two categories: static and video. The four video ads featured APT’s Executive Director, Dustin Engelken, and were filmed in-house at his office. All post-production was done in-house as well, featuring the new logo and instrumental music:
For each of the video ads, a companion static ad was created as well. This allowed there to be a diversified ad placement while still keeping the message consistent. Some users will not stop to watch a video, so it’s key to ensure there are options for every audience type. These ads, along with the video ads, appeared on Facebook and Instagram.
These ads were created in-house. Each was placed on Facebook, along with the four video ads, targeted to Facebook users within Raleigh who were most likely to engage in content regarding the focus of each respective ad. For example, those who engaged with content about environmentalism were prioritized to receive ads about climate change and environmental stewardship. In addition, the website hosted a pixel, which means that those who click on the ads and visited the site were queued up for more ads in future. This lowers the cost of digital advertising by putting a string of code on the site and identifying users. Since repetition is an essential part of persuasive communications, this maximizes the chances that the same people are served the APT ads multiple times.
In tandem with the digital advertisements, a traditional print media campaign was conducted as well. In working with McClatchy, APT placed two full-page, color ads in the Raleigh News & Observer, the paper of record in Raleigh. These ads allowed APT to make a splash in a format more likely to be seen by the donor class in Raleigh, and to continue building out the brand in an impressive way for a new entity.
The ad on the left appeared in Sunday, September 29th’s paper. The ad on the right appeared in Sunday, October 6th’s paper, two days before the election.
A social welfare organization can be quite limited in its capabilities, especially during election season. The Alliance for Progress in the Triangle is a wonderful case study in how to maximize what possibilities are available, especially when similar entities exist that are promoting political messaging that 501(c)(4)’s simply cannot replicate.
Navigating an election with a social welfare organization can be tricky, but when done right, the results are hard to refute. In just three weeks leading up to the October 8 municipal elections, ads from APT racked up compelling numbers in an election where hardly 50,000 cast ballots:
Facebook + Instagram ads had over 488,000 impressions with a frequency of 3.51, meaning each person touched was served ads more than three times on average.
Many people may have the impression that 501(c)(4)’s are too tricky to use effectively during election season, but that simply is not the case. APT is a testament to the profound impact that social welfare organizations can have when implemented correctly. All told, the APT campaign went from concept to completion in less than a month. The impact it had on the municipal elections far outweighs the cost in time and money.
In addition to the self-evident benefits of social welfare advocacy, the enthusiasm created in aligned parties made the project a fundraising boon. A percentage of the money raised by APT was transferred directly to a political advocacy group that could speak on electoral issues. In tandem with that campaign, the programs were a major force that resulted in the election of a new mayor, the defeat of three incumbent councilors, winning an open seat and returning endorsed incumbents back to City Hall.