Why your grassroots campaign isn’t working.

And what to do about it.

When a grassroots campaign goes well, it can seem like everything’s going your way. You’re getting great engagement, stakeholders are taking notice and the client is happy. When your campaign struggles to get traction, however, it can seem like you’re swimming with your boots on. Luckily, there are three simple questions you can ask to help get back on track. By asking yourself if you’re delivering the right message to the right people and asking them to do the right thing, you can evaluate your campaign and analyze your options for how to move forward.

On December 4, 2014, the City of Raleigh served a resident a zoning violation with the threat of a $500 per day fine. What was the offense? Simply being an entrepreneur and listing the ‘Granny unit’ of his home as a short-term rental on the website Airbnb. His neighborhood wasn’t zoned for short-term rental. The citation triggered a firestorm of protests, meetings, and media coverage.

Targeted Persuasion responded by designing an effective, well-crafted grassroots campaign. We immediately defined the problem and then found innovative solutions to persuade our audience.

We began the campaign by asking questions. And lots of questions.

  • What, exactly, were the elected officials’ concerns?
  • What existing groups were pro Airbnb?
  • What existing groups opposed Airbnb?
  • How could we create a sustained effort to keep the conversation relevant?
  • How do we re-frame public opinion?
  • What messaging would best impact opinion and persuade?
  • And more.

From the questions, we began to select tools to help us move forward. We used:

  • A town hall
  • Face-to-face meetings with elected officials
  • Building a network of community leaders
  • Email marketing
  • Media relations
  • Petitions
  • Online polls
  • Residents speaking at hearings

As a result, the vote to send cease and desist letters was halted. And we created space for a discussion. The grassroots campaign accomplished its mission.

Are we talking to the right people?

If your grassroots campaign isn’t as lush as you’d like, ask if you’re targeting your efforts appropriately. It’s always better to talk to the ten people who are going to respond to your message than the million people who are going to ignore it. To really zero in on your base, don’t think about who you think you should be talking to, but work backwards from the roots. Who is it that wants to hear – and respond to – your message? If they aren’t the people who you thought you should be talking to at the outset, maybe it’s time to re-target.

Once you’ve determined that you’ve found a receptive audience, start reaching out to them in a variety of ways and measure the impact of each. Are they responding to social media posts from a page? From influencers? If so, create online or physical spaces where they can gather and socialize. Are you generating earned media to validate your message and expand your audience? Take your existing supporters and use them to spread that information in their networks.

Do we have the right message?

Once you’ve determined that you’re talking to the right people, you have to make sure you’re giving them the right information. Are you talking to them about something they care about at a time they want to hear it in a language that they understand? If you’re not generating engagement but are confident you have the right audience, consider re-framing your message.

Remember that most people are loss-averse and may be more interested in saving what they already have – especially time and money – than in what they may gain from your desired outcome. Ask yourself what your audience surely won’t be losing rather than what they might be gaining. Then, remind them of that repeatedly across a variety of media that they are using.

If people are not responding to your appeals to support clean energy legislation because they could have more meadows than parking lots, try telling them that their clean drinking water could be polluted if environmental protections are removed. Keep your message free from jargon, say it concisely and deliver it in a way that is distinctive and see if you get a stronger response.

What are we asking our audience to do with our message?

Now that you have figured out your audience and the message they are going to respond to, what is it that you want them to do with that information? All the messaging and targeting you’ve done will go to waste if you don’t turn it into concrete action. Be sure to make a specific ask of your audience and give them a specific time to respond by.

What is it that you want respondents to do? When do you want them to do it? If possible, ask them to take action at the time they get the ask. If you want them to donate, make it fast and easy to give from the email or text. If you need them to volunteer, be ready to sign them up for a shift while they’re still on the phone. Do you want them to share your message with their social networks? Make the share function easy to find and easy to use.

With mobile interaction being so pervasive, be sure to consider not what motivates the head of your target audience, but what motivates their thumbs. What will get them to hit like, share or retweet with their thumbs? Is it easy and fast for them to comply with your ask regardless of the medium in which they receive it? After all, even if you’re hitting your target audience with a compelling message, it doesn’t do you any good if they don’t take your desired action.

The next time you find your grassroots campaign spinning its wheels, ask yourself if you’re talking to the right people, giving them the right message and asking them to complete the right action. Adjust your campaign as necessary and then track your results. Not only will this improve your current campaign, but it will teach you valuable lessons for starting the next one.