Few among us will forget 2020, and the truth is that we shouldn’t.
It was a devastating year, stained forever by the staggering loss of more than 300,000 Americans to a cruel and unpredictable disease. As the pandemic took lives, it also stole our sense of security. Things we took for granted, such as jobs and in-person schooling, were no longer certain. It is when we forget history that we consign ourselves to repeat our mistakes.
Yet 2020 was also the year in which as many as 26 million people rose up to protest racial inequality, probably the largest movement ever on U.S. soil. It was the year that saw roughly 160 million Americans cast a vote, the biggest turnout in 100 years. There are lessons in this, too—especially for those of us who work to make democracy more accessible.
For our colleagues in public affairs and government relations, here are some of the most important things we can take away from 2020, as collected by the staff at Phone2Action. The goal is to take 2020’s lessons and sharpen your program for 2021, which is sure to contain major changes of its own.
1. People are more willing to take action than ever before
The advent of the pandemic, the protests and a polarizing election caused a spike in digital advocacy unlike anything we have ever seen. At its height, more than 52,000 people were taking action every day—roughly 36 people every minute—according to data from the State of Advocacy 2020 report. Take a look at the numbers:
- Roughly 3.4 million people were brought into the advocacy process for the first time from January to June. That’s a 306-percent increase over 2016 (the last presidential election).
- More than 14 million actions were taken on the Phone2Action platform during that period, eight times the number in 2016.
- More than 12.6 million connections were made with elected officials, a whopping 952-percent increase over 2016.
Why were people so willing to take action? We like the explanation offered by Amy Shope Manzi, Director of Grassroots Advocacy at the American Heart Association. “The pandemic made some people feel really powerless,” she said. “Advocacy is an opportunity to take some of that back. We empower them to use their voice to effect change.”
We don’t think this is going to change. With a new president and a new Congress steering America’s recovery and making policy on vital issues like education, immigration, police reform and climate change, we think American activism will continue to surge.
2. The new advocacy landscape is digital
The pandemic reshaped American policy-making State legislatures and Congress went virtual, shattering norms and creating opportunities for votes to be cast remotely. These ground-breaking changes made in-person lobbying virtually impossible and digital strategies paramount. Even with a widespread vaccine, many of the new communications practices lawmakers and those looking to influence policy alike adopted will not go back to the way they were before. The organizations that thrive in this new environment will be those who can get business done in a virtual world.
This isn’t just about Zoom calls. This is creating a new playbook for how to conduct fly-ins, fundraisers and conferences in the digital space, and learning how to mobilize grassroots advocates on command. Anyone who needs proof need only look to the National Restaurant Association. Faced with an existential threat to its industry, the association mobilized fast using digital tools and drove almost 200,000 advocates to deliver roughly 500,000 messages to Congress.
3. Technology is key in the digital landscape
In a digital environment, digital tools matter. The organizations that use technology to make their voice heard and continually ramp up their capabilities will be the ones who win on their issues. Text messaging is a good example.
While email remains an important tool, text messaging is a powerful addition. Text has a 99-percent open rate and saw a major boost in conversion rates during the pandemic, with the average almost doubling to 11 percent, according to data gathered March 13 to June 10. Indeed, double-digit conversion is common. One text campaign by the Michigan Farmers Bureau in April saw a 34-percent conversion rate. Another the American Nurses Association in June saw conversion of 29 percent.
For organizations looking to boost metrics, text is the answer.
4. Technology consolidation will help the industry
There are many in the industry who say that digital tools need to be offered on a single platform that makes it easy for organizations to work smoothly. They want consolidation.
“I operate in an environment where, at any given moment, I might be utilizing four or five different tools,” said Brad Viator, executive director of external affairs at the Edison Electric Institute. “The thing I’ve really been seeking for five years is a way to bridge all of the team members together and all of the products I’m using into one single-sign-on experience.”
On November 2nd, Phone2Action acquired GovPredict and KnowWho with exactly that in mind. Having one platform that “checks the boxes” across government relations needs won’t cut it now, in 2021, or the future. Our vision is to bring to the market a combined platform that offers best-in-class functionality across all of the daily needs of the public affairs and government relations professionals – powered by original datasets on policy-makers. Combining KnowWho’s timely and accurate data on public officials with GovPredict’s powerful legislative, regulatory, and campaign finance tracking and Phone2Action’s game-changing advocacy and communication tools, we have assembled the dominant platform in public affairs and government relations. We hope our combined platform will be the place you want to spend your time and get your work done.
As Viator put it, “With this merger, I think we’ll really start to see that functionality come together.”
5. Corporate activism is now a market expectation
Companies have been getting more active on social issues for years, but 2020 was the year that cemented the trend. A growing body of research shows that consumers are increasingly looking to companies—and especially their own employer—to take on America’s problems. When millions of people protested the killing of George Floyd, many companies weighed in without hesitation.
Amazon, Netflix, Citigroup and scores of others expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The New York Times estimated that between 15 and 26 million people took part in the protests shortly after the killing of George Floyd. Nike connected with the sentiment of the general population and went so far as to change its iconic slogan, releasing a video that said, “For once, don’t do it. Don’t pretend there’s not a problem in America… don’t sit back and be silent.”
This is another trend we think is only going to grow stronger – we project an increasing
6. The New Citizen is shaping American activism
When millions of people took to the streets in June, it begged a question: who are all those activists. Of course, many were simply everyday Americans who wanted to see police reform and other changes. But there was more to it.
Ximena Hartsock, my co-founder at Phone2Action, began studying protests around the world in 2019 and found that major changes have taken place in the way that activists operate.
“I believe these protests reflect the emergence of the New Citizen, a new type of political actor,” she wrote. “These individuals are leaderless and self-directed. They are upset and angry. They are not attached to a political party, organized movement, or advocacy organization. They feel that the political establishment doesn’t represent their interests or actively undermines them.”
Enabled by technology, these activists operate very differently from their counterparts in the 1960s. As Ximena wrote, “Their action is connective rather than collective.” Smart advocacy organizations will find ways to understand their culture and speak to them in the digital space.
7. Creative advocacy is more important than ever
A digital environment inevitably means more noise. But creative organizations will always find ways to have their voice heard. Consider the California Charter Schools Association (CSSA). In June, the association created a campaign asking supporters to make calls to the California legislature about the state budget.
It was a bold move because phone calls are often considered a heavy lift for supporters. But it paid off. The campaign was sent to CCSA’s supporter list, who were asked to submit their phone number on a form that would prompt a patch-through call. Fully 8,800 people responded, making 3,792 calls. This resulted in about 100 hours of phone calls between supporters and lawmakers.
As a bonus, the CSSA gained more than 5,000 new advocates.
8. There’s always a way to make your argument heard
Despite the noise, there is always a way to make your voice heard. Consider environmental nonprofits over this last year. As the pandemic and the protests dominated the national conversation, environmental organizations were extremely active, accounting for four of the top organizations that mobilized the most advocates, according to the State of Advocacy report.
Together, the League of Conservation Voters, the Environmental Defense Fund, EarthJustice and the National Parks Conservation Association mobilized a collective 530,000 advocates across 146 campaigns.
9. Social Sharing has become essential
Social sharing exploded during the pandemic, giving hundreds of advocacy campaigns broad exposure. It’s no mystery why. Millions of Americans were forced to work from home, largely cut off from physical interaction. When that happened, people turned to friends and family for information, and social sharing saw major increases. It brought in new audience, too.
Associations that enabled social sharing (Facebook) on their campaigns saw a massive 3,212-percent gain in the average of new advocates per campaign in the first half of 2020 over the same period the previous year. One of the most successful examples was the National Restaurant Association, which attracted more than 107,000 new advocates in a single campaign. Roughly 40 percent came from posts shared by family and friends of association members on Facebook.
10. Paid social advertising is a potent weapon
While organic social sharing is important, paid social media advertising can also be potent, especially on Facebook. Using Facebook Lead Ads, companies saw a 683-percent gain in the number of advocates acquired from March 13 to May 30 of 2020 over the same period the previous year.
In fact, Facebook Lead Ads were the single largest source of new advocates for companies. Pfizer was the most successful in 2020, with 94 percent of the advocates they reached on Facebook taking action.
11. Advocacy can open up markets
Companies in the gig economy—Lime, Doordash, Expedia and others—were some of the dominant players in corporate advocacy in 2020. That is because, for many companies, advocacy and the ability to open markets and manage regulation supports their business.
“Innovation is at the core of what these companies do,” said Philip Minardi, head of public policy at Expedia Group. “There’s a recognition that innovation is not just a product feature or a company feature. It’s a cultural feature as well.”
Doordash, for example, saw its business vastly increase during the pandemic, when people were shut in and needed food delivery. Accordingly, the company launched a campaign urging Congress to pass the Restaurants Act, a bill that would create a $120 billion stabilization fund for independently owned restaurants. The campaign moved more than 47,000 people to take action, producing more than 95,000 messages to Congress.
Lime, the popular scooter company, uses sophisticated grassroots advocacy to boost many aspects of its business, from entering new cities to giving back to the communities where it operates. It’s Lime Action program aims to turn 1 million Lime riders into advocates for safer streets, sustainable cities and social justice.
“Advocacy has been a critical tool for Lime in demonstrating to elected officials that there is strong support for shared scooter programs among the communities they serve,” said Jonathan Perri, director of advocacy. “Personalized emails from our riders let mayors and city council members hear exactly how their constituents are using scooters.”
12. Voting matters more than it has in decades
Of course, many organizations spent much of 2020 convincing voters to get to the polls, and the results on Election Day—and a few days after—showed that it worked. Americans voted in massive numbers, in part because advocacy organizations worked hard all year to register people and then get them to the polls.
There’s no better example than HeadCount. HeadCount used a variety of strategies, from field teams in key cities to working with major artists like Billie Eilish and YouTube star David Dobrik. They even gave away a few Teslas. The result: HeadCount passed the 1 million mark on voter registration this year and just in September almost 750,000 new individuals used their Civic Action Center. That’s powerful.
The truth is that many organizations facilitated powerful change this year. They adapted on the fly, tried new approaches and carved out wins despite some very challenging circumstances. We are always proud to work with the organizations that affect change using Phone2Action. But this year, it was extraordinary to watch.
More than 10 million people interacted with the Phone2Action Civic Action Centers run by our clients, with 60 percent of that activity taking place in the 60 days before the election. We take pride in the contribution we are able to make to our democratic process through clients who trust us to power their election initiatives.
Of course, we’re not done yet. We have a new president, a new Congress and a new agenda, and it won’t be long before the talk about midterm elections starts up. But hopefully, we can enjoy some quiet before then. The action starts in January. For now, we wish you and your family a wonderful holiday season and the very best in 2021.
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