Every year between April 1 and September 30, nonprofits, trade associations, and interest groups bring thousands of advocates to D.C. to meet with Congress. These ‘fly-ins’ attempt to shape the legislative agenda by drawing lawmakers’ attention to constituents and their causes. The grassroots advocates bring a level of credibility and authenticity that paid lobbyists cannot match. However, fly-ins have become a box to check, not the significant opportunity they ought to be.
Why? Because fly-ins are ephemeral. The 48-hour buzz fades quickly. Associations see their momentum peak then plunge.
The missing ingredients are ongoing connections to lawmakers, the link between grasstops and grassroots advocacy, and mobile technology, the medium that facilitates these relationships the other 363 days of the year. This blog post is your playbook for connecting the data, impact, and momentum of fly-ins to your digital advocacy programs.
We base the strategy below on Erik’s experience as VP at the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), Ximena’s work in government and educational advocacy, and our work with Phone2Action’s clients. Let’s dig in:
Step 1: Prep the Fireworks Show
Capitol Hill fly-ins are like an annual firework show that is hard to miss but easy to forget. The organizations attempt to influence issues that pass through a gauntlet of debate and legislation for years. It’s a long game played short-term, and that contradiction is a challenge.
First and foremost, embrace the firework show by prepping advocates to tell powerful, emotive stories. Although your advocates have strong feelings about your issues, most have never told their story in front of lawmakers on Capitol Hill. It’s an intimidating stage.
While you could invest barges of money in training, there are more cost-effective options. We suggest creating a mobile widget or template that digitally interviews fly-in advocates. Erik successfully created one for NAM Summit 2017. Advocates answer the questions and attach photos to produce a PDF they can print, review, and hand out to lawmakers. It covers essentials such:
- What is your organization’s story? How old is your organization, what do you do, and how many constituents would legislation affect?
- What are your top issues? They could include STEM training, finding skilled workers, tariffs, etc.
- Why should this matter to your Senators and Representatives? Provide bios and background on lawmakers that can help your advocates make a personal connection.
- What is your personal story? How might legislation affect you and your family?
- How can we illustrate the story? Invite users to include pictures of fellow constituents. These photos could document the organization’s impact in the community and suggest how legislation might change the scene.
We recommend using a self-prompted widget like NAM’s (Phone2action can help) or creating a custom template that will prepare your storytellers for the fly-in and help them tell concise, impactful stories.
Step 2: Drop the App, Take the Phone Number
Some organizations spend thousands of dollars on smartphone apps designed to coordinate fly-ins and re-engage participants afterward. At best, your constituents will download the app for the week then promptly delete it. There are so many apps vying for screen space and attention, and you can’t outcompete Instagram and Netflix.
Instead of fighting the app wars, switch to text messaging for a few reasons.
First, a phone number is the most evergreen data point available – it rarely changes. Second, text messages are hard to ignore. SMS has a 98 percent final read rate, and 90 percent of texts are read within three seconds. Emails see average open rates in the low 20s.
Third, SMS is the common denominator of all mobile phones. Rather than developing and constantly updating apps for Android and iOS, you can use SMS indefinitely and include so-called ‘dumbphones’ (which are making a comeback). And fourth, the barriers to entry are low. Texting one word to a five-digit number is easier than filling out a contact form or downloading an app.
At Phone2Action, we recommend that you ask fly-in constituents to opt into text messaging activism, even if you already have their cell numbers. Consent is essential. Let’s talk about this opt-in experience next.
Step 3: Bottle the Fireworks
With Phone2Action’s platform, advocates opt into text messaging by sending a one-word SMS to a five-digit number. Often, we use this to spur immediate action. The advocates immediately receive a link to contact a lawmaker by tweet, Facebook post, email, or phone call. Fly-in participants are about to meet lawmakers, so that text message should serve a different purpose: coordination and follow-up.
The Capitol Hill fly-in days typically start with a morning session where constituents eat breakfast, lawmakers make speeches, and association leaders fire up the crowd. This is the first and best opportunity to bottle some fireworks. The formula is simple:
- Plaster the 5-digit number on everything – signage, slide decks, free pens and notebooks, and whatever else you hand out.
- Have your organization’s leader invite the audience to opt-in during a speech. He or she should explain that the organization will coordinate activities, provide updates, and share future opportunities for action via text. Be transparent and commit never to spam or sell the list.
- Tap into peer-to-peer social accountability. The leader should ask everyone to take their phones out and text the number together. This taps into fundraiser psychology – no one wants to be the person who didn’t participate when everyone else was willing to step up. Many organizations use our mapping technology to record who has opted in on a big projector screen. The screen flashes names and drops pins on their congressional districts. The American Farm Bureau once racked up 1,500 messages to lawmakers (and therefore 1,500 cell numbers) in five minutes using this technique at their annual convention.
Hopefully, most of your advocates opt-in at opening breakfast (but make a second appeal at the closing lunch if not). At the end of the first day, send a text celebrating their achievements – e.g., you met with over 150 lawmakers, 120 of whom committed to supporting our bill on tariffs.
The Mission Continues
Fly-ins are fireworks. The spectacle fades if advocates feel like their ‘job’ is done. At that closing lunch, emphasize that the mission doesn’t end when advocates leave Washington. If they have a smartphone, they can continue to stand for causes that affect their livelihood and wellbeing. After the fly-in days, thank your advocates via the text platform, continue to share updates on their cause, and ask them to take action when the next opportunity arises. Live Event Engagements are a great way to capture the attention of your community.
In Minnesota, where Erik grew up, there was a saying about building momentum: Push the snowball downhill. With apps and emails, you’re pushing the snowball uphill. With text messages, you eliminate barriers to participation and, gradually, accumulate a base of advocates who are long-term supporters and eager to engage. This summer, bottle some fireworks and turn your fly-in days into a source of data, impact, and long-term momentum.
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