What percentage of America is rural? It may surprise you to learn that as much as 97% of the United States is green and that only a small percentage of the country is actually paved. More surprising is that more than 80% of the population lives in that tiny urban and suburban sliver.
It’s therefore axiomatic that most election activity—and most advocacy—is aimed at urban and suburban areas. That’s where the people are. But here’s another true statement: rural communities account for one in every five or six Americans, depending on the data you examine, and those are numbers that candidates, political parties and many government affairs teams simply will not ignore.
Advocacy in rural areas has much in common with advocacy anywhere. In a world when more than 70% of people who take action do so on a mobile device, even during pandemic isolation, digital tools will be most effective. But messaging will matter, as will which tools you embrace. Text messaging with keywords and short codes, patch-through calling and local issue monitoring can all help move the needle in rural areas.
For organizations that want to improve how they address a rural audience, there is much that can be done.
Understanding Rural America
Start by understanding how the rural audience you want to target may be different from those you communicate with regularly and, equally important, how they may be similar. Rural communities vary in character just like cities. Home state, prevalent industries, economic prosperity, proximity to urban centers and other factors can all matter a great deal.
While America’s rural-urban divide is real, and it is true that former president Donald Trump drew heavy support in rural areas both in 2016 and 2020, don’t be too quick to buy into national narratives. There is plenty to argue against them. For example, The Washington Post reported that fewer than a fifth of Trump’s voters came from rural America. A Brookings Institution report says the urban-versus-rural storyline is downright harmful.
“While this framing stems from real economic-political trends,” the report says, “pundits, journalists, and policymakers have extrapolated these trends to fuel a urban-versus-rural narrative that is not only inaccurate, but harmful to our nation’s collective political and economic future.”
The lesson here is clear: do your homework. Understand the states and counties where you want to communicate, and don’t make assumptions. Examine political, demographic and economic data; read the local news outlets; do some Zoom calls with local voters; and check out tools like CityLab’s Congressional Density Index.
On a nationwide level, the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey collects data that can be helpful. Unfortunately, data collection was disrupted by the pandemic in 2020. But the 2016 Census data yielded a great deal of general insight:
- Age. Rural Americans were older, with a median age of 51 among adults versus 45 for those living in urban areas. Rural Americans were also more likely to be veterans, 10.4% versus 7.8%.
- Income and Education. Those living in rural areas had lower median household incomes than those living in urban areas, earning $52,386 compared to $54,296. They were also less likely to have a bachelor’s degree, 19.5% compared to 29%. But poverty rates were also lower, 11.7% versus 14%.
- Home Ownership. Rural Americans were more likely to own their own home, 81.1% versus 59.8%, but had lower median home values, $151,300 versus $190,900. A higher percentage own their homes outright with no mortgage, 44% compared to 32.3%.
- Background. Rural Americans were more likely to live in the state where they were born, 65.4% compared to 48.3%. In addition, fewer rural adults were born in other countries, 4% versus 19% in urban areas.
Of course, the U.S. is a dynamic place, with trends in demographics, economics, employment and migration ever changing. That may be even more true now, thanks to the pandemic. Keep an eye on future data releases from the Census Bureau in coming months to get the latest numbers.
Tools to Reach a Rural Audience
Organizations that already have a presence in a rural community will have an advantage when it comes to outreach. For companies, that might be an office, a factory, a warehouse or other facility. For associations and nonprofits, it might be a state chapter, a local branch or a group of members. Whatever the case, if you have people on the ground who are interested in your agenda, you are ahead of the game.
For organizations that don’t, the exercise will start with advocate acquisition. That means building lists, and one of the most effective tools to do that is the digital petition. Phone2Action’s 2020 State of Advocacy Report showed that campaigns asking people to sign a petition are far more efficient at attracting new advocates than other types of campaigns. For example, petition campaigns on average drew 182 percent more new advocates than “contact your lawmaker” campaigns in the first half of 2020. In total, organizations gained almost 600,000 new advocates using petition campaigns from January to June of last year.
So, start with a petition and, as you continue campaigning, pay attention to supporters who are enthusiastic, the folks who respond to every text and email, who attend events (virtual and live) and who donate money or time when asked. These are known as Super Advocates, and they often make great local coordinators. When you need people to staff a booth, attend a town hall or take on other volunteer tasks, Super Advocates can often make it happen.
Mobilize With Text, Keywords and Shortcodes
When it comes to tools to reach a rural audience, text messaging will outperform email. While it is true that email is the backbone of our industry and the go-to vehicle for most advocacy campaigns, text has a number of advantages for reaching a rural audience.
First, the numbers. Text allows you to contact your advocates directly, wherever they are, and have them take action immediately on their phones. While it is true that you have to opt-in supporters, the boost in performance is extraordinary. The average open rate for text messaging is 99 percent and the average conversion rate is often two or three times higher than it is for email. Double-digit conversion is routine. During the height of the advocacy boom caused by the pandemic in 2020, the average open rate across all text campaigns on the Phone2Action platform was 16 percent. Some organizations have seen twice that or more.
While those numbers will help rural campaigns, the real magic of text becomes clear when it is used with keywords and shortcodes (e.g. Text ADVOCACY to 52886). These tools are an easy way to bring digital advocacy into the physical world, which may be helpful in rural communities. For example, an organization can use a keyword and a shortcode from the podium at a rally, at a Rotary Club meeting, or in the booth at a county fair. It can also be used in advertising, from digital ads to billboards.
Of course, there are other tools that can also work well when it comes to applying grassroots pressure. For example, a patch-through calling tool enables your organization to easily launch a phone campaign. The phone has an advantage: calls cannot be ignored by federal, state or local officials. In a campaign last year, the California Charter Schools Association got almost 8,800 supporters to make 3,792 calls to state lawmakers, resulting in about 100 hours of talk time. It was extremely effective, resulting in a major change to the state budget. It also earned the association roughly 5,000 new advocates.
Gather Intelligence to Enhance Messaging
People in rural areas get passionate about the same national issues that energize urban folks, issues such as education, immigration, climate change or gun control. In farming communities, agriculture and trade policy may also be closely watched. But rural voters often have additional state and local issues that they care about deeply. Decisions that impact local and regional business, employment, wages and property values, from highway construction and water rights to drainage or dredging, are often extremely important to the people who are affected.
Government affairs teams that can track these issues and weave them into their messaging will have a distinct advantage. A decade ago, these items were much harder to track. Monitoring had to be done manually, which was labor intensive and time consuming. Today, technology has made that dramatically easier. A modern issue monitoring system, which can track state and local legislation and all of the media traffic around it, makes it possible for a single team member to watch key issues in dozens of jurisdictions.
If you can reach out to your rural audience on their own terms and reference their local issues, your organization will be on its way to building authentic relationships—and that will boost engagement when it counts the most.
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