03/10/2014 05:34 pm ET Updated May 07, 2014

How to Use Effective Online Advocacy to Grow Your List

The dirty little secret is that a lot of online advocacy doesn't necessarily accomplish anything offline AND it isn't growing your list either. So you need to think strategically about online actions for your nonprofit or campaign.

One online advocacy principle to keep in mind before starting an action is to consider whether you will likely gain as much as you will lose from natural churn -- people unsubscribing, old email addresses bouncing and so on.

So how DO you make your action more effective? Here are some online advocacy best practices to follow, for nonprofits and campaigns alike.

  • Do great outreach to get the word out about your action beyond your list. If you want your action to reach people not only on your email list, you have to do more than email it out. So-- reach out to the traditional media as appropriate. Send emails to friendly bloggers online who write about your issue. Take advantage of "self-serve" media options like posting about it at Daily Kos and the Huffington Post. Talk to likeminded groups and see if you can get them to share it around also. Post about it on social media -- Facebook it (and use a nice photo that includes your logo) with a link to the action, and tweet it out. Specifically ask people to share and like and tweet the action out. And spend time on the days you're NOT releasing a new action building your audience on social media with engaging posts and questions. That way when you launch a new action, you'll be sure to have a bunch of new people to show it to on social media.
  • Make it easy for people to share. You're hoping to get good viral growth from your online actions, right? This means have a good tell a friend page set up after people take the action, set up an auto-triggered thank you message too that encourages sharing etc. Most CRMs have tools you can use for this, and we have some special Salsa-specific add-ons developed by PowerThru that makes it easy to customize. NationBuilder makes it easy too, with built in social sharing for their pages, and BSD, NGP VAN, ActionKit offer tell a friend options too. Work with social media to help your actions pop -- this means doing things like having a good image to go with the action for social media sharing, a good pre-made tweet etc.
  • Do good targeting for your action. Every time you email your list, you are putting an unsubscribe button in front of your audience. If your action doesn't connect with their interests, they may click unsubscribe. If they really hate it, they may mark you as spam and this could hurt your deliverability to EVERYONE on your list. If you're not careful, you may find that you lose more people than you gain every time you try to do something. So if you're running campaigns on different issues, make sure to use groups or tags to keep track of people's interests. Also if you're writing about something that's very localized, use targeting in your CRM so you're not inviting people in New York to take action on something in Texas. You may want to target based on whether people have already gotten an email or two from you this week - so you don't overwhelm your list.
  • Practice good list hygiene, so your list stays active and healthy and your foundation is strong. What does this mean? This could be a whole session in itself. Make sure bouncing email addresses are turned off. If you don't see activity from a supporter in a year, consider dropping them from your list. Merge down duplicate records too.

Doing all the above steps are great, but unless you capture lightning in a bottle, it's hard to grow via actions only. You can lose as many people with bounces/unsubscribes as you gain through new signups. That's why the next two recommendations are key.

  • Mix in paid acquisitions where appropriate. Whatever your budget and existing list size, there is a good paid option for you. Facebook can work well., LeftAction and offer suppression capabilities that are effective for larger organizations, where you don't want to pay to acquire someone you already have. Facebook now offers that ability too.
  • Mix in list joint actions where appropriate (especially if you have no budget). Look out there and find good groups that you can work together with on your issue. We've brokered partnerships between like-minded organizations of all sizes, and a fair deal is one in which both groups benefit. Perhaps the larger organization sets up an online action, and the smaller organization sends their membership to it and gets the signers or a portion of the signers. This is what USAction and GunFreeKids did. Perhaps both organizations set up their own versions of the action, and then exchange lists of signers a week later. Maybe one organization sends something to their list, and the other organization sends a different issue to their own list, and then you exchange roughly equal amounts of signers later. Finally, you can build something cool together that everybody sends their lists to (for example US Federal budget-building game website, with several groups partnering on it).

Read the rest of our tips on how to grow your list with effective online advocacy for non-profits or campaigns to find out how to make this a success for your organization!

Have more questions on how to grow your list, or need help making your organization's online actions more effective? Contact PowerThru for assistance on using online advocacy to grow your base of support.