Sending the Wrong Message: Parents Protest Budget Cuts

A local grassroots collection of parents displayed concern over Florida legislature’s plan to cut education funding this morning with a march over the Granada Bridge in Ormond Beach.

A larger march is planned between 4 and 6 p.m. today, according to a report published in the Daytona Beach News Journal by staff writer Audrey Parente.

“The point is to let legislators know there is unhappiness at the local level with the idea of cutting educational funding,” said Julia Truilo of Ormond Beach.

The local mom was among a small group of bridge marchers this morning, but said the crowd after school is expected to be larger.

“It’s a parent-generated protest,” Truilo said. “My purpose is to let folks know education funding is important.

“There’s one rule when organizing a protest,” said Joe LaMountain of Sparklight Communications, “you’ve got to deliver a crowd.  If you don’t, you wind up looking weak to the politicians you’re trying to influence.”

The parents organized in a online blog at PreserveEducation.blogspot.com listing email contacts for key legislators and the Volusia County School Board. The blog site also includes suggested slogans forbridge-walkers to include on homemade signs.

“Parents are doing right by involved,” LaMountain continued.  “But a successful protest needs more than just a blog.  You need dozens of personal meetings, hundreds of phone calls and thousands of flyers for it to work.” Continue reading

Don’t Overlook the Power of the Phone

The new Broadway musical Sister Act has found its social media groove. It has more than 55,000 Facebook “likes,” 1300 Twitter followers, 30,000 YouTube views and a set of apps.

But as The New York Times reports, there’s just one problem.  “Ask Broadway insiders how many tickets have been sold as a result of all this social networking, and the look on their faces reads, ‘Server Not Found.'”

“You hope these sites generate good word of mouth,” said Sister Act director Jerry Zaks, but the the “best measure of our popularity and financial return is group sales.”

And according to the article, group sales are driven largely by the tried and true method of sales agents working the phones. The agents work from decades-old databases of church groups, schools, businesses and clubs and work these contacts to make sales.

“This is a relationship business and I can trust Stephanie [my sales Representative],” said one ticket buyer who sends 35 groups a year to Broadway. “I don’t know who is on the other end of a Twitter or Facebook account saying such-and-such a show is good.”

Though Broadway tickets sales are far removed from the nonprofit world, I think there’s a couple takeaways here for nonprofit leaders. First, it is important to have a robust social media presence in order to generate word of mouth and exposure for your cause.

But where Broadway excels, and most nonprofits fall flat, is the next step. Following up personally with potential supporters by phone and making the sales pitch. I’ve been amazed how many organizations fail to take this crucial step in their fundraising, awareness and advocacy efforts.

For example, a nonprofit with whom I work was organizing a fundraising walk. More than 4,000 people had participated in previous years, but had not registered for the 2011 event. But instead of setting up volunteer- or staff-led phone banks, or even paying someone to call, they relied exclusively on social media and email. Result: Money left on the table.

“Facebook and Twitter are great tools,” said Stephanie Lee, President of Group Sales Box Office said, “but the buzz from all these shows can be deafening.”

While decidedly unsexy – the Times calls them “version 1.0” on Broadway – the company’s communications plan is clearly working. Ticket orders were up 43% from last year, a track record of success few nonprofits or businesses can match in this economic client.

Do you need help reaching your audience?  Contact Joseph LaMountain at joseph.lamountain@gmail.com or 202.288.5124 today.

Broadband for America: Slick or Sick?

I received a mailer today from “Broadband for America.” Featuring a forlorn African-American boy, it stated that while “high-speed Internet has become a vital part of our lives…two out of three low-income families don’t have broadband internet” service.

It also urged me to sign an online petition and “let Congress and the FCC know that I support bringing broadband to everyone.”

I’ve been around long enough to know a front group when I see one. So I wasn’t surprised to learn that Broadband for America is a coalition of technology companies seeking to influence the policymakers who are crafting our national technology policy. That’s nothing new.

What’s new is their aggressive grassroots campaign. Groups like Broadband for America are a dime a dozen.  But they typically spend their money on expensive lobbyists, advertising and meetings.  Broadband for America is doing that, but they’re also aggressively reaching out to the public using tried-and-true grassroots communications tactics like a petition drive.

This has clearly gotten under their opponents skin. Karl Bode of DSL Reports savaged the group in September, calling it a “dog and pony show” by a group whose members “have collectively spent billions of dollars preventing [expanded access to broadband] from actually happening.”  Blogger Phillip Dampier went even further, calling Broadband for America the “Mother of all Astroturf Front Groups.”

So here’s my question: Isn’t this exactly what Broadband for America should be doing?  I’m not an expert on technology policy, so I won’t comment on the merits of their political proposals.  I am, however, an expert in grassroots communications and  word-of-mouth marketing.  And there’s no doubt about it; the Broadband for America campaign is slick and effective.

I already mentioned the petition drive.  But Broadband for America also has a Twitter feed on which visitors can post comments.  They also have a blog, videos and discussion forum.  I’m not sure how many people are actually using these tools, but having them removes barriers to communication and makes it easy for people to rally to their side.

My recommendation to their opponents?  Stop whining and start organizing.  And don’t tell me you don’t have the money.  The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s had no money either, and they were faced with a much stronger opponent (300 years of institutionalized racism).  If they can do it, you should be able to find a way too.

My Five Point Grassroots Wrap-Up

Last Tuesday was my final Grassroots Communications class for the fall semester. Over the previous fourteen weeks, we discussed many aspects of effective grassroots communications and word-of-mouth marketing. Instead of trying to repeat them all, I shared the following list of five key principles to any successful campaign.

(1) Be Interesting – No one talks about boring things. If you want people to talk about your cause, your company or your candidate, find a way to get peoples’ attention. Blenders are boring, but a video of a blender destroying an iPhone is a must-see. More than 150 million people have seen a Will It Blend video and sales have jumped 700% since the company launched the video series.

(2) Give People Something to Do – Grassroots means getting people involved. How will you respond when someone asks, “What can I do to help?” By giving them specific tasks to perform, your customers can help achieve your marketing goals. Including fundraising. As Seth Godin wrote in Tribes, “My mom volunteered at the Buffalo art museum for years. There’s no doubt we gave [them] more money than we would have if they’d sent us a flyer once a month.”

(3) Make it Personal and Psychological – The more personal your communications, the better. An email is easy to delete, but a phone call or personal request is harder to ignore. And tap into the proven psychological needs identified in Influence by Robert Cialdini. People have an innate desire to belong, reciprocate and act in the face of scarcity. Are you using these principles to increase compliance with your requests?

(4) Goals, Strategies and Tactics – Do you have a Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely (SMART) goal? Will your strategies actually achieve the specific goal you are trying to achieve? And what about your tactics? Are they easy to perform? Thinking strategically about your goals, strategies and tactics is key, but is often ignored by candidates, companies and causes.

(5) Keep it Simple (and Short) – Just 1 in 4 Americans have a college degree and the number of Americans who read newspapers is falling. Keep your language simple, direct and to the point advise both Frank Luntz and George Orwell. You should also rely on non-verbal forms of communication, such as video. And given our short attention spans, keep your requested actions simple and easy to perform.

I’ve really enjoyed teaching and am looking forward to the spring semester in a few weeks. Now it’s back to grading final papers, revising my syllabus and taking a much-needed break.

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