Peering behind the curtain of advocacy email campaigns

Nearly every advocacy organization I belong to eventually asks me to send a letter to my Member of Congress. After working in Congress the past 6 years (and now working for a company that consults with nonprofits), I wanted to share a bit of perspective about how advocacy organizations and Congressional offices can find greater benefit from email campaigns by being more open with each other.

Diminishing impact

Members of Congress receive thousands of emails every week, and the vast majority  are identical form letters sent through the encouragement of advocacy organizations. In contrast to postal mail, advocacy organizations don’t pay more for email campaigns as more people take action, and as a result, emails to Congress have skyrocketed. As a result, it’s become impossible for offices (much less the Member) to read all the mail they receive from their constituents. As Clay Johnson, former head of Sunlight Labs, wrote in a post entitled Online Petitions are a Sham:

…according to the Congressional Management Foundation [CMF], the House of Representatives got 99,053,399 messages via the Internet in 2004. That’s 227,708.9 messages per member of Congress. If a member took an average of 30 seconds to thoughtfully read each email they received in 2004, it’d take them 79 days solely to read their mail from the Internet. For a member of the Senate it’s worse: 288 straight 24-hour days worth of constituent communications at 30 seconds a piece. Most people don’t spend that many hours awake in a year.

Pity the poor Legislative Correspondent who needs to review them all. Luckily (for the staffer), most Congressional offices use software that batches similar emails automatically based the degree of similarity of letters in campaigns. This can make it easier for offices to send out a form letter in response, but it also means that the personal stories and other small additions you make to those form letters will never be seen by a living person. Due to the vast quantity of letters received, it’s generally the number of letters received that make an impact, rather than what each individual actually writes. This varies from office to office, with some notable exceptions.

Jake Brewer‘s thoughts on the subject are also a must-read.

Staffer doubts about authenticity of mass mailings

CMF’s report found that, “Half of congressional staff surveyed believe identical form communications are not sent with constituents’ knowledge or consent. Another 25% are unsure about the legitimacy of these communications.” While that survey, taken in 2004, may have changed since then, it gives a sense of the limited weight given to mass email campaigns. In fact, some offices even set up filters to completely block all mass mail campaigns from arriving in their inbox. As Jake Brewer wrote,

“Estimates range widely, but rough ones from the professionals that have run these backend systems suggest that upwards of 60% or more of the emails sent never make it to the appropriate Congressional inboxes. That’s right: well over half never make it through the proverbial door. Honestly though, no one really knows.”

Can mass emails be trusted?

A small number of vendors, such as Capitol Advantage (now part of CQ), send in the vast majority of email communications. They realize their business relies on Congressional offices believing in the value of form letters, and they take several measures to ensure the authenticity of the communications they send. Even so, doubts remain.

How can advocacy organizations make their email campaigns more effective?

Many advocacy groups choose not to include their organization’s name in form letters, perhaps suspecting that staffers will doubt the value of emails sent at the behest of a 3rd party. In fact, the opposite is true: the emails are given more weight if they come from a trusted organization. Advocacy organizations are actually missing an opportunity by not including their contact information – many congressional offices would love the chance to have the advocacy organization send a followup email from the Member to their entire list. Attempts to obscure the organization that created a campaign are generally useless, in any case – a simple Google search of text from the form letter will typically identify the organization that started the campaign… and make staffers wonder why you’re trying to hide your involvement.

Takeaway Message: Open Up

Each stakeholder in the advocacy email process deserves more information, and they, in turn, should be more open about their activities as well. Advocacy organizations (and their constituents!) should be more honest about who is organizing grassroots activities. Vendors should let their clients know about the likelihood of mail not being accepted by Congressional offices. And Congressional offices shouldn’t be completely blocking their mailboxes from advocacy campaigns. Even the most cynical office can’t deny the potential benefit from receiving the email addresses of thousands of their constituents.

Where do we go from here?

There are several initiatives that may help to halt the declining value of advocacy email campaigns, including an open source advocacy email standard, sometimes known as the “topic code” or “campaign code.”  The proposal was endorsed by the Congressional Management Foundation and supported by a wide cross section of stakeholders in Congress, advocacy organizations, and mass mail vendors. As CMF explained:

The primary purpose and power of grassroots communication is to demonstrate strength in the collective voice of engaged and organized citizens. However, if this strength is diluted upon delivery because the messages cannot be viewed together, some of the power is lost. As a result, a new model needs to be able to pull all of the communications about a particular topic or advocacy campaign together. It is in this aggregation that advocacy campaigns can maximize their impact and congressional offices can accurately understand the sentiments of their constituents…

Any new model for constituent communications must be based on open source standards that are published and available for those who wish to communicate with Congress. These standards must be widely available, both to accommodate the largest number of organizations and to allow even small grassroots groups to participate without the assistance of a third-party vendor.

There are other new initiatives that also hold promise. The PopVox platform, for instance, was designed by a former congressional staffer, and establishes an entirely new paradigm in legislator/constituent engagement. Another tool, Texifter,highlights individual differences between large quantities of form letters.

Legislators are also starting new initiatives to revolutionize how the public engages with Congress. Programs such as YouCut allow you to vote on which federal programs should be cut, and America Speaking Out provides a platform for commenting on the issues you care about.

Effective communications between the public and their elected officials is vital to the effective functioning of our democracy, and it appears that we’re on the cusp of a new era in citizen engagement. My guess: we’re going to see a radical leap forward in new technologies to allow for increased citizen engagement 112th Congress.

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