Any time you’re told someone wants to “raise awareness” of a policy issue or topic, your immediate response should be, “OK, and then what?” Just as if you were trying to sell pickup trucks, hamburgers or prescription medication, awareness of a policy topic is only the first step in a marketing funnel-based strategic process that gets your target audience to the point where you can close the deal.
While there’s plenty of different marketing funnel models from which to choose, the one I tended to use in the private sector was AIDA – Awareness, Interest, Desire, Action. Someone needs to know the product exists, they have to care, they have to want it and then you’ve actually got to get them to buy it. The funnel analogy reminds you that you lose a significant component of your audience at each step. This makes sense, when you consider your own relationship with products and brands: There’s plenty out there that you know about but don’t interest you. There’s plenty that are interesting, but you don’t truly want them enough to matter. And then there’s plenty that you really want, but still haven’t gotten around to purchasing for whatever reason.
This can happen very quickly. A simple example of walking an audience through a marketing funnel in one sentence is the stereotypical sign on a desert highway saying, “Last gas for 200 miles, next exit.” It makes people passing by aware of the product for sale; it is of interest to that portion of the audience that’s driving the car and responsible for not stranding their passengers in the middle of the desert; it gets them to look down at their gas gauge and decide if they do in fact want it right now and then it engages that population of drivers to act and get off at the next exit.
It’s just as possible to move through this process very quickly in policy advocacy. But skipping any of the steps risks losing even more of the potential audience than you would otherwise. How do you get someone who doesn’t understand the topic to agree with you? How do you get someone who understands it but doesn’t agree to take action in support of your position?
Skipping any component of that process would significantly decrease the power of the marketing to engage customers and drive business to the local gas station.
When I began work in policy advocacy, I realized that while the concept of a marketing funnel for policy was still valuable, the model needed to be tweaked for the slightly different form of audience engagement in which we work. After some experimentation, this is what I developed:
To see this in action, consider a public policy proposal such as the abolition of the Department of Lighting Money on Fire. Legislators hear regularly from lobbyists for the propane industry, AFSCME-represented monetary furnace operators and Keynesian economists about how important it is to continue lighting money on fire. These lawmakers will only vote to support ending the department if they believe they’ll lose support from voters and donors if they don’t.
To accomplish this stakeholder engagement, policy advocates opposed to government lighting money on fire need to develop a strategy that identifies the specific audiences for the relevant legislators and walks them through this policy marketing funnel.
First, they need to “raise awareness.” They need to make sure the relevant audiences with influence over the right policymakers know that their government is lighting money on fire and that some people think it’s a bad idea that should be stopped.
Next, advocates need to make sure that their audience has an appropriate level of understanding of the topic. That’s not to say that audiences can’t be mobilized to take up pitchforks and torches over policy topics they don’t understand, but that’s neither good policy in and of itself nor sustainable in the long term for an advocacy organization’s own brand. One good example of what not to do here is PETA, which tends to do very well at driving awareness through shock campaigns and celebrity endorsements but regularly tries to skip the educational component of creating understanding of the real issues. As a result, it’s become a punchline and a non-issue in meaningful policy advocacy since legislators can assume the audience PETA brings to the table doesn’t truly understand the issue at hand.
Anti-money burning advocates then need to convince the people who’ve come to understand the policy issue to agree with you that lighting money on fire is a bad policy and should be stopped. This is a step that many policy advocates often skip, since they can assume agreement naturally follows understanding. “If you truly understand the topic, you’ll know what needs to be done” is all too common an assumption among smart and passionate policy advocates, yet rarely true.
And finally, advocates need to take all of the work and resources they’ve devoted into creating an audience of relevant stakeholders with influence over the key decisionmakers on a policy topic and actually engage that audience to take action. Make the phones ring, show up at town halls, testify, put the bumper sticker on their car, write a letter to the editor, tweet at their legislator…all of the ways in which constituents can show their legislators that this is a topic where their voting options are constrained by constituent opinion.
The transition between the “agreement” and “engagement” phases is often the most difficult. While it’s not a universal rule, I tend to look at that point in the process using the excellent rule from legendary political strategist Dick Wirthlin, “Persuade by reason, motivate through emotion.” Agreement can and should be an intellectual process, but getting someone to dedicate their own time and resources to policy matters requires a personal emotional attachment to the topic. Simply, they have to care.
It’s true that success in policy advocacy starts with “raising awareness.” But if you don’t have a strategic plan for what you’re going to say to continue moving your audience toward engagement after you’ve achieved that objective, you’re going to waste resources and opportunity and limit your chances of success in changing policy for the better.