E-mails to congressional representatives are the common currency of online advocacy campaigns, but a new study shows all advocacy e-mails are not created alike. In a report published earlier this month, the Congressional Management Foundation aimed to determine how much influence e-mail, social media channels, and traditional media channels have on U.S. House Members and Senators.
The CMF survey of more than 250 congressional staffers showed that e-mails with individualized messages are far better received than form e-mails, which are often automated through advocacy campaign websites. Nineteen percent of respondents said e-mails including more personalized messages had "a lot of positive influence" on office holders who had yet to firmly decide on an issue, and 69 percent said they had some influence.
"What matters most is the content, not the vehicle," suggested the "Communicating with Congress" report, which showed that postal mail featuring personalized messages is seen as almost equally influential to personalized e-mails. Twenty percent said they had "a lot of positive influence" and 70 percent said they had some.
Form e-mails, on the other hand, were seen as having "a lot of positive influence" by just 1 percent of participants and "some influence" by 50 percent. Social media site comments were also attributed less value. Just 1 percent said social site comments had "a lot of positive influence," and 41 percent said they had "some influence."
Indeed, some staffers do not believe form messages are actually sent by constituents at all. According to the report, 53 percent of those surveyed believe "most advocacy campaigns of identical form messages are sent without the constituent's knowledge or approval."
The report is "a wakeup call to advocacy organizations that have relied too heavily in the past to sending up form applications to Capitol Hill," said Jeff Mascott, managing partner at strategic communications firm Adfero Group. Still, Mascott stressed that staffers may have responded to the survey strategically in the hopes of reducing e-mail. "No Member of Congress or their staff is ever going to do anything to encourage more" mail or e-mail, he said. Adfero Group was a sponsor of the report.
While staffers do seem to believe newer digital channels like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are important communications vehicles, the study shows traditional forms of interacting with constituents still hold more weight.
Political observers - and sometimes elected officials themselves - seem consumed with comparing the number of Facebook likes or Twitter followers elected officials have. However, staff of House members and Senators seem to place less importance on these channels than they do others. Compared to local media, which 100 percent of respondents said was very or somewhat important for communicating the views and activities of officials to constituents, Facebook and YouTube were seen as very or somewhat important for these purposes by around 70 percent. Just half of staffers surveyed said Twitter was very or somewhat important to these communications.
Image provided by Congressional Management Foundation
Despite the fact that online town halls enable politicians to be seen by constituents through video, telephone town halls were seen as far more important as communication channels. Compared to 45 percent who said telephone town hall meetings were very important, just 11 percent said the same of online town halls. Around one third said both were somewhat important, however.
According to Mascott, "The number of Members doing telephone town halls has exploded in the last two years." Telephone town halls enable officials to call thousands of constituents at once at a scheduled time, allowing constituents to listen in or ask a question during a phone conference with the official and fellow constituents. He believes they are considered more important than online town halls mainly because more Members use the phone version.
The old ways of interacting with constituents to understand their views also have more value than digital forms. Ninety percent or more participants said attending events or in-person town hall meetings are very important or somewhat important to understand constituents' views. Meanwhile, Facebook (64 percent) ,Twitter (42 percent) and YouTube (34 percent) were seen as very or somewhat important.
The full study can be downloaded here.
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Kate Kaye was Managing Editor at ClickZ News until October 2012. As a daily reporter and editor for the original news source, she covered beats including digital political campaigns and government regulation of the online ad industry. Kate is the author of Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media, the only book focused on the paid digital media efforts of the 2008 presidential campaigns. Kate created ClickZ's Politics & Advocacy section, and is the primary contributor to the one-of-a-kind section. She began reporting on the interactive ad industry in 1999 and has spoken at several events and in interviews for television, radio, print, and digital media outlets. You can follow Kate on Twitter at @LowbrowKate.
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