How to Turn a Supporter into an Activist

Organizations use a common mechanism to structure their thoughts around the path to advocacy. Call it the ladder of engagement, the engagement pyramid, or some other structure; the concept is constant, in that it describes people slotting into a certain level, ranging from indifference, to affinity, to willingness to act. I like the pyramid, and customize it to fit the problem I’m trying to solve, for the people I’m trying to solve it for.

The core principle is simple. Most of the people who are aware of the brand, cause, movement, or issue are likely not supporters and are at some stage of indifference. We want them to care but they probably don’t – these people live at the base of the pyramid as they are often the broadest swath of the population. The further up the pyramid you go, the more tiers are added on, and the supporter universe gets smaller.

The top of the pyramid represents the smallest population. These people are willing to act on some level, whether by spreading the word, sending a letter of support, attending an event, or lying down in traffic. They are your advocates.

The goal is to get as many people as you can to the top of the pyramid. How do you get them there? How do you turn a supporter into an activist? How do you turn an observer into an advocate?

There is no one answer. But here are some lessons I’ve learned along the way as I’ve tackled movement-building, advocacy, and activism.

Start with: Who do we want to reach, what do we want them to do, and why should they care?

Who are we trying to reach, and what do we want them to do? The answers can’t be “everyone” and “support us.” We need to focus here on something very clear and explicit, definable, and measurable. For example:

  • Who are we trying to reach? Middle-aged adult-league recreational sports team players.
  • What do we want them to do? Submit their story about what sports means to their lives.
  • Why should they care? Because our organization supports them in doing what they love.

These simple questions can have surprisingly elusive answers. The discipline of understanding, very clearly, who we are trying to connect with and what we hope they will do as a supporter is the foundation that will guide future plans.

Give many ways to act

Some people are already there. They are keen to post a public letter on every bulletin board in town and just need the direction to act. Others are more comfortable sharing your post on Facebook. And many will grant their attention and read your content, but nothing more.

Provide as many entry points as possible, without descending into chaos, so you are speaking to everyone in your pyramid and giving them the entry point that they most want and are willing to accept. Do they want to download a whitepaper and read it? Great. Follow on Twitter and retweet? Even better. Share their story? Open the door to do so. Buy your product? Of course. The more ways to act that you provide, the more you will receive – if this is handled creatively, and doesn’t overwhelm.

Always ask: What value are you providing for your activist? Would your community hire you to organize them?

One of the most useful ways of thinking about the answer to these questions is through the lens of the Jobs-To-Be-Done. framework. Created by Clayton Christensen, author of one of the most popular strategy books of all time, the framework challenges communicators and marketers to answer a simple question: What job is the potential customer trying to accomplish and why would they hire us to do it?

It may sound like a simple proposition, but when applied to advocacy, it completely reverses the relationship between the organization looking for support and those wanting to give support. The potential advocate is the shopper in a buyer’s market. The onus is put on the organization to deserve the attention of the audience by offering something useful or inspiring. Looking at advocacy this way challenges the marketing myopia that otherwise can lead an organization to narrow thinking about why people pay attention to them, or bother to act, by only focusing on their traditional service or product offering. Looking at the question with a broader lens pushes the organization to step outside traditional motives: perhaps the organization satisfies the activists’ need for altruism, or perhaps the organization pays their salary. Or, perhaps the act of advocacy, as we’ve seen in the ALS challenge, is in part a way to connect with friends and compete. “What jobs are the people you are trying to reach seeking to get done?” – and “Why should they hire you to do it? ” – is a useful way to consider the value you bring to the advocates you hope to motivate.

Function and Technology Matter

If your strategy is deployed and is successful, you will attract people. You’ve earned attention, and provided many entry points, and people are coming to explore and/or to take action. How you capture them and continue to communicate with them is as important as the work that preceded this moment.

It is not enough to want your offering to work. You need it to provide a great experience for people. You need it to be easy, and you want to capture information that helps you build relevance, your following, and insights. There are myriad fantastic tools in the market today designed to fulfill this kind of need, and it is beyond this post to consider any of one of them. The point is consistent, no matter the tool used: capturing data – like email address, social network, affinity level, story – and tracking how people engage in the future is as valuable to the effort as any creative idea. Technology is the enabler of insight, and doing the work but missing the understanding that can come from it is always to be avoided.