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Cultivating Grassroots

The Internet's growing role in public affairs and advocacy

Media choices are increasingly fragmented, paid-media costs are skyrocketing, advocacy dollars are limited and volunteers are stretched thinner than a zero lot line. At a time when even large developers are pinched for resources, how can the smaller operations hope to garner support for entitlement issues, lobby initiatives and similar public affairs projects?

The homepage for www.ranchomissionviejo.com, an online advocacy program for The Ranch Plan, a comprehensive land management plan.

For many, the answer is online advocacy -- the greatest thing to happen to grassroots communications since the telephone, and a lot more cost-effective, personal, interactive and welcome than a phone call during the dinner hour.

In the face of finite budgets and shrinking attentions spans, any developer facing a fight for the hearts and minds of the public would do well to look to the Internet. Online advocacy programs eliminate wasted time, effort and money while providing an unprecedented level of accountability and measurability. Besides, it makes good marketing sense to fish where the fish are.

According to a Pew Internet and American Life Project study, 97 million adults in the United States (about one-third of the population) visited government Web sites or e-mailed officials in 2003 -- a 50 percent increase from the previous year.

In fact, Pew reports, Internet users are three times as likely as nonusers to try to contact officials to influence policy decisions or change minds. This is perhaps because the relatively anonymous nature of the Internet has a democratizing effect; unless the sender cares to make such a disclosure, an e-mail reveals nothing about his or her race, socio-economic status or gender. Officials, especially at the local level, are paying attention.

In Pew's broad national sample of elected municipal officials, 73 percent of the respondents said e-mail from constituents helps them better understand public opinion; 32 percent claimed to have been persuaded, at least in part, by e-mail as to the merits of a group's arguments on a policy question; and 21 percent said e-mail lobbying campaigns opened their eyes to the unity and strength of constituents' opinions of which they were previously unaware.

As the number of Internet-savvy citizens going online to inform themselves about politics and government grows, so too do the public affairs Web sites hoping to influence their opinion and recruit their support.

Properly executed, an online advocacy campaign can accomplish a number of objectives -- often far faster and less expensively than traditional methods, according to Jack Abbott, founder and CEO of Interactivate Inc., a San Diego-based online marketing firm.

"In just the past year, we've seen an upswing in the number of clients asking us to develop online advocacy initiatives to complement their offline efforts. It's a flexible, dynamic, interactive environment that's ideally suited for public affairs," Abbott said. "Clients including Rancho Mission Viejo, Westfield ShoppingTowns and The Village at Playa Vista are using online programs to inform and educate the public about complex issues. They're engaging and mobilizing existing supporters, soliciting new support bases and providing their constituencies with an easy means of demonstrating their support to key decision makers."

Interactivate client Rancho Mission Viejo's www.ranchomissionviejo.com is an example of a project that successfully combines all the components of an effective online advocacy program, according to Anne Marie Moiso, marketing director of Rancho Mission Viejo and great granddaughter of Rancho Mission Viejo's original owner, Richard O'Neill Sr.

"The Ranch Plan is a comprehensive land management plan for the remaining undeveloped 23,000 acres of Rancho Mission Viejo. It was developed by our family after 12 years of environmental and scientific studies done in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Game, Army Corps of Engineers and the County of Orange. It's a science-based plan designed to perpetuate the area's ranching heritage, permanently preserve two-thirds of the remaining area as natural habitat and, at the same time, meet the diverse needs of the area's growing population through responsible development," Moiso said. "Admittedly, these are complex issues with diverse constituencies ranging from project supporters to opinion leaders, community groups, concerned citizens, conservationists, developers, homebuyers, politicians, locals and historians."

With the rise in popularity of the Internet, Moiso was eager to use online advocacy to supplement more traditional approaches such as direct mail and print advertising, and to provide a more quantifiable method of communication.

"We evolved The Ranch Plan Web site from its initial 'brochure-ware' status into an interactive tool for educating and polling the public, as well as providing them with a means to actively participate in the process," Moiso said. She added that the new site, which has been up since 2002, emphasizes her family's track record of wise stewardship and community service while providing visitors with an easily navigated, intuitively organized experience.

Traffic is driven to the site via search engine optimization, pay-per-click, link development and a refer-a-friend function, in addition to a presence in all offline materials. Registration opportunities are provided throughout the site to allow visitor to sign up for e-mail updates and action alerts.

Online surveys and polls let visitors designate their level of support and willingness to participate, and an online advocacy tool has facilitated the delivery of nearly 1,000 e-mail messages to key decision makers.

Since its launch, the list of supporters has grown from 50 to more than 3,000. The majority of these people have given the family permission to use their names for testimonials or to call on them to attend hearings in an effort to convince the Orange County Board of Supervisors to approve The Ranch Plan.

"The campaign has been seamlessly integrated with our offline agencies to assure a coordinated, cost-effective effort," Moiso said.

Abbott advises that anyone considering an online advocacy campaign understand the unique attributes and best practices that distinguish this medium from more traditional methods.

"There are deliverability issues that can present challenges for an online novice," he said. "In addition to the federal CAN-Spam Act, there are dozens of individual state laws that you need to be aware of. Laws change and you need to stay current."

Abbott added that certain words in e-mail subject lines and text can trigger spam filters and even get you blacklisted by the major Internet service providers.

Usability is another consideration.

"Your Web site needs to be designed and written with the online user in mind," Abbott continued. "For example, people online don't pore over every word; they skim. They want content that's personal, relevant and quick to get to the point. And they want to be able to find information quickly and easily, so good navigation is critical.

"The most important thing to understand about the online environment is that it is entirely user-driven and highly public. Online citizens value honest information, unbiased research and legitimate two-way interaction. Put those components together in the right combination and your online advocacy program can reduce the barriers to public participation and increase connectivity with your constituencies. For cash-strapped or time-crunched advocacy program, online is the ultimate low-cost, fast-track reach and frequency vehicle."

Carreiro works in communications at Interactivate Inc.

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