The Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) performed an online survey of 260 House and Senate staffers in Fall 2010.  A plurality of those surveyed occupied senior staff roles in their offices.  The survey respondents as a group were representative of the composition of Congress at the time, and therefore do not represent the current balance of power following the 2012 midterm elections.

Key Findings:

1. Online communications from constituents are increasingly influential to Senators and Members of Congress.

2. Quality of online constituent communication is more important than quantity to staffers and their Members/Senators:

  • Congressional staffers think online communication tools have increased the number of constituents that communicate with their representatives but believe that they have resulted in a decrease in the quality of communication
  • Staffers don’t distinguish between email and “snail mail” communications from constituents; it’s the quality and content that matters.
  • Staffers place an increasingly greater emphasis on individualized messages versus form letters/emails. This suggests that mass form mailings that were a key component of past grassroots advocacy campaigns are being replaced by social media platforms in terms of influence and effectiveness.

3. Social media tools are viewed as more useful for disseminating elected officials’ positions than gathering information on constituents’ views:

  • 74% of staffers think Facebook is a useful tool for communicating their Member/Senator’s views to constituents, while a smaller 64% see the popular social network as a tool for understanding constituents’ views.  The same goes for Twitter and YouTube.
  • This trend suggests that significant staff time is not being allocated to monitoring what constituents are saying, in passing rather than in the form of direct communication with their Member/Senator, on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.  The same goes for monitoring of blog comments, as distinct from blog or online media content explicitly mentioning a Senator/Member’s name.

Recommendations:

1. Quit Sending ‘Snail Mail.’  The most expedient way for advocacy campaigns to influence their legislative targets is through organizing constituents to send individualized emails to legislative offices.  Staffers give the same weight to emails as to physical letters, so why waste the time and money on mailings and postage?  This means that outreach to blogs and online media read by activists is an important component of advocacy campaigns.

2. Ditch the Astroturfing. The practice of organizing comments on blogs and online publications to create a perception of popular support or opposition, known as “astroturfing,” has become an increasingly popular tool for advocacy campaigns, with some PR firms charging large sums to orchestrate efforts.  However, the study shows that comments rank relatively low on the influence scale.  Moral of the story: if it happens organically, great, if not, better to spend time and money generating individual emails to targets, and pitching and securing articles, blog posts and stories that will be picked up by Google alerts and therefore seen by senatorial/congressional staff.

3. Be Unique. To maximize the effectiveness of each communication, place emphasis on ensuring uniqueness.  Under no circumstances should form language be used.

4. Target Your Tweets. While social media platforms are viewed as valuable tools for disseminating information, they are increasingly becoming important sources of constituent input where directed at the Senator/Member very specifically.  To ensure maximum impact of social media activity, postings should be on the target’s Facebook account, or Tweeting directly @ target.