How the Human Rights Campaign Made History at the Supreme Court — A Multichannel Case Study

On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which would legalize same-sex marriage across the United States. Hundreds gathered on the court steps to cheer the decision as couple nationwide began visiting government offices to obtain marriage certificates.

But this day didn’t just happen on its own. It was made possible by advocacy organizations utilizing omnichannel marketing and fundraising strategies to fund their work. One of these organizations, Human Rights Campaign (HRC), shared the ingredients of their success story in a session at the DMA’s Nonprofit Federation Washington Conference.

From the outset of the Obergefell challenge, HRC’s membership and fundraising teams knew that the organization faced high expectations come decision day (which would be announced by the Court without notice on an undetermined date in June). When HRC launched a social campaign around a 2013 anti-discrimination case, the HRC logo became the national face of the marriage equality movement as millions of people changed their Facebook profile pictures, including celebrities such as Beyoncé, Russell Simmons, Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen DeGeneres, corporations and politicians. HRC sought to continue this momentum into the 2015 decision.

When the Supreme Court announced they would be hearing a new same-sex marriage case (Obergefell), HRC laid out a five-month campaign that included all of the organization’s stakeholders. This plan laid out the messaging and communications timeline to get all HRC departments on the same page and working toward common goals to raise visibility for HRC, engage new and existing supporters leading up to and on the day of the court’s ruling, and raise funds. These strategies included raised awareness for the organization, advocacy efforts via petition, email and mobile list growth through digital display ads and the mobilization of supporters in person and on social media.

Despite HRC’s past digital successes, the campaign ahead of the Obergefell decision started through the mail, with HRC mailing their donors a “Love Can’t Wait” poster. The letter sent with the poster encouraged them to share a picture via social media, and a later email to digital supporters offered the poster in a downloadable file.

The larger email campaign began with a simple video, which showed the spread of marriage equality across the U.S. so far. This email also included a petition, which garnered 10,000 signature from the first email alone.

While encouraging supporters to change their Facebook photos had worked in 2013, the HRC team knew that lighting wouldn’t strike in the same spot twice. The profile picture campaign was tweaked, allowing supporters to put an overlay of the HRC logo onto their existing pictures. This same strategy was later used by Facebook to allow a rainbow overlay over profile pictures, a social trend that would become iconic over the weeks following the decision.

The HRC team was most surprised by the large number of text subscribers they received over the course of the campaign. Asking for permission to send a text message “is the most intimate conversation you can have with donors and supporters,” said Ann Crowley, Vice President of Membership for HRC. However, with a big news moment that could occur at any time, HRC knew that people would want to know the result as soon as possible. While they projected to have 1,000 text signups, they received over 34,000. To this day, these 34,000 are the most active of HRC’s supporters, with many even setting up recurring donations to the organization.

On the decision day, HRC took every step to ensure their branding was prominent on the steps of the Supreme Court, where a large rally would gather and news outlets from around the globe would be covering the story. They purchased hundreds of small red flags and encouraged their supporters to attend wearing red HRC-branded clothes. Supporters were even encouraged to bring the “Love Can’t Wait” signs they had received months before.

In the end, the results showed the campaign had been successful:

  • $277,441 in donations raised
  • 153 sustaining donors and 721 first-time donors
  • 61,000 new emails added to HRC’s list
  • 34,772 new text message subscribers
  • 152,352 new Facebook and Twitter followers
  • 116,225 petitions signatures

But it was decision day that went above and beyond HRC expectations:

  • 97,000,000 impressions on Facebook
  • 16,000 retweets and 937,000 impressions on one HRC tweet
  • Over $50,000 raised in donations

HRC credits their success to strategic and creative planning, which allowed the organization to develop innovative actions and stay on track along the campaign. A plan which incorporated all channels and all departments set a vision for the campaign and allowed HRC to “own” the moment in the Obergefell decision.


This piece was originally published on the DMA blog.