Relationships matter if we want to win: How-to cultivate more human connection online to build stronger movements (3-part series)


Vanessa B
Vanessa B
Jul 3 · 8 min read

Read the introduction to this 3-part series here.

The rapidly evolving online and tech sectors have enabled us to reach so many more people and scale our work in more segmented and creative ways like never before, so why aren’t we winning more?

And, why aren’t we asking hard questions like: Do petition-centric, list-building tactics that are mostly transactional make wins harder because we’re not focusing on truly talking to the people ready to throw down with us? Or, to create truly scalable work, which supporters should we approach one by one to help shape and seed it? And, how do we get more supporters to lead work faster?

By incorporating specific online organizing tactics that enable you to talk with more people into your overall campaign engagement strategy, I believe that you can design work that wins more. It’s time to veer away from the “what have supporters for us done lately?” mentality or using technology/communication platforms just cause they’re there (like email, social media, or messaging apps).

Simply creating a lead generation petition or posting a video on social media or inviting people to take part in a variety of calls to action is not fully developed online organizing or engagement strategy.

You gotta organize to mobilize.

Here’s what we know about engaging people online to take action from The Climate Advocacy Lab:

  • Online activists can be converted successfully into offline activists. About 35% of offline activists took their first action online, indicating that online-to-offline conversion is an important source of offline activists.
  • A substantial portion of offline actions are being taken by a small cohort of dedicated activists. The top 1% of offline activists are responsible for completing nearly 20% of all offline actions, and the top 5% are responsible for completing 36% of all online actions.

This means that there are masses of people out there who are ready and willing to step in and take deep and meaningful action.

But (here we go with more questions…), are we bringing in enough new people to justify the resources we’re putting in; are we reaching out to supporters who can lead and help scale work with an anti-racist and collective liberation lens; are we consistently overselling the stakes with tactics that don’t match the seriousness of the issue (“YOU can save the bees with one click!”); are we temporarily mobilizing people at our whim in a transactional way without organizing and investing time in them; and, are departments structured in ways that can support true online and offline engagement?

These are just some of the many strategic engagement questions that have mostly gone unanswered (or even unasked) at higher rungs of organizations… So, what do we do?

To truly scale, you gotta go deep.

We need to talk with and organize more people, not just focus mobilizing a temporary and often-unorganized critical mass at internally defined (often wonky) campaign moments. And, we need to get better at using data and tech to have the right conversation with the right person at the right time.

Relationships are critical to winning in activism**.

Deepening engagement is how we harness a digital-first approach that has a real impact on targets outside of petition deliveries, comment periods, and weeks of action. Like adrienne maree brown says, what we pay attention to grows.

Blasting one-way communications that aren’t conversational, segmented, supporter-centric, story-based, or don’t follow a time-bound journey are over (if you want it).

It’s time to think more about organizing people and less about just messaging.

There are so many reasons why developing real relationships with supporters with online organizing tactics is so important.

First, if continuously bringing in new people is a key part to feeding the well of campaign work then online organizing tools and tactics that are more personalized and principled can help build better on-ramps into programming.

Second, truly talking to more people will enable programming to be more transparent and accountable, and enable more people to lead work. Because we need more avenues to clearly communicate our theories of change, get more buy-in if we want to create the bold change people need.

Third, in our fast-paced, capitalist world, many people feel isolated, hopeless, apathetic, and disconnected because of deeply intertwined systems of oppression. Developing a sense of care, community, belonging, participation, and togetherness while sharing a diversity of voices is so key to living the caring economy we’re working to build.

If we can’t vision and talk about where we want to go together, we’re going to end up somewhere we don’t want to be. We need to constantly celebrate our courage and comradery.

It’s going to take very intentional work on how we’re connecting with people and how we structure our communications, engagement, and leadership teams if we’re going to talk to more people.

Here are some segmentation strategies to build more real relationships with supporters, expand internal and external capacity, and consensually support already existing movement infrastructure on the ground to leverage power and create change.

(Part 3 of this series walks through how to distribute the online engagement work at your organization to talk with people more.)

Step 1: Think about who you want talk with and use creative segmentation.

Here are some ideas on where you can start and build on talking to more people.

1. Respond to Facebook comments regularly with the intention of starting conversations and bringing people into your work.

2. Target the people who take the most actions via email and/or social media and talk to them.

3. Identify any top influencers on your list and social channels who have BIG reach to spread the word about your content.

4. Expand your digital team to include staff to talk one-on-one to supporters, who are not part of your development team.

5. Incorporate relational organizing strategy and tactics for your engagement programming.

6. Alternatively, you can segment by who you want to target, talk to, and create a relationship with using various online tools and tactics. Maybe it’s the youth on your list. Maybe it’s the LGBTQIA2S+ folks. Maybe it’s people from a certain place.

Step 2: Identify how you’re going to track and tag your segments, conversations, and engagement levels (types of actions) in your Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system or spreadsheets.

You can’t talk with more people at scale if you’re not organized. Think through what tactics, tools, and data you’re going to need to allow for more robust supporter conversations and relationship building — like tagging hierarchies in your CRM.

Also, use social listening tools and messaging apps to monitor where supporters are at in your pyramid of engagement and where they want to go like Slack, ActionSprout, Keyhole, targeted Facebook ads, SMS platforms, messenger bots, etc…

Step 3: After you’ve made your segments, develop more personalized supporter engagement journeys for one or all of them.

Create supporter engagement journeys that take into account what actions that particular supporter has taken, ask them questions about what they’re at, and constantly update exactly where they fit in your pyramid of engagement.

Your support engagement journeys should match up with your pre-planned outputs, pushs, and overall 6–12 month campaign arc.

And, don’t disappear after a mobilization or escalation either. Keep people in the loop, follow-up by noting the ways that they’ve participated, and work to ID where they want to go next.

Remember that most people are both online and offline at the same time these days and that the older concept of a “ladder of engagement” has now turned into a “web of engagement” with intersecting online and offline calls to action.

Step 4: Give back and don’t just take from your most engaged segments.

Make sure you create opportunities for your supporters to take leadership in the work and grow as movement people.

Some examples are: Create a rapid response team for your most engaged online supporters and ask them to be the first to get and share your content; Create toolkits for local organizing or skill-building; Organize in-person skill trainings; or take your organization on the road to meet your most dedicated supporters.

No matter how you plan to do engagement work, the main premise is that we’re not using all the tools in our toolbox in the best ways.

It’s time to talk to more people.

Move onto Part 3 of this series: How-to distribute the online engagement work at your organization to talk with people more.

In this 3-part series, I zoom in on three practical ways non-profits** can do more principled and personalized online work at scale right now:

1. Be accountable to your supporters* by developing online organizing principles with your organization or group.

2. Talk with more people by moving away from only blasting one-way communications.

3. Share “digital” responsibilities by embedding online capacity and know-how throughout your group.

*Supporters are people who are on your email list, follow your social feeds, donate, or contribute to your group in some way.

**The scope of this series mainly focuses on non-profits with sizable email lists, not grassroots groups and frontline organizers — but there are definitely tidbits of insights for everyone. It also doesn’t go into important practices like how to support, be in coalition with, or exercise consent to grassroots or frontline communities.

Vanessa B

Written by

Vanessa B

Some thoughts about organizing online and offline by me and in collab. Currently the Senior Project Coordinator at Greenpeace USA. All thoughts are my own.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade