Stephanie Vance

Article Summary:

How to make online advocacy effective for your issues.

How to Be an Effective Online Advocate

It seems like you can't click the mouse these days without finding a website seeking to connect citizens with their government. But are these sites really helping citizens connect with their elected officials in a meaningful way? Has the Internet really led us to the brink of direct democracy? Or are the communications that are coming through these sites merely adding to the white noise that permeates Capitol Hill?

Does "Point-and-Click" Make a Difference?
As someone who spends a great deal of time teaching people how to effectively communicate with Congress, I am concerned that some of these sites leave people with the impression that being an effective citizen advocate is as easy as clicking a mouse. Pointing and clicking on the "yes" or "no" button on's site is not equivalent to participating in a meaningful way - even if your vote is forwarded to your Congressional representative. Frankly, your vote, if you are lucky, will simply be tallied with other opinions, and that tally (again, if you're lucky) may be 1/10th or 1/20th of a factor in your representative's decision-making process. In most cases, your "yes" or "no" vote is simply deleted from the system.

If Not, What Does?
So what really influences members of Congress? I'll give you a hint: it's not money. In fact, it's good old-fashioned policy analysis, research, and personal beliefs. To be an effective advocate, you must become part of that process - and you don't get there by pointing and clicking.

The most important thing to remember in seeking to influence the policy making process is that you have something of value to contribute. You probably have a particular reason why you feel the way you do about a specific policy proposal, or a reason why you're seeking a change in law. A thoughtful approach to policy issues combined with a careful explanation of why it's important to you personally is very compelling to congressional staff and members. In writing a personal, thoughtful, well-argued letter or e-mail, your chances of influencing your Representative's decision-making process increase dramatically.

People ask me all the time whether e-mail is an effective means to communicate with Congress. I tell them that the tools citizens use to communicate with their elected representatives are far less important than what they say. The key to being effective in your written communications is ensuring that someone on staff actually thinks about what you have to say. So how do you do that? By being personal, relevant, asking for a response, and reaching the right person.

The Personal Approach
By far, the most compelling and effective letters combine a thoughtful approach to policy issues with a careful explanation of why it's important to the author personally. In most offices, it is these letters that the member of Congress actually sees, not the letters generated by mass postcard or form letter campaigns. For example, one of the members I worked for routinely asked to see the five to ten most thoughtful, rational letters we received in a week. These letters received much more attention then other less personalized correspondences.

Why Are You Relevant?
You are relevant to the Congressional office because you are a constituent or because you represent a constituent, and you can demonstrate that connection by including your postal address on every correspondence, whether it's e-mail, fax, or traditional letter.

Ask for a Response
Given the limited time and budgets in congressional offices, priority will always be given to letters that require an answer. Asking for a response means someone on the staff has to think about what you've said and, in some way, address your concerns or comments.

Reaching the Right Person
Correspondence requesting a meeting or site visit should be sent to the Executive Assistant or Scheduler. Educational and informational correspondence about your program should be sent to both the member and legislative assistant assigned to your issue. You can find out who these people are at

By following these guidelines, you can dramatically increase the chances that your correspondence will be noticed, whether you send it via e-mail, snail mail, or carrier pigeon!

Stephanie Vance is an Advocacy Guru with more than 15 years of experience in Washington, DC, and the Principal of AdVanced Consulting. She's worked as both a lobbyist and a Congressional aide, so she knows what works and what doesn't when it comes to communicating with elected officials. She's also the author of Government by the People: How to Communicate with Congress and has presented the concepts behind the book at more than 150 conferences and seminars around the country. Her work on Congressional communications stems from a deep and abiding belief that the US system of government is effective only when citizens are active and well-informed participants. Learn more and sign up for her free Advocacy Tipsheet at

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