If you are trying to persuade a majority of residents or voters to support a given policy, paid ads are rarely worth the cost (except during a referendum). The real purpose of paid ads in an advocacy campaign is to identify people who already support your policy and get them to contact their policymakers, or volunteer for or donate to your campaign.
Paid advertising is a broad category. It includes broadcast and cable television, radio, print ads, billboards and other paid signs, direct mail, paid phone calls, and ads on the Internet. Unless used very strategically, even the cheapest of these is rarely an efficient or effective use of campaign resources.
The most straightforward use of paid media in an advocacy campaign is patch-through phone calls. This is when a paid phone bank calls residents in an undecided policymaker’s district, persuades residents to speak to the policymaker in favor of the campaign’s policy, and immediately connects them to their policymaker’s office where they typically either talk to a staff member or leave a voice message. The same can be done less expensively, but also less professionally, by volunteers or automated services. Paid patch-through calls are often worth the cost.
A more complicated use of paid media is to buy high-profile ads that ask residents to call their policymakers—especially local newspaper ads or professional signage (for example, see the ad displayed below)—targeted at undecided policymakers. Don’t expect these ads to generate enough calls to justify their cost. However, such paid ads can provide cover for patch-through calls, making the policymaker think the ads sparked the calls.
The most elaborate use of paid advertising is to buy something newsworthy and tell the press. Done well, you may trigger earned media coverage worth many more times than the paid ads cost. For example, a clever radio ad that costs $1,000 to make and is played on $9,000 of air time has sometimes generated news coverage worth more than $100,000. A radio ad combined with earned media coverage and patch-through calls might convince policymakers of overwhelming public support for your legislation.
Finally, an advocacy campaign might buy social media ads, on Facebook, for example. There are many tools that help you target specific types of people through a variety of digital media. Again, this is rarely a cost-effective way to persuade a jurisdiction’s residents but it can help you connect with people who are willing to contact their policymakers, volunteer or contribute to your campaign.