By Apryl Motley for Connectivity: Help for Associations, Nonprofits and Advocacy Professionals from CQ Roll Call
With partisan gridlock taking up permanent residence in the nation’s capital, many associations have found local and state policy arenas more fertile ground for their advocacy efforts. And as their focus on local issues has increased so has the need to provide additional resources to grassroots advocates at that level.
To provide more resources for its local and state advocates, the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) launched the Transportation Investment Advocacy Center (TIAC) a little over a year ago. It’s designed to help private citizens, legislators, organizations and businesses successfully advocate for increasing transportation infrastructure resources at the state and local levels.
The cornerstone of this initiative is the website www.transportationinvestment.org. The site features a blog, case studies, and sample communications tools. “It really is an evolution of the work we’ve been doing at ARTBA,” Alison Premo Black, senior vice president and chief economist, says of the site.
“We’ve been working on ballot issues since 2000,” Black continues, “but we started taking a closer look at the state and local markets. Then, five years ago, as part of a strategic planning exercise, our board encouraged us to create a useful tool for state and local advocates.”
“With our network of 36 chapters, we wanted to fill a void for them and support their efforts in addition to what we’re doing nationally,” adds Matt Jeanneret, ARTBA Senior Vice President of Communications and Marketing.
Averaging more than 1,000 users per month, the site has proved to be a valuable resource for ARTBA’s local grassroots advocates. Black and Jeanneret attribute its success to the careful attention they’ve given to generating content and building community.
“You have to have depth to your content if you’re going to launch a microsite,” Jeanneret emphasizes. “It must tie in to the primary mission of association, which in our case, is funding for transportation initiatives.”
“Content is king for any kind of advocacy site. That’s what sells this,” he continues. “It’s why people keep coming back.”
In fact, 60 percent of the traffic to the site is from returning users, which is one of the key metrics that Jeanneret and Black monitor to evaluate the success of the site. “To a certain extent, we have a very limited audience,” Black says.
Because their audience is so specialized, providing content that they find useful and relevant is an ongoing enterprise. “For the continued success of the site, content needs to be relevant —refreshed and renewed,” Black says. “You have to think it through; don’t just throw something up.”
“You need to make sure you know your audience and provide the content they’re looking for,” Jeanneret adds. “With any advocacy campaign, don’t be shy about what you’re trying to do and why.”
To that end, ARTBA’s site takes a different approach to organizing and presenting content than other traditional grassroots advocacy sites. It’s geared towards people who are actually launching or running local campaigns.
One campaign case study featured on the site details how advocates were successful in getting a bill passed that made South Dakota the second state in 2015 to increase the state gas tax for transportation funding. Another highlights a successful legislative campaign with the Virginia state legislature that produced a five-year, $3.4 billion transportation investment bill.
“There are a lot of moving parts on the site, including case studies and research reports,” Black explains. “State and local folks can use ARTBA research reports to counter myths about transportation (i.e. If you vote for gas tax, you won’t get re-elected). Our goal is to take the story that the data is telling us and put it in a format that advocates can really use.”
For instance, the site is home to “Variable-Rate State Gas Taxes: A Resource Guide of Current Laws” (February 2015). A variety of audiences have been accessing resources dealing with this subject.
“There’s movement at the state level on raising gas taxes,” Jeanneret says, “so the news media is using the site extensively and that also drives use by Congress. Information from our reports becomes a talking point for our allies on Capitol Hill, who can cite examples of what’s happening on this issue at the state and local levels.”
“Broadening our audience by continuing to provide useful content is something to strive for,” he continues. “We need as much grassroots effort as possible to apply legislative pressure.”
From the beginning when the concept for the website was developed, Black and Jeanneret envisioned an opportunity for building community beyond the site itself. As a corollary activity to the advocacy center, they helped put the Transportation Investment Advocates Council in place.
Membership in the council is voluntary, and there is no membership fee to belong. The council is a national network of business professionals and public officials who share a common interest in building support for transportation infrastructure investments in their state or local community.
Initially, the website served as a means for gauging interest in the council. “The website got up and running and created enough momentum to host the council’s first meeting last year,” Black says. “We knew that peer-to-peer networking was important.”
“It’s helpful for both groups,” Jeanneret adds. “We give the national perspective, and they are on the ground in their local communities.”
This year TIAC’s annual “National Workshop for State and Local Transportation Advocates” hosted more than 100 representatives from 28 states. The workshop featured campaign case studies, research on transportation funding trends and public opinion, and presentations by experts in campaign strategy, management and communications.
In addition to the annual workshop, local advocates have the option to participate in quarterly regional conference calls or webinars to exchange information with their peers in other states and learn from guest speakers.
While Black and Jeanneret are pleased with the initial success of the site and the launch of the council, they don’t plan to rest on their laurels. Jeanneret says, “We have to be flexible and self-critical so that we continually evaluate whether we’re providing what people want. Any advocacy website should be doing that as a matter of course.”