The Surge in Corporate Advocacy
Taking a position on social issues is fast becoming a market expectation, and many companies are adding an in-house advocacy team to address that need directly. Check out the numbers.
Looking back over the past year, one of the most striking changes I see is the increasing number of companies moving into advocacy work and doing so in very smart ways.
A decade ago, many companies were (more than) willing to sit out major battles over social issues, afraid of alienating their customers. If there was a position to advance, many relied on their trade associations. Those associations still play a critical role in government affairs at most corporations, but more and more companies are adding an in-house team to navigate a complex political landscape, satisfy a more discerning consumer and enhance their brand.
A growing body of research shows that consumers want to know where companies stand on issues they care about, from social justice and public health to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. Positioning on issues like this is fast becoming a market expectation.
In addition, companies like Airbnb, Lime and Doordash have taken advocacy to new levels, connecting with their passionate supporters and enlisting them to help fight regulatory battles and open new markets. As the products and services these companies provide become an important part of our daily lives, customers have shown they are willing to speak up to support them.
The result is that the number of companies wading directly into advocacy has grown and will continue to expand in 2022. Corporate advocacy is now a powerful tool for business.
Corporate Advocacy By the Numbers
While we have seen the number of companies engaging in advocacy grow steadily in the last seven years, it has really surged since 2018. We don’t have to rely on anecdotes to see the rise. We have data.
According to activity on the Capitol Canary platform, which serves more than 1,200 clients (including hundreds of companies), corporate activity has exploded. Here is what we have seen:
- A 3X Gain in Advocates. In all of 2018, companies attracted about 583,000 new advocates. In the first three quarters of 2021, that number was almost 2.1 million. That’s a three-fold gain—and the year isn’t over yet.
- A 2X Growth in Actions. In 2018, advocates acting on campaigns sponsored by companies took about 3.5 million actions, such as signing petitions or writing to lawmakers. In the first three quarters of this year, that number was almost 9 million. And again, 2021 is not over.
- A 30% Increase in Campaigns. In 2018, companies launched more than 1,400 campaigns. In 2020, that number grew by almost a third to more than 1,800. In the first three quarters of this year, companies launched more than 1,400 campaigns, meaning this year could exceed last year.
We have no doubt that growth will continue in 2022, with plenty of action coming next year.
Legislatures in 46 states will gavel in sessions in the first quarter, unleashing a torrent of legislation—thousands of bills—that will impact corporate interests. Companies in almost every industry will be supporting and opposing bills in state houses nationwide.
In addition, major federal bills passed to address infrastructure and pandemic relief have pushed hundreds of billions of dollars to states, and many companies will want to influence how that money is spent. If President Biden’s Build Back Better Act is approved by Congress this year (it has already been passed in the House), the amount of money will only grow—and so will corporate advocacy.
Next year’s high-stakes midterm election will also have an impact. The election, which will determine which party controls Congress, will likely slow the flow of major federal legislation. But it will almost certainly increase the number of companies that work to increase civic participation, a growing trend in which employers help their workforce get educated on their local candidates, register to vote and find a polling place.
Successful Corporate Advocacy
Companies that successfully enhance their business with an advocacy program have a few things in common:
- Targeting. Many companies target one important segment of their ecosystem for a very specific purpose that will resonate with that audience. For example, Airbnb’s home sharing platform is wildly popular, but the company encounters regulation both at the state and local level. Municipalities often try to restrict rentals. To make its voice heard, Airbnb enlists hosts on the platform to get involved, ensuring that local officials hear from their own constituents about the benefits of home sharing. Many companies take a similar approach. Lime has built an entire community around its initiatives. Amazon engages small businesses.
- Defining Success. Well-run corporate advocacy programs define success in very specific terms. Most often, this relates to specific policy outcomes, such as whether a state or federal bill passes or whether a local measure is defeated. But it can be broader. For example, a company beginning its program may set a goal to acquire 10,000 advocates. A company that has more experience may set out to capture 100 personal advocate stories. The point is that success is well defined and the goals are concrete.
- Measuring ROI. Smart companies do not ignore advocacy metrics. The number of campaigns launched, the number of advocates engaged and the number of actions taken are all indicators of program health. Successful programs monitor these numbers and are constantly looking for ways to improve.
- Optimizing Performance. The companies that have the most success are those that find new ways to drive impact from their existing program. For example, Expedia Group identifies “super advocates,” people who have taken action on all its requests, and then targets them with more advanced campaigns. In Arizona, where the company was facing bills that would regulate their business, the results were dramatic. In an email to all state advocates, Expedia saw an open rate of 62%, a click rate of 10.5% and a conversion rate of almost 5%. An email to super advocates had an open rate of 76%, a click rate of nearly 48% and a conversion rate of almost 32%.
- Showing Value. Part of supporting and growing an advocacy program is being able to show the value of that program internally. Successful programs are often those that effectively communicate ROI. For example, CRH, which manufactures building materials worldwide, has a government relations team that is focused on public infrastructure projects. The team creates an annual impact report that shows the business value of its policy wins each year.
Advocacy and Brand
Many companies have also found advocacy provides a tool to enhance their brand, particularly when it comes to taking a position on issues like social justice.
While companies like Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s have been active on social issues for decades, advocating on everything from conservation to racial equality, more and more mainstream brands are declaring where they stand on issues that may have been too hot to touch a decade ago.
For example, when Nike ran an ad in 2018 featuring former NFL Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who drew criticism for taking a knee during the National Anthem to protest racial injustice, it was considered controversial. Yet, in a RealClear Opinion Research poll in 2020, two thirds of Millennial and Gen Z respondents said they viewed Nike more favorably after the ad and 42% said they were likely to buy more Nike products.
More recently, well-known American brands like Amazon, Netflix and Citigroup came out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement after as many as 26 million people protested for racial equality last year. Now, companies are looking into how advocacy can advance diversity, equity and inclusion goals.
Advocacy is a logical extension of all these efforts, and that’s why the numbers are growing. Consumers today have tremendous power, and let companies know when they want them to take a position on something. And companies, increasingly, are recognizing that they can engage on various issues themselves, and engage employees and consumers alike. Given what we’ve seen in the numbers, this trend is only going to increase.