Civic Engagement and Advocacy Blog

How to Evaluate an Advocacy Platform – Part Two

Posted by Brent Willis on 9/22/15 1:01 PM

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Specific technology for your business model is a love/hate thing.

sticky-notesYou love it when it’s all installed and working correctly, but could certainly dislike the process of getting to that point. It often means more demos, more research, hours of contemplating and analyzing, often with multiple team members whose schedules don't match up with yours, etc., etc… It can be frustrating and, if you're the point person making the decision, there can be a lot at stake, too. Even though the process can be all of these things, spending time asking the right questions and reaching the best conclusion for your organization is worth the time expended.

If you conduct advocacy and need your members to get involved in order to affect public policy, how can you effectively evaluate a technical solution?

Here are some broad points many will already understand:

  • It starts with the end in mind. What's the organizational goal for this particular piece of software? What are we trying to accomplish? What are our essential requirements versus nice-to-haves?
  • Does this need to be integrated with our primary organizational software or can the advocacy platform stand alone?
  • Who are the industry players in this area? Research their sites for features and benefits.
  • Set up demos and analyze the features and functions, and map what each vendor offers to your requirements.

Sounds simple, right? It can be, but more often than not, the folks on each side of this conversation don't ask the right questions. That's right, the advocacy salesperson/consultant needs to make sure they're asking the right questions to ensure a tight organizational fit. If the software is not a solid fit and doesn’t solve problems, then its a lose/lose proposition for both parties—something to be avoided at all costs. Votility has a near-perfect annual customer retention rate because we take our time and ask the right questions, and because we have a solid, easy-to-use product. We're not looking for short-term customer relationships—and I'm fairly certain you're looking for actual solutions. So, each party has some responsibility here.

When it comes to advocacy software, here are some more nuanced questions you may want to consider asking:

  1. What platforms do we have in place today and how can we get them all to 'play nice', to work together to help us achieve our organizational mission and goals? 
The biggest problem I see: Organizations have disparate software platforms, working separately, with separate staff running them etc... and sometimes there's organizational confusion. If the advocacy provider cannot integrate with what you have in place that is working for you, drop it from consideration. You don't need another third party platform that isn't integrated with your current systems.  So, what enables this integration, this working together for efficiency? An Application Programming Interface, or API. 
  1. Does this advocacy provider have an API that will allow it to integrate my existing software platforms or at least my main software, like the AMS platform? At the very least, do they have a Single Sign On through this API that will allow my member to seamlessly access both the main organizational software (AMS) and the advocacy software?  What all is involved in getting that up and running effectively? How does it work and what are the costs? We're looking for efficiency here, right? Ask lots of questions.
Remember those disparate software platforms mentioned above?  There's no need for siloed systems anymore.  An API can enable integrated systems that work as a team. You know what TEAM stands for right? Together Everyone Achieve More... that's the goal, right?
  1. Does the provider have the features I need to perform my tasks and achieve our stated goals? Much of this can be accomplished through a demo. You may have to fill out a form on their website and someone will contact you. (If someone doesn't contact you quickly, red flag!  That might be the way they communicate or solve problems or run their Customer Service as well. Pay careful attention to who contacts you and how knowledgeable and sincere they are with helping you. If communication is vague or slow in coming and its hard to deal with them, the organization might work the same way.)
There are only so many advocacy features and member actions that can be performed in order to affect public policy.  You’ll likely need your members to write a letter and/or an email, make a phone call, sign a petition, provide some quick member sentiment on the initiative you placed in front of them so you can have a sense, internally, about how the message resonates with your members, social sharing, and that's about it. If you want more trendy tools like, Tweet your Congressman, make sure your members will use that channel and you’re not falling for the latest and coolest gadget no one, or not many, will use. It may be the latest trend, but if your members are not using Twitter, is it really worth the money? Software can have an abundance of features (shiny things) but how many will you and your team actually use? (You might be paying for a Ferrari when a Chevy might do just fine).  Remember, it’s not about you, it about what your members will engage with. So, the question then becomes this…
  1. If there are only so many actions I need to make sure the software includes, how easy is it for the staff to execute and how simple is it for my members to engage with?
If its not simple and straightforward on both ends, drop it from consideration… unless you like sitting on the line with Tech Support. The more features and overall complication, the greater the chance of a technical software failure.  You don't have the time, energy or stamina to work with a complex and complicated system. It may be cool to analyze member advocacy action data 100,000 different ways but is that what you need?  Do you really have time for that? Trust me, it has to be simple to use for both staff and member alike or NO ONE will use it!
  1. Training and Customer Support. How well are you going to be trained to use the software out of the gate? How often do you get to train? At what cost? It’s preferable that the software is so simple to use that you don't need training at all but that's not likely. Some are easier to use than others, for sure.
How difficult is it to reach someone when you have an issue? No technology product is perfect; you WILL have an issue. Some platforms are more stable than others and some have more issues than others. Ask how many tech support tickets the vendor average per year. You may get a straight answer, you may not but ask the question to see how truthful you feel they are with you. If there is an issue, the question is: How quickly can I get it resolved? That depends upon the organizational culture of the advocacy software company, the communication ability of your point of contact and the tech support staff and how they are geared to handle problems. Company size is not always a reliable indicator of how well they support their customers.
  1. Can I customize my user experience or functionality? If your organization needs specific features due to the way you're configured as an organization, can I get them? Can I customize this platform? If so, what's the process? The best process is to create a scope of work that outlines exactly how the new feature will work and have everyone sign off on it. Get it all in writing. 
Not every platform is going to have what you need out of the gate, that's pretty normal but, it should most everything you need. If you need custom work and they don't offer it, drop them from consideration. If you do need it, the scope of work will point he way and ensure the smoothest process possible. Make sure the advocacy company can deliver.

This post is designed to help avoid problem when choosing software vendors. Unfortunately, you can't always identify the problems until after you sign the agreement and are stuck. Not a good feeling! The best defense is to ask lots of questions, and not just via email.  It’s on a phone call, web conference, or in person that you can get a better feel for the person who is selling the software and whether or not you have a good feeling about them.  First impressions are usually right.

Here’s to your success!

Brent Willis

Written by Brent Willis

People want to be heard other then just voting every 2,4, or 6 years. Groups that engage them and measure it are positioned to win the public policy battles of the future. My vision and mission is to revive the civic engagement of the American citizen in government relations; at the federal, state, and local level.

Topics: advocacy software, membership management