How about an action alert writing contest?

We’re in the thick of a state legislative session here, which means that action alerts are flying fast and furious. I think there’s a lot of poorly written and ultimately ineffective alerts out there, but I can’t *prove* it.

Which leads me to an idea…

What if we organized the infrastructure to write and test different versions of a bunch of action alerts, measure the results, rewarded the winners, and wrote up the lessons learned — with statistics? We could structure it as a contest to give aspiring alert writers an incentive to participate.

We’d need to find a couple of organizations with lists large enough to randomly sample/segment, and organize the system for the alert facts to get out to the writers and turned around quickly. This all seems totally doable.

3 thoughts on “How about an action alert writing contest?”

  1. Great idea, John. The organization I work for is putting together a new action alert system–which I’m primarily responsible for, at least so far–and I’ve been grappling with that question myself. Do I go for the in depth material, or just a quick “you gotta do this right now” routine. Do I even worry about posting the extensive background info on the site, or is a paragraph enough?

    Anecdotely, we’ve been sending out incredibly detailed weekly action alerts for a year or two now, complete with our bill listings, committee schedule, et al. These things were 6, 8, sometimes 10 pages printed. Nobody read them–well, I know I didn’t–save a reporter or two looking to save time navigating the legislature’s website.

    When I moved us to this new system two weeks ago, we’ve seen what appears to be a marked increase in use. Of course, the system we now have lets our members send a sample letter directly through our site, so that definitely helps. But, I also limited each email alert to about half a page, with 3-4 links to our “take action” page, and we even used a little marketing hook–we bought and redirected it to the take action page. So, the message I focused on was “invest 1 min. to support sound water planning.” I only provided a sentence or two on the actual issue, and much of it on how the 1minute of their time could affect the lives of everyone in the state. It seemed to work pretty well–we received more than one compliment.

    But without a history of data to compare it to, I really can’t say for sure if we generated more contacts or not. I’d certainly love to participate in and learn about the best practices of other orgs.

  2. It’s a nifty idea, but I can’t imagine an organization that has a list that large, and that has time to test different action alerts. As a former organizer, I can say that most of the problem comes from people who don’t know how to write compelling alerts (or worse, people who don’t know how to write at all!). So I’d be more likely to recommend a one-size-fits-all guide to writing action alerts. It should be simple, clear, and as universal as possible. Then it should be disseminated with the same ferocity as the news of Britney Spears’ pregnancy.

    We all know there are some basic rules to writing good alerts. Identify the decision maker, or alternately, the “villain.” Use descriptive language. don’t use jargon or over-technical language. Give people a clear action to take. (I can’t tell you how many alerts I see that forget this simple step.)

    One of my favorite tricks: ask your spouse, partner, or neighbor who doesn’t work in “the movement” to read it, and see if they get the message. If they don’t get it, keep working.

    So why waste time with statistics? The problem as I see it is a lack of training.

  3. Sky,

    I hear what you’re saying. And I agree that maybe a contest is over-formal. The point of my rambling wasn’t to generate statistics for their own sake, but to use measurement as a spur for recongizing the need for more training.

    But I’m not sure that a guide will do it. I think that there are lots of good guides out there already. (Phil Agre at Red Rock Eater wrote one way back in ’96 that still stands the test of time, the folks at TechRocks have published extensively on this.) The problem as I see it is that some folks just don’t write well, others think they’re smarter than “the rules” (they’re not.) And their failures aren’t being measured or made visible, which makes folks resistant to seeking training or coaching.

    Maybe we need some sort of on-demand writing coach system…

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