The feeling in Washington, D.C. right now emits both chaos and exhilaration. As campaigns wind down, planning for the term ahead has already begun. Every two years D.C. prepares for a new class of lawmakers moving in, equipped with energy and new agendas. This new class, and potentially new balance of power, means organizations and brands may need to reintroduce the issues they had been working on in the previous term. Doing this requires a new level of creativity and personability to engage these representatives with jam-packed schedules.

Co-Founder of Advoc8 Josh Sharp sat down with one of our research and public opinion partners, Jason Boxt. Founder and Principal of strategic consultancy 3W Insights, Boxt specializes in using quantitative and qualitative research to help clients uncover deep insights that guide impactful messaging and strategy. We discussed the future of relationship building in the nation’s capital with a new class of policymakers moving in, how to engage with a new generation of activists, and questions you should ask yourself when planning a strategy.  

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation with Jason Boxt.

 

With the polling industry’s credibility being damaged this year, how do we effectively measure public sentiment that allows us to make strategic choices? 

It’s really important for people to understand the difference between political pre-election polling and opinion research, because they are related, but very different animals. Election polling is the tip of the iceberg of the types of polling that people see. 

The vast majority of research actually is below the surface of the water and it’s not predicated on guessing with accuracy who’s going to show up on election day, but rather more broadly trying to understand people’s sentiments. I’m not trying to guess a horse race, I’m just trying to understand what people think and what moves them. 

The most important thing for your clients to understand is public-facing political polling isn’t designed to answer really important strategic questions. It’s just designed to say who’s winning and who’s losing. The really important research that your clients need goes to three key questions: the who, the what and the where—which opinion research can answer.

 

With over one hundred million Americans engaged in the civic process this year, what does that mean for advocacy groups? Do you think the level of civic engagement gives groups that are trying to position themselves on major issues—such as climate change or healthcare—new constituents to engage in the grassroots process?

I think what 2020 has shown is that when the stakes are high enough and the significance is successfully communicated, people will engage. As you look to 2021, I do think that it has an effect on advocacy, not necessarily on the importance of advocacy, but the ways in which you go about that business. Digital engagement, digital strategy, hyper-targeting on narrowly defined groups will be critically important.

It is a ‘zero sum game,’ because there are only 535 members of Congress. It’s so important that advocacy groups get really smart and tactical in not only how they go about their business, but the things they’re actually advocating for, because everyone’s going to be at the trough in 2021.

The departure of the Trump administration and the arrival of a Biden administration means that a lot of advocacy groups who have been shut out for the last four years are going to see new opportunities. Everyone’s going to be rushing for the door. 

Everything’s going to be about prioritization and triage. Advocacy groups shouldn’t be discouraged by that, but should recognize that for their own organizations and stakeholders, they’ve got to be really smart about moderating expectations and setting goals that they’ll be able to achieve.

 

Connections and relationships will always be an underlying part of DC. In order to successfully move an agenda forward, should organizations do something bigger and more public than they’re accustomed to? If so, how should groups best stand out from what everyone else is doing?

You have to have a good story to tell. You have to have the right story, designed for the right stakeholders, delivered in the right way.

No one’s going to make bold, un-mandated leaps unless there’s a reason to do it. That means you have to have the right story being communicated through the right channels so that decision-makers are not only hearing from the lobbyists and advocates, but they’re hearing from their spouse, neighbors and their peers the same message everywhere, matched with the same level of importance. 

It really is about getting your story out there in the most efficient and effective way.

 

Talk a little bit about targeting influencers in D.C. versus Main Street (average citizens). It’s sometimes easier to target the D.C. media market and Twitter-verse, but when building a grassroots campaign, how do you identify which audience will be strongest to drive the legislative outcomes that an organization needs?

I don’t think there’s a clear answer here; I just think that the goals are different. If you’re focusing on Main Street, it’s not a regulatory or legislative focus, it’s really about your product and your brand. Where if you’re focused on D.C., it’s really more about your reputation. The difference between brand strategy and reputation strategy is risk. When your brand is at risk it becomes a reputational challenge, and that’s the lens through which you have to make those decisions.

 

Keep an eye out in January for Part 2 of our interview with Jason Boxt!