Mobile advocacy is a powerful channel for nonprofits. Image: Clem Onojeghuo, creative commons.

Why Mobile Matters in Advocacy Outreach

It’s the mantra of cause marketers everywhere: the key to success is reaching the right audience at the right time with the right message – one that will motivate immediate, positive action from your intended respondent.

For advocates, this “holy grail” of marketing campaigns is even tougher than for brand marketers in the for-profit world. Advocacy outreach is already complex, and exacerbated by the fact that the “right audience” can vary from those who could most benefit from their services or those of their preferred industry, to those most able and willing to support their activity. Sometimes these audiences are so different that even the advocate’s core messaging has to change to accommodate them.

Such a dichotomy is often tough to pull off in social media, where each online “persona” is relentlessly tested for authenticity. But there is one medium that has become at once so pervasive, and yet so personal, that it can uniquely deliver relevant messages that inspire immediate action: targeted mobile advertising.

Mobile Outreach – by the Numbers

Last month, Nielsen reported figures from Q3 of 2016 showing that the number of monthly users of apps and web via smartphone for adults 18 and over outstripped the number of people accessing the internet via desktop or laptop. (Tablets – another mobile device that can be targeted with video and rich-media messaging – are the digital device of choice for U.S. children.)

Moreover, more adults viewed video via smartphone than on their computers. Some 90% of those 18-24 watch video via smartphone or tablet; 86% of those 25-34 do, and 79% of those 35-49 do. Even more than half of adults 50-59 watch video via smartphone or tablet. The connection between a millennial audience and mobile media is undeniable:
• 95% watch video on mobile at least once a week
• 48% ONLY watch videos on their mobile devices (the so-called “unplugged” you’ve heard so much about.)
• 58% watch video on mobile as their sole activity (compared with 28% for TV)
• 80% find video helpful during initial research for a purchasing decision.

In its January report, US Time Spent with Mobile: A Deep Dive into Mobile App and Web Time, eMarketer reported that mobile video viewing time skews more heavily toward apps, with U.S. adults spending 20 minutes daily in apps vs. 11 minutes per day via mobile websites.

Mobile App Indicators: Persuasion’s Secret Sauce

Not all mobile video is created equal, and finding a willing audience where the “exit” is just a thumb-swipe away, is critical to the success of mobile ad campaigns. There is a “secret sauce” to those that have been able to leverage this technology to best effect, and it goes back to the holy grail scenario cited above. Those most persuadable to your point of view probably share common characteristics and interests besides their age, gender, income, and even location. Sometimes, what people DO on their most personal of information device – specifically via the apps they download and use every day – says as much about them and their potential affinity for your cause or your campaign as where they live or their demographics.


To be fair, many of the same targeting techniques that can be used in mobile advertising can be applied to online and social ads as well. But using the apps on users’ phones to “crack the code” of audience psychographics has proven remarkably powerful for us in targeting both branding and political campaigns.

We like to say “you are what you app,” which means that the app ecosystem on each person’s phone can be a roadmap to their personality, preferences and passions. Some of these indications are simple: you may be an in-market car buyer if you have Edmunds, Kelly Blue Book or Car Checker. You can spot a mom with small children by their K-12 educational apps combined with apps on great 30-minute meals. I’m a hockey fan, so of course I’ve downloaded the app from the Washington Caps (something you wouldn’t guess by my demographic, and I’ll leave it at that!)

Discerning differences in today’s party-hopping, populist era might be a bit tougher, but you might be a Democrat if you get your political news from Atlantic Monthly, and Mother Jones. You might, conversely, vote Republican if you sport an NRA app and stream Fox News.

What does this look like in real life? When SONY Pictures wanted to herald the release on DVD of a movie about the transformative power of prayer at WalMart, we targeted mobile users when they were within a few miles of a WalMart that also had either Bible or church apps on their phones. The resulting synergy between messaging and target audience drove one of the highest sales days among the retailer’s movie releases.

On the political front, we mobile voters in Georgia who had an NRA app with a 30-second video endorsement by the NRA of Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) for his recent re-election campaign. And, we didn’t stop there. We also targeted a different, 15-second ad spot talking about how Isakson was the “most effective” legislator in Congress to people whose apps resembled those of NRA members. (In digital marketing, we call this a “look-alike” campaign.) Both ads were charged on a “cost per completed view” basis, meaning the senator’s campaign only paid when someone watched the ad to its completion. Because the ad was so relevant to users to whom it was delivered, the video completion ratio was greater than 80%.

Only as Good as the Gardener

Like any tool in the shed, mobile targeting may not be for everyone. Advocacy marketing funds are always limited because organizations want to use the maximum amount of resources in driving the kind of change for which they were created – not just in ad campaigns. When the money does become available, non-profits either want to “go big” – grab the highest number of eyeballs possible via broadcast TV – or spend the least amount of money possible, perhaps by building out a social profile and trying to activate the organization’s own users.

The first step in figuring out whether a targeted mobile ad campaign could help your organization could be to conduct a “super-user” survey to find out their media habits. Do your most supportive followers cite mobile media as a key activity? Does commonly available media research tell you the same thing? Consult your website stats; most analytic programs will tell you how many of your web visits are from users on their mobile devices.

Start small, and learn fast. If you can instantly think of apps that would be commonly used by your potential constituents, if you have a cultural target that is hard to discern in other ways, if your target falls strictly within a specific geographic area (high-income ZIP codes, or voters within a single state or other locale), or if your audience is overwhelmingly millennial or younger, then it’s probably worth a test. Posit a demographic, geographic and psychographic “bullseye” for a test campaign, then – when it succeeds – stretch its boundaries as far as practical so long as your goals are met.

Be realistic. It is possible to over-target in terms of the specific audience characteristics of the people you think might join your bandwagon, and targeting can’t make up for missing the mark on poor media choices generally. As with all technological advances, nonprofits may lag their brand marketer peers in adoption, but Sabio is committed to both inclusion in the political process and supporting nonprofits as much as humanly possible.

Telling a story from the perspective of those people that advocates are trying to help, or communicating surprising truths to the uninitiated, still requires creative skill. Don’t hesitate to try out your messaging in social video first and let the audience weigh in on its effectiveness before delivering it to a wider audience. Just don’t assume that the people you’d most like to influence will necessarily find it without some help.


Melinda Gipson
Business Development
Sabio Mobile
For more than a decade, Melinda Gipson worked with the Newspaper Assn. of America to drive the Fourth Estate digital, and helped online news directors build the first local mobile news gateway in 2000, nearly a decade before the creation of the iPhone. Such work earned her a "Digital Edge Pioneer" award from the New Media Federation she helped create. As Internet Strategist, she helped put more than 200 community newspapers online for Gatehouse Media, and launched a national, local online shopping network. With, she drove millions per year in advertising and sponsorship revenue, and built the publication’s branded content and research practices as well as its first mobile app. With Sabio Mobile, she heads the DC Office, working to help political and advocacy groups mobilize their base and deliver their messaging efficiently and effectively with targeted mobile advertising. In February, Sabio earned a Reed Award from Campaigns & Elections for "Best Use of Technology for GOTV" (get out the vote campaigns.)