When people ask me what I do, I often launch into a long-winded response about how I work in capacity-building for coalitions supporting digital advocacy campaigns to pass public health legislation. To many people not in the industry all that nuance goes in one ear and out the other and they just hear “digital marketing.” I inexplicably have an uncle who is still convinced for some reason that I work in IT.

To me, however, the distinction between digital marketing and digital advocacy is critical to understanding my work. In the communications world, digital marketing has mass media connotations focused on behavior change and public education. Digital advocacy, on the other hand, is using digital communications to influence a policy outcome.

In many ways, digital marketing is much more straight-forward and easy to understand. You are looking to influence people to think or act in a certain way. You measure success by tracking public perception or action prior to and after a campaign.

In digital advocacy campaigns, however, the goal is always to influence policy. While public education may be a part of the strategy, it must be a means to a policy end.

This distinction is important for advocacy campaigns, because coalitions with limited digital capacity often create content that simply points to the problem without building momentum towards the proposed policy solution.

Talking about health risks is important, but it must be part of a larger drive to build urgency around passing a policy aimed at improving public health. If a tobacco control organization is only producing content about the health harms of cigarettes without a strategy to use that data to support its case for a policy outcome, then they won’t be successful.

While direct advocacy on digital, for example including a call to action like a pledge or petition or directly tagging and naming key decision-makers, is often the most effective, its not always viable in some political climates.

Countries with different political systems and levels of autocracy and opacity all provide their own individual complications. Digital advocacy campaigns in China or Vietnam look very different from the traditional American model with petitions and letter writing campaigns, and can often rely more on traditional digital marketing techniques.

For example, while a campaign may not be able to encourage citizens to directly contact the government through social media, data showing widespread public support can be shared with key decision-makers behind closed doors.

In the end, a digital advocacy campaign is defined by the goal of its activities. An advocacy campaign that just shares informational content without a strategy for how its content will complement its offline policy advocacy efforts will not be successful.