The worst time to begin communicating the details of a new levy is when you go on the ballot.
If voters are suddenly made aware of a levy when it's only a few months before they cast their ballots, they’ll probably think your school district or organization is up to something! This leads to distrust and skepticism.
You must communicate effectively about the need for your levy before you go on the ballot. Or, perhaps a simpler way to approach this is to act as though you are always preparing for a levy.
If you have a communications strategy in place that provides the community with a full understanding of the levy long before you go on the ballot, you will likely have success. This means thinking 24 – if not 36 – months in advance.
Levy planning is truly a year-round activity, so there’s no time quite like the present to begin developing your strategy. With decades of experience helping school districts win levies, I’d like to share the three steps that consistently work when passing a levy.
3 Steps to Successful Levy Planning
In order to inform your target voters, all of the people involved in the campaign must be aligned with your objectives from the moment of the levy’s inception. Then, you can begin the three-step process of examining, developing and deploying your message.
Step One: Understanding Community Sentiments
If you want to engage voters, it is critical that you hear their opinions and perspectives regarding the community and the potential levy. Long before the levy goes on the ballot, school districts, cities or counties should utilize quantitative and qualitative methods to gather feedback from community members.
This involves conducting both surveys (quantitative) and targeted and third-party facilitated focus groups (qualitative), so that you can effectively engage every type of demographic in your community while gathering credible information.
The bottom line is that you must understand how those you serve view the value proposition offered by the levy. Do they want services supported by the levy? If so, how much would they pay for the levy? What aspects of the levy are appealing? What aspects are repugnant? (You might be surprised!) Which demographic segments of the community find the various aspects appealing or repugnant? These are critical questions that you must understand before considering going on the ballot.
Step Two: Developing the Messaging and Communications Strategy
After you understand the community’s sentiment toward the levy, you can develop your messaging strategy based on what’s most important to voters. As you begin to determine the methods of communication you will use, ask yourself:
- How do you plan to present the information?
- What are your constituents passionate about?
- Is your message developed in a 3-30-3 format?
- What type of language needs to be used to address their concerns?
Regarding the use of language, one story I like to tell that illustrates the importance of this phase is the “green space” vs. “open space” story. We were working with a local parks and recreation entity, and when we conducted polling and focus groups, a funny thing happened. Citizens seemed very passionate and supportive of the phrase “open space.” They then showed a very low level of interest or support for the phrase “green space.” Aren’t they essentially the same thing?
Well, yes they are. But the interesting thing is the reaction to the phrase. Although they are functionally the same thing, the reaction of the potential voter was very different. We would argue, had the park district led each of its campaign pieces with “Green space is our top priority,” it would have been a disaster, as no one cared about “green space.” Instead, they lead with “Open space is our top priority,” and they won.
What is the point? It’s that word choice matters. Do you know not only what your voters are interested in, but also the words they use to describe their interest? (Note of caution – Beware of inside jargon. Your voters won’t get it!).
Step Three: Deploying Your Message
Time and time again, I’ve heard organization leaders say to me, “I don’t know why people aren’t understanding the levy – it was in our newsletter!”
- Communication is NOT simply shooting information “out there” hoping someone else gets it and understands it. That is NOT communication.
- Communication is sending information forth to a targeted audience with the expectation that the audience will receive it, understand it and be moved to meaningful action by it.
So, why doesn’t one run in a newsletter count as communication?
Here’s why: People need to see things 11 to 15 times before a message sinks in.
When it comes to passing a levy, voters need to be hit with your message over and over. Getting the message in front of your target audiences is the final step, but it is the most important. How will you target the voters that are most likely to support the levy’s passage?
During the deployment phase, it is critical that your community knows what you do and why you are valuable. If they are familiar with your impact, they will already understand the reasons behind the levy’s existence and readily support your mission to pass it.
Creating a series of consistent, 3-30-3 messaging to appeal to voters across different platforms will allow your communications to align with the same end-goal. This, in time, will allow the message to sink in and lead to more community support.
Our Winning SMART Start Process
We know what it takes to pass levies and bond issues. While these three steps are a great starting point, our team at The Impact Group has developed a winning process called a SMART Start that leads to even greater success when it’s election season.
In effect, a SMART Start involves an in-depth examination of your current resources, which includes an understanding of the voters who will be most influential to your campaign, the strategies for reaching them and the tactics that will be used throughout the levy’s timeline.
S – Strategy
M – Message
A – Audience
R – Resources
T – Timeline & Tactics
We want to help your district. To learn more about our SMART Start process, contact us today to schedule your FREE levy marketing consultation.