48 Campaign Strategies

Here’s a list of ‘campaign strategies’. I’m not saying they are the best or the most applicable but they might help in planning or rethinking a campaign.

Some or all can also be seen or used as tactics. Indeed the distinction between tactics and strategy is to some extent situational, as a tactic (a way of doing something or a how-to) used to strategic effect, becomes a strategy. Other times people distinguish them by scale, or may see strategy as about a series of moves to get a big result whereas tactics are more like tools and small moves that can be adopted responsively. I wouldn’t worry too much about defining the difference, although some people do love that sort of discussion.

There are many other lists of strategies, most notably on marketing, warfare and politics, not to mention ecological and evolutionary strategies. Some of these are relevant to civil society campaigns but the underlying predicates are rarely as clear cut or universally applicable. In business for instance the purpose is usually to make money. In war to overcome your opponent by use or threat of force, and gain or hold territory. In politics to get votes, gain or stay in power or be popular to help do that. Those make strategies and results easier to define. NGO or change campaigns are a lot more variable.

This list does not include more systematic attempts to rethink or create your campaign, for example to make an evidence-based Critical Path to change, or to use PSB or RASPB or CAMPCAT, audience research, organisational level campaign strategies, framing, stories, visual language and so on. For more on those see elsewhere at this website (eg planner here) and lots more in my book How to Win Campaigns: Communications for Change.   A future post will share some values strategies.

  1. The Brick in the Pond

This is the very simplest campaign strategy. Start doing something and see what happens: an iterative approach. The intention may be just to ‘put the cat amongst pigeons’ and stir things up a bit, and to learn from how the actors respond. Or to see where you make any progress. It’s often the de facto approach adopted by groups who do not have any ‘strategy’ informed by previous experience or skills but it may also be a justifiable choice for quite ‘sophisticated’ campaigners when the costs of situation analysis, R +D and all the other work that can go into planning a campaign with optimised chances of success, seem higher than the potential benefits. (The other obvious dimension to take into account is risks).

A support-building variant is to do this in a new place but using well proven tactics, just to see who shows up to support you. I’ve seen people do this in ‘new’ countries where it’s hard to locate allies.

  1. Drop a Dead Dog on the Table

Popularised by Australian political spin doctor Lynton Crosby. A ‘shock’ way to stop people talking about something, and so create the opportunity to get them to switch to talking about something else you’d rather they focused on.

  1. RTS

An old favourite of Greenpeace. ‘Return to Sender’. Send the problem back to its maker. For instance company A claims it’s effluent process water is as clean as the river intake it came from, so call them out on this by connecting their ‘out’ pipe to their ‘in’ pipe. Greenpeace once sent a whole train load of toxic waste destined to be dumped in Czechoslovakia, back to Germany. Friends of the Earth famously returned ‘non-returnable’ bottles to Cadbury-Schweppes, the makers.

  1. Diffuse to Acute

Machiavelli and a host of other political operators have noticed that something a lot of people are a bit worried about has nothing like the political potential of something that a smaller number of people are very concerned about. Converting an ‘issue’ from diffuse to acute is strategy to move it up the political agenda.

  1. Build a Majority

Few NGO campaigns actually need to do this, although outsiders often assume it is needed because they transpose assumptions from politics. Even fewer campaign groups have the potential to do it: hence it’s usually a case for alliances and coalitions where it is needed. But many campaigns do need majority support in key areas or at key steps on a pathway.

  1. Add Heuristics

This is a cheap, quick and, at least in theory, an easy way to tune up any campaign communications. Heuristics are ‘rules’ about things that work more than they don’t work, based on cognitive biases (eg social proof, consistency, loss aversion). The simplest is ‘liking’. Make people like you and they are more likely to agree with you or help you.   Lots online about this. See chapter on the more useful ones in How to Win Campaigns’, or Influence the Psychology of Persuasion or Thinking Fast and Slow.

  1. Boot-strapping

Build resources and assets by use of net positive strategies/ tactics. Start with nothing, or not much, and do your campaigning in a way that leaves you with more help, money or other assets and resources than you had before. Then do it again. Being net positive in this way usually requires being more ‘popular’.   Most non-campaign alternatives with the same effect require running a successful business (or illegality !). Some campaigners struggle with the being-popular bit.

  1. Create a Pool to Fish From

Need to find your potential constituency or build a followership or ‘movement’ ? Do something to attract people who see the subject as relevant to them, and then recruit the subset within that who can be aligned to your approach or objective. A get-them-to-come-to-you or to a thing you-have-caused or -created approach.

  1. Make a Halo Campaign

A halo-brand is one that ‘shines the light’ of its desirable properties onto other brands in the same family or ‘guild’. For example a car model which is a market leader, and which has properties that can then be emulated or echoed in other models which are made to look a bit similar. VW famously did this with the Golf (the Passat being a fat squashed Golf, the Polo a shrunken Golf etc, attracting buyers who’d really rather have a Golf but can’t as it’s too small, costly or whatever). Some campaign groups achieve this by accident and many fail to do it at all. It helps a lot because making any subsequent campaign look and feel a bit like a famous campaign that a lot of people liked, makes it easier to gain support, and more likely to be successful because success is expected.

  1. Credibility Jump

Change who you are in a campaign. Useful if your campaign group is doing way too much of the heavy lifting. For instance where governments or businesses are slowly and incrementally responding to your efforts but not actively helping. For example move from advocate to delivery and thereby get a new authority, power or influence. Only works if you are prepared to change roles and resource that.

  1. Put Something at Risk

Your supporters care about what you want to achieve but do the decision-makers ? For instance ask campaigners or supporters what ’s at risk and they are likely to say things like ‘human rights’ or ‘air quality’ or ‘human health’ but the decision maker may be more concerned about reputation, popularity, profits or market share.  Study them and learn what they do care about until you find a way to make your campaign somehow put that at risk.

  1. Invoke Proportional Response

In most democracies (and many non-democratic leaders assiduously try to do the same thing, fearing unpopularity),  there is a norm (social expectation) that if something is wanted enough, leaders should take note and respond proportionately. This is why politicians want to be seen to stay in step with public opinion (responsive, listening, caring): so they have to ’give something’.   It’s both a quantitative (numbers, how many want this ?) and qualitative (who wants it ?) game. This is what underlies the influence of groups like Avaaz and 38 Degrees: aggregators and manifesters of opinion.

  1. The Wedge Issue

A classic strategy in political circles where parties vie to maximise their vote share. By focussing debate on an issue that unites their team but divides the opposition, they aim to emerge as the largest bloc. Generally under-used by NGOs, who often attack a whole sector in their rhetoric when they would better approach it by dividing the opposition, and/or adopting ‘salami tactics’ and taking out one part of the problem at a time.

  1. The Fault Line

This may be used to ‘split the pack’ as in #13 but is more relevant when considering a single target. Assuming you have identified the best target to focus on to get change, learn about their interests and processes and look for a potential fault line or vulnerability. Few organisations are homogenous, most have differences of interest internally. Many balance business or political plays which are potentially in conflict. Examine how you can frame your campaign which plays on a weakness or fault-line which they will recognize.

  1. Trojan Horse

Does what it says on the box.  Get inside the opposition camp by being attractive and then open the door, physically or metaphorically.

  1. Triangulate

Classically used to reframe away from a bipolar issue standoff (eg where you are in a stalemate with a single opponent) by bringing a new actor or target into play. Defensively popular with politicians wanting to reduce your campaign momentum by getting you into conflict with a third party, eg business, the old, young, sick, poor, Father Christmas or cat owners. Useful to create political space for governments to concede to your demands where it is opposed by another important player. For instance conservationists want protection for marine areas and fishermen oppose it. So create a distinction between ‘good’ (less opposed) fishermen and ‘bad’ (opposed) fishermen, perhaps on small-fisher/ big-fisher lines.

  1. Catch People Doing Something Good

A marketer’s approach that can be applied to campaigns. Reach a new audience defined by already doing something (a behaviour) consistent with what you want people to do, or to support. Congratulate them, help them, get them to like you. Show them that people-like-them are for one or another reason also likely to do your thing, and then get them to do that. The second behaviour may be your end destination or a demonstration to others that it is popular. Behaviour repetition or extension rather than complete change.

  1. Stimulate Anticipation-Reaction

Simon Bryceson points out that many political decisions are not a reaction to events but an anticipation of an event happening, and the possible consequences (see his Political Checklist). If you can pull it off, this is often a lot cheaper and easier than trying to force a decision maker to act. They read the signs and make a calculation.  It also means they must understand, or think they understand, your strategy and what you are able to deliver. Campaigners often assume a target must already understand their strategy when that is not the case.

  1. Remind of/invoke Precedent (pattern match)

This can relate to #18 as in “remember the last time they did this ?” but it may not be about you. Nearly every institution or individual decision-maker will have a memory about good or bad past experiences, ‘lessons not to be forgotten’. Find out what these are and brainstorm about how your campaign can hit those nightmare buttons in a good way.  (Can also apply to reminding them of golden moments and pointing out that this is an equivalent opportunity.  If it is).

  1. The Bush Fire

This plays to the advantage of ‘insurgent’ players needing to build bottom- up support, especially across wide areas (geographically or socially).   Especially at the start of a campaign in which your opponents are embedded, established and strongest in a centralised position (eg in the ‘corridors of power’), creating a bushfire of disconnected, distant and hard-to-grasp campaign fronts can be a strategy which creates a dilemma for the other side. They can try to ignore you or they can ‘ride out’ and try to take the bushfires on one at a time but often they do not have the logistical capacity to do that. This needs constantly growing momentum to work (eg divestment), and a will to stay slightly beyond reach. Central co-option can starve the bushfires of oxygen.

  1. The Theft or Takeover

Take something away from your opponent.   Most applicable once a campaign is fairly mature and many options have been explored.   It could be an ally who is persuaded to switch sides, or an asset which is repurposed, as in ‘subvertising’ of ad posters or many of the works on the Yes Men in which they borrow identities or corporate venues.  It can also be a real thing which you use to good effect (and then give back – in English law at least, it’s not actually theft if you don’t intend to permanently deprive the owner of it).

  1. Make the Weather

Another political term with connotations of sorcerers ‘talking up the weather’, which means to create a public conversation or mood, an atmosphere which sets expectations and makes some things harder, others easier. This strategy may be needed to first affect the context so as to raise the chances of success for a more specific subsequent intervention to reach your intended change objective. An allied idea is winning the ‘air war’ or media conversation in a political fight (implying though that this may not win the ‘ground war’ of actual behaviours such as voting).

  1. Get the Door Opened for You

A great many campaigns are oppositional. See the hill, take the hill; batter down the door of the opponent. A more effective strategy may be to explore the possibilities for inducing someone to open the door for you. This usually requires inside knowledge, thoroughly understanding the interests and dynamics at work in the target organisation. Campaign groups which become dogmatic and ideologically opposed to a target they ‘love to hate’ rarely look into such possibilities.

  1. Tactical Positioning

Perhaps the most useful of the many ‘stratagems’ proposed by the much quoted and less-read ancient Chinese master strategist Sun Tzu, in his book The Art of War. This says simply to identify your best tactic, and then plan strategies which enable you to use it. Requires some discipline.

  1. Distraction

Like outflanking, ambushes and surprise, a ‘feint’ or attack designed to draw the enemies attention away from one place to another, is a pretty obvious tactic. That’s one type of distraction but distraction need not involve any sort of offensive move. J K Galbraith describes in the Age of Uncertainty how Karl Marx came to write his crucial document Address to the Working Classes. The ‘First International’ a meeting of the ‘stateless proletarians’ intended to form the Marxist ‘organisational weapon’ was held in 1864. An Address was to be written as the key propagandist tract. Galbraith says Marx was appalled at the ‘verbosity, illiteracy and general crudity’ of the draft. So exploiting his role as Secretary, and ‘knowing the subject to be irresistible’, he ‘got the members discussing rules’. With the members suitably distracted, Marx rewrote the seminal text himself. As any parent discovers, the best type of distraction is one the target enjoys.

  1. Surfing

Some of the most prominent campaigners I know are secret or brazen practitioners of issue surfing. Almost all will pay lip service to the importance of systematic ‘strategy’ but disliking the hard slog and tedium of analysis and planning, they instead become expert in deft exploitation of media trends and opportunities, and social debate. This gets attention but an obvious risk is that it really only feeds the needs of the media or social media, and it is no use in making headway ‘against the current’.   Sometimes it does ‘work’ in more instrumental terms and they manage to use frequent and high profile commentary to influence real outcomes in terms of change.

  1. Explaining

Some politicians and campaigners manage to develop a reputation for explaining events, for being meaning-givers.   It could be said that those ‘think tanks’ which are in effect campaign groups, also do this, as their most high profile and wide-cast interventions are usually to explain events which already have significant attention. This strategy avoids the need to create the events, although it is rarely as potent as one which allows a campaign group to create events ‘at will’. It usually requires a long history of reputation making.

  1. Create a ‘Killing Ground’

In military terms this is self-explanatory: it’s an area where the enemy can be targeted and killed, often by using a feature of topography to determine where to site your forces. The equivalent in campaigning, where the ‘killing’ is only metaphorical,  could be cases such as where an opponent which is generally outside public view or beyond the influence of public judgements (eg do or do not buy their products), can be held to account. This might be a stage in a process or cycle where they are unusually vulnerable, or it might be created by changing the context so that they are unusually exposed.

  1. Attrition

Possibly the dullest, least imaginative and often the crudest of all strategies; intended to wear down or wear away an opponent or obstacle. Got a bad name in World War 1 as generals sent waves of men ‘over the top’ from their trenches to be slaughtered in ‘no man’s land’. On the other hand, it suits organisations with a followership, often fairly closed, which actively enjoys the ‘long march’.  A dumb form involves constant effort but informed persistence, never quite stopping altogether and coming back with a bigger push at times of opportunity, is often vital for the long term success of a campaign. See Daphne Wysham’s almost lone 16 year campaign to get the World Bank to stop financing coal plants.

  1. Entryism

Much loved by the ‘old left’ Trotskyists in the UK, this involves infiltrating organisations (typically unions of political parties) and colonising them from within, before changing their policies.   A similar dynamic though can apply in any organisation open to membership of some sort, for example a company that can simply be bought into, or most political or social organisations. On the other hand in social groups (NGOs are no exception), culture is often harder to change than anything else so it’s often quicker and more effective to establish a new organisation, NGO, business or otherwise.

  1. Drain the Swamp

A strategy of force and often last resort but which even cause groups may find themselves faced by if they cannot for example induce regulators to enforce rules, or ‘rules’ for a sector are only voluntary (as in many certification schemes). A way to identify the last remaining sources of the problem or opponents.

  1. Know More About Your Opponent Than They Do

We’ve all seen those spy movies where the handler or interrogator tries to make the subject feel helpless by revealing something the subject thought was private. The idea is that the hapless subject then believes that “we know everything about you”.  Well it can work in real life.   If you do some good research into customers of companies or politicians voters it can give you some great ideas about how to get them on your side. As well as using it to try and activate support, you should at least consider sharing some of this in a pre-launch meeting with your target. It’s unsettling to discover that campaigners know more about you than you do yourself. What else do they know ?

  1. The Slingshot

A way of boosting momentum.

Wikipedia says:

‘In orbital mechanics and aerospace engineering, a gravitational slingshot, gravity assist maneuver, or swing-by is the use of the relative movement (e.g. orbit around the Sun) and gravity of a planet or other astronomical object to alter the path and speed of a spacecraft, typically in order to save propellant, time, and expense. Gravity assistance can be used to accelerate a spacecraft, that is, to increase or decrease its speed and/or redirect its path.

The “assist” is provided by the motion of the gravitating body as it pulls on the spacecraft.[1] It was used by interplanetary probes from Mariner 10 onwards, including the two Voyager probes’ notable flybys of Jupiter and Saturn’.

And there you go. Point being that by luck, your normally obscure topic of concern may suddenly become highly salient because some newsworthy event means a huge number of people are talking about or looking at it. Or could be made to do so because it is suddenly ‘relevant’. For a (typically very) short period you have an opportunity to dominate mindspace and attention at very little cost in time and effort. Timing is of the essence. An environmental (and rather predictable) example is the Olympics. It’s typically a much bigger ‘issue’ or national concern than the environment but for a short time, ‘the nation’ wants to be ‘the best’ in all things in the ‘eyes of the world’ and so it wants the Olympics to be the best in environmental terms too. Used well, this can have a lasting legacy in terms of greater velocity/ momentum for environmental matters in a country, even redirecting trends or pathways.

  1. Signal the Inevitable

Lets’ face it, in most cases your concern is not uppermost in the minds of mainstream decision makers, otherwise you would not need to be campaigning.   They mostly do not feel that they need to pay attention although they may humour you by the occasional invitation to talk. Unelected politicians are some of the worst, and media are no better: they are mostly ultra-short-term, interested only in how they perform on the day. Governments and some businesses (and investors) however, do plan for the future, at least a bit. This is where analytical evidence can play a role. If you can show that (your desired) change is eventually inevitable, the custodians of the ‘long view’ will start to mark-up your priorities. Back in the 1980s two of the earliest inside-track allies for ‘doing something’ about climate change were the NATO military who had long-trend secret measurements of thinning arctic ice (their preferred hiding place for nuclear missile submarines), and the re-insurance industry (whose existence was and is threatened by increasingly severe weather impacts).

But it’s not pure analytics which is in play here. Concepts like the ‘ratchet of history’ illustrated by lookalike technology change (the horse gave way to the combustion engine car, that will give way to …) are intuitive frames which politicians use to convince themselves and others that some change is inevitable.

  1. Be the Zeitgeist

Be most in step with the public mood. ‘The defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time: zeitgeist’. If you get known (get a track record) as a group which is one-step-ahead in terms of the developing or breaking public mood or concern, your views and concerns carry weight with those who think that sort of thing is important. And that includes some values groups (see subsequent post), and any company or politician which is playing to the ‘leading edge’ (currently for example, Apple).   Polling plays some role in this.

You don’t have to brilliant at it, only better than your opponent who has to suffer something by not being as good at it. How you do campaigning is important in achieving this.

  1. Shoot the Fox

This involves removing a key point of opposition’s strategy: it is often competitor related (in politics) but as it essentially about removing cause to be concerned or focus attention, it can affect any campaign. See here for a good example from Simon Wright of Save The Children. It can also work the other way round, ie to the advantage of the campaigners.

  1. Smoke Out Silent Beneficiaries

Very often campaign groups struggle away making change and other players benefit.   They may remain the ’silent majority’ but more important, they are silent beneficiaries. Force them to take a view, get them off the fence and you can increase the weight behind your campaign considerably but be careful, as being too belligerent may have the opposite result. Achieving your objective may be hugely important to you but only one of several options to make an advance for them. Often, enabling them to align with your cause without visibly joining it, will make it easier to shift them Natural justice is on your side in these cases because of the effort and exchange heuristics: it’s wrong to gain by others efforts without actually helping yourself. Make it just uncomfortable enough to stop them staying ‘neutral’ or silent. They have usually been lying low and hoping not to be noticed.

  1. Pin the Blame

This is a political favourite and the sort of thing that gets politicians a bad name but almost everybody does it.  Something bad happens: it’s an opportunity to attach the blame, which often has consequences. Don’t be too squeamish.

  1. Shift Dimensions

Effective campaigns usually need to be multi-dimensional and you may have ‘mined’ the potential of one (eg scientific, economic, technical) but not another (eg spiritual, emotional). So a strategy of re-casting the campaign in another dimension may enliven it and open up opportunities to make rapid progress. The main obstacles to this are usually internal.

  1. Change the Players

This is the sort of thing they teach about in business school because a classic example is competition dynamics where a ‘market entrant’ upsets the apple cart. For instance, renewable energy technologies were for decades dominated by enterprises owned by oil companies. Advantage to campaigners trying to get renewables taken seriously: government listened to oil companies. Disadvantage: they had a structural interest in keeping renewables as a ‘bet hedge’ while they mined value from fossil fuels. So levering new players with no such cross interests into the market (eg electronics companies) was a good second step strategy.

  1. Mainstreaming

Few campaigns being life ‘in the mainstream’. This is partly for reasons of values (to be covered by some strategies in a subsequent list) as well as because most campaigns are about trying to change established (mainstream) practices. Many however reach a point where they need more mainstream support to progress.   The best way to make a ‘message’ mainstream is often to use a mainstream messenger, which may mean starting with one or two ‘messengers’ that mainstream media is interested in or gives space or attention to, for other reasons. This usually means that campaign groups which are not themselves seen as mainstream, have to ‘let go’ of ‘the message’. Campaign groups which intentionally or by default spend most of their effort talking to their existing base, may never achieve this. It can need a deliberate effort and investment, including working with organisations with a broader reach than your own.

  1. Cut off the Means to Persist

A classic military strategy designed to sap the strength or ability of the enemy to continue. Not an attempt to persuade the opponent or to directly overcome them.  An example might be cutting supply lines or some other key factor such as the support of an ally. Campaign planners need to do force field and power analysis to study this, understanding and breaking down the requirements of the opponent’s operation to find one or another element that can be changed. For instance they might rely on the support or involvement of a particular group in society, which may not be aware of your case, so suggesting a new focus in a communications strategy.

  1. Make the Intangible Tangible

Campaigns conceived because of scientific or other ‘expert’ knowledge frequently fail to engage a wider audience because the impact of the problem remains intangible to most people. For example if they do not see evidence of it now, they may assume it only exists elsewhere or in the future or the past, even when they themselves are affected. Making something more visible, or more disruptive to everyday life, are two ways to change this, whether directly or by introducing proxy indicators such as signs of its presence.  Religions do it by having costumes, building temples, creating ceremonies and so on.

  1. Bear Witness

The founding principle of campaigning by the religious group The Quakers.  The Quakers believe that one should be truthful and honest and avoid statements that are technically correct but misleading. In campaigns it has come to mean that if you are present at a point where something wrong is happening you say so, and try to stop it in a non-violent way. If it cannot be stopped, it is at least exposed.   Anti-nuclear Quaker campaigns (which started with the voyage of the Golden Rule in 1958) played a key role in inspiring the formation of Greenpeace (in 1971), which adopted ‘bearing witness’ as a central element of its strategy of non-violent direct action.

  1. Make the ‘Impossible’ Happen

A classic error in campaign planning is to omit from the plan anything that seems impossible. This is where the truisms of politics (the art of the possible) do not transfer to campaigning, which is partly the art of the impossible. Making the ‘impossible’ happen can sometimes be hugely inspirational, even it is only temporary. That can then transform what is possible. There are many things people disapprove of, or would like to happen but which they do nothing about because change seems impossible (‘values expectancy’). Whether by stopping the problem if only momentarily, or implementing a solution, even if it cannot be sustained for an extended period of real time, showing that it can be done, is a powerful way to build a constituency for insisting that it be done.

  1. The Telescope

Campaigns using this strategy bring forwards the future consequences of not acting now and ‘actualise’ it in a compelling way. Or recover something better from the past to show that such a reality could be resurrected or retrieved.

  1. Change the Victim

Campaigns which show that a class of victims are suffering that decision-makers and the audiences they care about have a high empathy with, are more likely to succeed that those where the putative victims are people or things they do not much care about. (Campaigners who want to change who the decision makers or secondary audiences care about need to do that first: just telling them to care is unlikely to work.). A simple example is the baby heuristic.   Humans are hardwired to care about babies (the baby heuristic) and small children, more than they do about other humans, as illustrated by the famous ‘Edinburgh Wallet Experiment’.   So make your campaign about babies as victims and odds are that it will become more effective. [This can also include finding a victim where there appears to be none].

  1. Give Away the Credit

In this strategy you make someone else the beneficiary of you winning, thereby recruiting them into the effort.  Not taking the credit of course has its downsides as if you do it too often, your organisation does not appear to be effective, at least for audiences outside the cognoscenti. It may even involve campaigning to incentivise agreement by putting in work to advance the interests of the decision maker but at the very least, sensible campaigners will thank an organisation or individual which has done what they asked for, and preferably try to enlist them as allies for further change.


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One Response to 48 Campaign Strategies

  1. alisdair says:

    There was an RTS in Germany recently when a Bavarian mayor sent a bus fill of refugees up to Chancellor Merkel’s private residence.

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