Review: Facebook’s New Town Hall Advocacy Tool

Mike Young, Aristotle’s SVP, Account Management: I’m sure you’ve heard about Facebook launching itself into advocacy with the release of their Town Hall tool. Given the role social media played in the last election and the days since, it’s no surprise that Facebook is dipping its toes in the advocacy pool.

With Town Hall, Facebook users can plug in their home address to view a list of their lawmakers on both state and national levels. While this seems like a great advocacy tool, there are a few caveats. Most notably: Town Hall’s data isn’t complete; only lawmakers with Facebook pages appear in the search results.

While there’s much to be said for using social media in advocacy efforts, we all know how vital it is to have complete, accurate, up-to-date data housed in one central location—a robust application that’s intuitive and incredibly easy for everyone in your organization to use.

Another area I found to be lacking is in communications. Facebook Town Hall doesn’t have sample forms for constituents to use. Instead, the onus is on the voter to reach out to their lawmaker—either on Facebook, the legislator’s website or via email.

Facebook Town Hall is a nice attempt at connecting voters to their lawmakers, but it falls short. The data isn’t reliable or for that matter complete, it’s cumbersome for voters to communicate with legislators and as Aristotle’s 360 Product Manager Kevin Fitzgerald will explain below, there are many technical issues.

Kevin Fitzgerald, Aristotle’s 360 Product Manager: I am fascinated by the sheer number of companies entering, and often leaving, the advocacy space with their own take on how advocacy can be conducted online.

Facebook is just the latest company to venture into the advocacy space and they should be commended for their attempt to facilitate dialogue between their users and legislators. Unfortunately, based on their new advocacy app Facebook Town Hall, they may be doing more harm than good in connecting their users to legislators.

The app suffers from issues similar to other recent entrants, with respect to data and the obvious lack of familiarity with the nuances associated with communicating with elected leaders.

Town Hall attempts to match individuals to their legislators based on the individual’s home address. Even a cursory review illustrates gaps in their data that impact legislator accuracy and means of contact.

I found multiple examples where valid addresses failed to return legislator(s) at the state level. When legislators were returned there were numerous examples where Town Hall returned URLs instead of a valid email when clicking the “email” button. Advocates sending those emails would quickly receive undeliverable responses.

Those of us working in the industry probably smiled as we readily understood the cause of this issue—congressional Web forms.

This lack of industry understanding, beyond bad data and a confusing user interface, is the app’s real issue and its fatal flaw. Facebook failed to grasp that Congress is looking for valid constituent communication and the ability to create a dialogue with their voters.

Congressional Web forms serve multiple purposes: to validate that the individual is a constituent and to provide context for the communication, making it possible for the legislator’s internal constituent management software to review and respond efficiently and on topic.

As the app currently stands, neither the interest of the advocate nor the legislator’s office is served. This may do more harm than good. It calls into question the legislator’s commitment to beginning a dialogue with constituents.

Facebook Town Hall was designed to specifically enable communications between Facebook users and their legislators, as opposed to an organized group hoping to express their perspective on an issue.

Yet based on implementation, Facebook Town Hall may create further skepticism with users regarding their elected leader’s willingness to listen. In my opinion, this is a missed opportunity for Facebook and one that could have been easily avoided if they had taken time to understand the needs of both the user and the intended recipient.

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