The Zoldak Agency and the Hall Tax: Client campaign inspires

The “Beacon Center repeals the Hall Tax” campaign is a finalist in five categories in the 2017 Reed Awards, including Best Public Affairs Campaign, Best Advocacy Social Media Campaign, and Best Online Advertising Campaign.

The most crystalline political lesson of 2016 is, perhaps, that no politician or issue can survive without the support of average Americans. As the Zoldak Agency looks back over the last year, our wonderful clients, and their many proud accomplishments, this lesson stands out; not the least because the Wall Street Journal touted one of the Zoldak Agency’s 2016 digital advocacy campaigns as living proof of it.

In “The Spoils of the Republican State Conquest,” the Wall Street Journal attributes the success of state issue campaigns waged, won, and weighed by Republicans in 2016 to campaign strategies that emphasized communicating with average Americans. The Beacon Center of Tennessee’s campaign to repeal the state’s Hall Income Tax is singled out in the WSJ piece as an example of why communications strategies have evolved to speak to the public instead of just elected officials. An article in the American Spectator also lists the repeal of the Hall Tax as one of it’s top five “most exciting policy victories” for the little guy in 2016.

What is the Hall Tax? After years of trying various strategies to educate the public about the Hall Tax, Beacon’s own polls found that only 17 percent of Tennesseans even knew about it. Existing for years as an asterisk to Tennessee’s proud claim as an income tax-free state, efforts to repeal the 6 percent tax on investment income were impeded by a public that, when they did know about it, misunderstood it as something only a few, very wealthy Tennesseans must pay. This public misperception meant that even lawmakers who agreed with its repeal felt unable to publicly oppose the tax.

Enter the Zoldak Agency.

Beacon’s repeal effort needed more than a shot in the arm, it needed the Zoldak Agency to lead “what its president called an ‘all-out siege’ on the state’s Hall Tax.” Heading digital advertising strategy for the Hall Tax repeal campaign, the Zoldak Agency changed the way people were talking about the tax and built an educated and engaged community of advocates who joined Beacon in demanding legislative action. And, as the Wall Street Journal wrote, “It did the trick. In May the governor signed legislation that will phase out the Hall Tax by 2022.”

First, a new narrative presented the Hall Tax as “not in the Tennessee Way” and explained that it impacted all Tennesseans by punishing those who work hard and save as well as pushing small businesses and families out of state.

Advancing the use of digital in advocacy. With this new perspective in mind, digital content including videos, ads, social media pages and content, and a micro-site were created. The first weeks of the campaign focused on a football-themed “Tackle the Hall Tax” video that replicated an energetic sports news show and targeted to voters in key legislative districts. As views on the video climbed into the hundreds of thousands, the campaign used a technique called geo-fencing to send 15 second animated videos to state lawmakers and their staffers that began with an update on how many Tennesseans had watched the video. The power of the average American shone through and as the number of people who viewed the video grew, the number of legislators who clicked on the ad grew with it.

Achieving high action rates requires time and patience. Once the public was demonstrably engaged, ad data identified ideal advocates for the campaign to ask to take action, such as sign petitions and email legislators. This strategy of patience – educate, engage, then ask to take action once ideal advocates are identified – not only curates a trusting and involved group of supporters but also saves money by avoiding reaching out to those unlikely to take part. Within just a few weeks, a petition to repeal the Hall Tax garnered 4,500 signatures. When the bill to repeal the Hall Tax went to the state general assembly, the campaign asked the signatories to email their legislators – resulting in an astounding 75,000 total emails sent to Tennessee’s elected officials urging the repeal of the Hall Tax.

What’s next? The Beacon Center’s battle with the Hall Tax is over, but, as the Wall Street Journal notes, there’s many more ahead. Luckily for future issue advocacy campaigns, the success of the Beacon Center Hall Tax campaign is proving a fantastic example in its think-tank community, The State Policy Network, which is a federation of 65 free-market think-tanks located across the United States. “When the network’s think tanks gathered in October to compare notes—what’s working in one place that could be adapted to another?—the Beacon Center presented an hour-long case study. ‘This Hall Tax,’ [Tracie Sharp, president of the State Policy Network,] says, ‘has got people inspired now.’”

Coming soon. Look for more ways that the Zoldak Agency is winning state, multi-state and federal advocacy campaigns for our clients in 2017.

Why launch a grassroots action plan?

Your organization has many moving parts – likely media outreach, fundraising, events, member relations, website content management and more. Ultimately, all of these activities support your core mission. That mission is to effect public policy decisions. It is important to take a moment to ask yourself: Is your organization absolutely as effective as it could be in achieving your mission?

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