The Millennial Way of Engaging With Politics

How might we involve young adults in politics?

This was co-written by Melissa Kim and Weiwei Hsu

This article is dedicated to people who are designing for young adults, inspired directly by our conversations with young adults during our 10-week project collaborating with ACLU Northern California.

Politics has been a particularly hot topic in the past two years, for better or worse. Young people in particular are experiencing overwhelming emotions and feelings of hopelessness in face of a life they feel they have little control over. As young adults ourselves, it’s tempting to settle for feelings of hopelessness. Sure, we can retweet, post a photo of “I voted early,” share a concerning article on social media, but what else can we do? How do we encourage other young people like ourselves to get involved politically, and how should we think about political engagement? With those questions in mind, we worked with our client ACLU Northern California to curate a campaign focused on educating and engaging young adults with the topic of District Attorney.

No pressure, right? To be honest, there were several moments throughout the project where the two of us were tempted to panic.

What do people mean when they say “millennial” anyway? It wasn’t until we spoke with several designers and young adults who do and don’t actively pay attention to politics that we began to understand who we were really designing for. Then, we put a considerable amount of time into studying existing products, shows, and experiences that are successfully making politics understandable and actionable for the demographic. Some of them are probably very familiar to you: NowThis, Vox, Saturday Night Life (SNL), Last Week Tonight (LWT), & Cards Against Humanity (CAH). (From this point onward, we will refer to them as The Five.) What do they all have in common? What aspects make them so effective? Here are our top 6 findings in no particular order:

1. Young Adults > “Millennials”

First of all, the key to reaching millennials is to not call them “millennials”. Over time, the word has taken on mostly negative connotations. When it’s not being used to criticize entire generations of individuals, “millennial” is used to summarize a target audience for marketing purposes.

No one enjoys being associated with negative connotations, especially ones you don’t identify with. Would you? Additionally, when companies use “millennial” without its negative connotation, millennials understand that they’re being marketed to (often hidden under a subtle front), and they don’t appreciate that either. Thus the first step to winning their trust is to stop using that word and calling “millennials” something else. We chose to refer to them as “young adults,” given that we were designing an experience for any young person who relies on The Five for their political know-how, and is also eligible to vote.

2. Be Relevant: Use Social Media

In a recent study looking at social media usage, it was revealed that 54% of U.S. citizens between 18–29 years old get their news from social media. If you want to reach young adults, you need to meet them where they’re at, on the platforms where they’re consuming information. If you don’t, you risk implying that you’re not relevant. “If you’re not social, you don’t exist — at least not in the eyes of millennials. They expect businesses to be tech-savvy and adept at social media.”

3. Digestable Content: Strong Visuals + Sensational Conversation

How do we design something that can be experienced in 2 seconds, 2 minutes, and 2 hours?

2 seconds: Content producers and designers know that people spend mere seconds on content, so how have The Five been attracting attention? In a sea of content, colorful photos, graphics, and GIFs automatically draw the eye and make users pause their scrolling just a few seconds longer.

2 minutes: Once you have people’s initial attention, hook them again with the text. The Five use hashtags or sensational titles and sentences with a character limit that immediately convey the overall idea, or a summary that elicits a reaction. While this is nothing new in news, young adults rely on articles written with an almost conversational tone that get an immediate emotional reaction — “What! Really?!” — that motivates the reader to further engage with the content and comments and learn more. Keep it short and simple.

2 hours: The content itself, depending on the brand voice of each of The Five, dials up and down the amount of detail in each piece. NowThis content is not designed for 2-hour engagement, but Vox often provides links to longer, more detailed articles, which one can easily spend lots of time reading. CAH primarily promotes its initiatives using strong visual hierarchy on its websites. SNL and LWT rely on their video content, so they trim the shows into shorter videos to make it more digestable. This parallels how people consume entertainment media shows like Game of Thrones, This is Us, or Jessica Jones. Their engagement has been built through 2 seconds (sneak peak gifs) to 2 mins (trailers for the shows) to 2 hours, revealing everything people want to know and answering all the questions.

4. No Bullshit

Since young adults can sense when they’re being advertised to, watered-down and neutral news coverage is not interesting. Get to the point! Tell it to them straight without flowery language (and maybe some profanity), and without being so politically safe that you cease to say anything meaningful.

5. Relatable [Dark] Humor

“If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh or they will kill you.” -Oscar Wilde

Dark humor is humor that has a dark twist to it; what would normally horrify or disgust, has become absurdly amusing. Young adults enjoy dark humor not because of its darkness, but because of its honesty.

Apart from public Facebook pages and groups designed to share memes and other humorous content, students in colleges across the US have created their own college pages and groups on Facebook. There, students can display the memes they make — some posts garnering 1,000s of views and reactions within hours of being uploaded. Arguably, these meme pages are the best place to discern the current emotions, thoughts, and opinions in young adults’ lives.

In just 15 hours, this meme gained over 1.7k reactions on Facebook

6. Coping Mechanism

Laughing and venting are coping mechanisms. In this way, The Five help young adults cope with the stress they experience in the current political climate.

If young adults don’t laugh, they feel like crying. With the political meltdown, it is already very easy to feel powerless and pessimistic. With bad news coming in everyday, young adults are either becoming desensitized to issues, or they just don’t want to hear it anymore. SNL and LWT have found a way to share unfortunate information with young adults while highlighting and critiquing the information for their entertainment. In sharing relatable content with friends, young adults look for affirmation from their peers and are able to cope with their emotions.

7. Fresh Methods of Engagement: Physical Mail, Stickers, and Products

Young adults enjoy receiving physical mail. Crazy as it may seem, the studies are convincing and it makes sense when you consider how young adults are constantly immersed in digital information. Phone vibration, new text message, new calendar invite — information is constantly thrown in their face. Receiving physical mail is more rare and thus more exciting––more trustworthy even.

Pins and stickers are another form of expression about young adults are and what they support

The Five each have their own way of making themselves attractive. Cards Against Humanity in particular is shockingly successful, especially because it doesn’t share news like the other example groups we’ve listed. Before the 2016 presidential election in North America, CAH released a Donald Trump Bug-Out-Bag, saying they had $25 bags packed with necessities to survive the impending end of the world should Trump be elected. All 10,000 bags sold out in an hour. In their most recent campaign over Christmas, Cards Against Humanity Saves America made a new proposition: “You pay us $15, and we will give you 7 surprises while we save America.” They sold out in one day. Later, they announced that the money went towards giving back to those donors who were less fortunate, as well as buying a piece of land to stall development of the wall being built between the US and Mexico. CAH effectively transformed people’s stress and uncertainty into something actionable in a fresh, engaging way.

How Cards Against Humanity Saves America worked

Conclusion

NowThis, Vox, Saturday Night Life, Last Week Tonight, & Cards Against Humanity are just a few of many, many platforms that have successfully engaged the younger demographic in political topics. There are many more we could have mentioned, such as the Daily Show, Young Turks, or AJ+. They are engaging/interesting because they are accessible in a familiar way to generations that have become accustomed to technology and being extremely connected.

These 7 points aim to support an understanding of young adults and what types of content or tone appeals to them. These commonalities that we have simply observed are meant to be simple insights into the way young adults often consume news and information or engage with political topics, but we do not assume that all young adults do so in this way.

What we learned in all of this is complex. As young adults and designers who are also included in the “millennial” demographic, we inevitably had moments of self-reflection. What would motivate us to get involved in politics? What determines or distinguishes the way we consume our news from the way most of our peers do? How can ACLU implement these 7 points in a campaign strategy that has the potential to change the future of districts all over the country? Specifically, the idea of “designing for 2 seconds, 2 minutes, and 2 hours” stayed with us the most and gave us a tangible goal to work towards even in the midst of confusion and continuous iteration. Additionally, we approached this project differently than we have our other projects by learning to think together through paper.

Melissa and Weiwei brainstorming campaign strategy

If you happen to be brainstorming your own political campaign strategy to reach young adults, hopefully these 7 points can be guidelines for you to first understand who your audience is, and then inform and shape your campaign in such a way that young adults can engage with your message or movement. You might even consider involving young adults in the initial crafting of your strategy.

How did we do it? Learn more about how we implemented our 7 points into our project and our progress by reading Designing for ACLU Nor Cal — Behind the Scenes:


Thank you

This project benefited from many of our friends and teachers’ help. We would like to express our gratitude to:

Ana Zamora, Scott Thomas, Ben Barry, Charnell McQueen, Christina Worsing, Diana Chavez-Varela, Eric Heiman, Gopika Prabhu, Karen Camacho, Renna Al-Yassini, Miles Robinson, Miki Setlur, all participants of our polls.

Thank you for reading this, if you have any feedback or would like to discuss further, please write to us (melissagkim@gmail.com and wei@weiweihsu.com). We hope that this writing will help someone somewhere, just like how our friends and teachers have helped us as we struggled.

This was co-written by Melissa Kim and Weiwei Hsu.