Trump and Brexit used a new digital organizing tool to help achieve their surprise victories
President-elect Donald Trump credits social media as a key to his victory. Unorthodox and underdog campaigns are more willing to try new technologies. Founded only two years ago, we were hired to build the official UK Vote Leave and Donald Trump for President smartphone apps because our platform excels at taking dispersed communities and uniting them with a sense of purpose, producing explosive results, thereby helping to influence the outcome of elections.
This is the inside story of how we applied the lessons we learned during the successful Vote Leave campaign to aid in Donald Trump’s historic victory, and leapfrogged the left in mobile campaign tech.
I founded uCampaign in 2014 in reaction to Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012 — and specifically, their missed opportunity to utilize their smartphone app. I believed the right could and must do a better job engaging our supporters online and giving them the everyday tools they needed to become activists. That took the form of an Android/iOS smartphone app which we customize to each client. I dared to dream that we would be in a position to assist the campaign that would win the White House by building the 2016 Republican nominee’s official smartphone app. That dream came true on November 8th.
The fact that we also were able to assist in the surprise victory of the Vote Leave coalition was an added bonus. But more than that, the Brexit campaign taught us valuable lessons and gave experience that we then applied to the app we built for Donald Trump for President shortly thereafter.
Campaigns tend to think of digital and data as ways to raise money and persuade undecided voters. We approach digital as a way to mobilize existing supporters and equip them to be digital activists.
For Vote Leave, our main goal for the app was to make it easy for Vote Leave activists to inform their friends and family that they were supporting Leave, so that as many individuals as possible would know they were not alone in supporting the “unpopular” side of the vote.
In general, it is harder to unite the grassroots right than it is to unite the grassroots left because both in America and the UK , the political right has less grassroots structure than the left. But precisely because the right tends to be less organized, if they do get organized they can greatly improve their chances of victory.
Digital tools like a smartphone app are a great way to get people organized quickly. Our app was a last-minute addition to the Leave campaign: we launched a little more than three weeks before the vote …so we had to work fast.
The Vote Leave team aggressively promoted the app and quickly onboarded 35,000 of their top activists. Downloading the app was the first thing they asked new online volunteers to do. Once they were on the app, our work began.
We provided an array of engagement options such as watching videos, sharing Vote Leave campaign messages to their Facebook and Twitter, inviting their friends to download the app, playing trivia (which served an educational purpose), filling out a volunteer survey if they had not already, and counting down to the all-important referendum day:
When supporters did take action, they earned Action Points (AP) and unlocked Activist Badges as they made their way up the ranks — they could see their progress over time on their unique profile page, where they could also fill-in their personal bio:
The top unlocked badge appeared next to their username in the in-app Leaderboard screens and when they posted on the in-app newsfeed — where they could choose to add each other as friends and then use the app for peer-to-peer messaging with the friends they had made who also supported Leave.
In short, we created a self-contained social network for activists of Vote Leave to connect, mingle and take action. We learned from them what kind of actions they wanted to do, and we modified and added features (like better peer-to-peer messaging and a way to search the Newsfeed) as they requested them.
The top action we encouraged them to complete was to “Go all in for Vote Leave”: the app prompted activists to go through their entire phone address book and send everyone a pre-written message explaining why they intended to vote LEAVE.
They sent tens of thousands of such personal messages, right through the election day and to the closing of the polls:
When was the last time someone close to you sent a text or email explaining which way they were voting on a national issue, and why? If you did receive such a message, wouldn’t it grab your attention?
This novel and effective message (with a 99% delivery and read rate) cut through the noise and left a strong impression.
When the reports started coming in that Vote Leave was actually leading in the returns, activists poured back into the app to celebrate their surprise victory into the wee hours, because that’s where they could find their friends and community.
Months later, the app community is still active, because activists found and became lasting friends.
Brexit gave us a taste of victory. Little did we know it was only the appetizer for what was to come later.
The official Donald Trump for President app, named America First, soft launched during the final week of August this year with a tweet from Mr. Trump (of course!):
Again, we faced a narrow window of time and opportunity to run up the numbers — 74 days.
At the beginning we focused on engagement (particularly leading up to and during the debates) and donations (activists received Action Points for donating). Later we released an integrated crowdfunding tool which allowed activists to share a custom fundraising URL which would give them credit for any donations they raised from family and friends.
The Action Badges we had created earlier for the Vote Leave app, based on the various levels of the British army, were extremely popular, because they allowed activists to show off their achievements on behalf of the campaign and be recognized by their peers on the app.
So for the America First App, the Trump team came up with a new set of custom badges: every supporter began as an “Apprentice” but could quickly move up to TrumpTrain, and eventually higher badges like MAGA and BigLeague.
The first big action we promoted was asking activists to recruit their friends and family via text and email. We gave every activists a personal invite code so we could track successful invitations. This encouraged the app to grow virally; they could invite friends not just via email and text, but through their phone’s share-to-other apps function. One of the top activists successfully brought over 600 of his friends and followers from his social network.
Some of the first people to download the app were top Trump activists in other online communities — Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, etc. — and when they joined the app, personal invite codes allowed them to bring their followers along with them. Plus, entering a personal invite code also automatically made them in-app friends, so they could stay connected with one another.
This featured allowed us to onboard over 10,000 new activists at no additional cost to the campaign. Every new login generated a new confirmed email, cell phone number or facebook ID/login for the campaign’s data team, plus whatever demographic data the activists chose to share — many chose to fill in all thirteen profile fields that we offer, simply to rack up some extra Action Points and help the campaign fill in their picture of them.
On the Vote Leave app, the open Newsfeed — which allowed activists to post comments unfiltered — was a huge driver of activity. For the America First app, we built moderating tools so the Newsfeed could still include activist-generated content, but it would pass through a live team of screeners first, to keep the atmosphere copacetic.
We introduced the (pre-moderated) public Newsfeed on the day of the third presidential debate, and it became a prime driver of engagement for the final stage of the campaign.
21st Century Digital GOTV
Our main development effort for this app was focused on the GOTV phase of the campaign. For Vote Leave we asked activists to go “All in” and tell everyone they knew they were voting leave.
For the America First app, we strove to make this tool more targeted and effective for both the campaign and the activist.
It took some time and effort to get all the moving pieces together, but in the final three weeks we deployed a groundbreaking feature which enabled the app to match the phone address book contacts of supporters to a voter universe.
On top of that, we gave iPhone users instructions on syncing their address book contacts’ Facebook information to their phone, and from there they could sync that information with the America First app, thereby somewhat recreating the vaunted tool the Obama campaign took advantage of in 2008 and 2012. (Some outlets claimed the Hillary Clinton app had successfully copied this feature which my team developed, but I’ve seen no persuasive evidence they ever deployed it. We did.)
Our tool allowed the Trump campaign to identify their activists with the most influence and connections. Sometimes the results were striking: one top activist had 879 individuals in his contact list who matched the Trump persuadable model. Overall the app was able to reach out to a combined network of over three million contacts to find matches.
And because our app allowed the campaign to know exactly who each contact was, they could deliver granular messages to different segments of contacts based on what issues they thought would persuade them to support Trump.
As a user on the America First app, scrolling through my custom list of friends to message, clicking on one contact I might be prompted by the app to send this message:
Hey! America has lost nearly 1/3 of its manufacturing jobs since NAFTA and 50,000 factories since China joined the WTO.
I support Trump today b/c he will negotiate trade deals that will bring new jobs, increase wages, and reduce America’s trade deficit. He‘ll put America First because he knows that Americanism, not globalism, will give our economy the boost it needs.
Will you pledge to vote with me TODAY? Click here to learn more: https://www.donaldjtrump.com/policies/trade/
Clicking on a different friend in my phone book, I might be asked to send this message:
Hi! So many American families were deeply affected by Obamacare. Healthcare should be about patients, not politics. Keeping our families healthy is much more expensive now — that’s why we have to vote for Donald Trump today.
Trump will repeal Obamacare and replace it with a healthcare plan that works for ALL Americans, and provides the flexibility to care for their family in the best way for them.
You can read more about Donald Trump’s healthcare proposals here → http://bit.ly/2d
And so on.
The campaign had over 30 distinct messages to send to dozens of unique segments. So everyone received the message the campaign believed had the maximum potential to persuade and turn them out.
Moreover, this tool allowed the Trump campaign to leverage their blue state support in effective ways: two of the most active states on the app were California and New York — neither were red states or swing states, but through the app, these Trump activist knew which of their friends in Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina and a dozen other states they needed to contact, and which message to send each contact.
By November 8th, we had the numbers on the app to help influence the outcomes in tight states. The app had been downloaded almost 150,000 times. Hundreds of thousands of peer-to-peer text messages and emails had been sent, some targeted and pre-populated by the campaign, others customized and selected by the activists themselves.
A brief analysis of the three (arguably most surprising) states won by Donald Trump show the story in raw numbers:
The app had 3,594 digital activists in Michigan, and activists across the country contacted 5,507 Michigan voters with peer-to-peer GOTV messages.
Trump won Michigan by 11,837 votes.
The app had 1,332 digital activists in Wisconsin, and activists across the country contacted 2,330 Wisconsin voters with peer-to-peer GOTV messages.
Trump won Wisconsin by 27,257 votes.
The app had 5,276 digital activists in Pennsylvania, and activists across the country contacted 8,931 Pennsylvania voters with peer-to-peer GOTV messages.
Trump won Pennsylvania by 68,236 votes.
Remember, these were not messages directly from the Trump campaign. These were messages from family, friends and neighbors of the men and women that were making up their minds about whom to support. Messages like these are much harder to ignore and have the potential to be much more persuasive to an undecided voter.
On top of this, activists in these three states shared 17,000 Facebook and Twitter persuasion messages. Messages like “I Voted for Trump-Pence 2016”, or a YouTube video: “Trump’s Argument for America”. The app provided activists a link to share to find the right polling location. The app also raised money to deploy even more persuasion messages through other channels.
By the end of the campaign, activists on the app had earned a combined 124,500,000 Action Points by performing over 1,200,000 actions.
And they had won the White House.
Simultaneous to the America First app, we created standalone apps for the successful reelections of Senators Rand Paul and Ron Johnson, as well as the Republican National Committee’s Lead Right 2016 app, which allowed Republicans up and down the ballot to have access to our platform. We were also running apps for national advocacy groups such as Americans for Prosperity and the National Rifle Association, which generated hundreds of thousands of additional actions.
We helped create a wave of Republican digital activism leading up to election day.
And because of the shared nature of our platform, all the apps we run benefit from the improvements and breakthroughs we make for one app. This allowed us to deliver amazing results to a wide range of clients in a short period of time.
With the election over, we are now planning on expanding our offerings to include more and varied advocacy applications, international clients, and to prepare the next level of features for 2017 local and statewide races.
Please leave a comment or question in the comments and I will try to respond.
And don’t hesitate to get in touch if you want uCampaign for your cause, candidate or company:
What do you think the future of mobile organizing looks like?