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From Door-to-Door to Screen-to-Screen: Digital organizing in the age of COVID-19

by Chelsea Bukowski and Rebecca Rinkevich

There is no better way to shift opinions and humanize a campaign than person-to-person conversations with voters. But even before COVID-19, the best field team couldn’t talk to every voter as many times as needed without digital tools. Now, as all campaigning becomes virtual, they’re all we have left.

But before jumping in, remember, there is no-one-size-fits-all approach to the tools and tactics that will accomplish your goals, best reach your audience, or communicate your message most clearly. We’ve put together some considerations for your campaign as you shift from in-person organizing to virtual campaigning. But, as always, stay true to your mission and be authentic while you adapt and modernize .

What does organizing look like during social distancing?

Bring direct voter contact online. Without face-to-face communications, virtual phone banking and texting is more critical than ever. But this tactical shift only works if you also invest in improving data and supporting volunteers. Updating phone lists and training volunteers to accurately track data is critical to maximizing reach and contact rate, as well as finding the optimal mode of contact for each voter. Making small changes to existing paid media and organic programs, like adding an optional SMS field to forms, can dramatically improve phone lists and provide organizers with fresh leads.

Before investing in new organizing tactics, think about your audience. No single tactic works for every audience which means that you’ll need to think critically about how your audience interacts with technology and politics. What can that look like?

  • Younger audiences will be harder to reach because we have gathered less data for them and they are less likely to have the same address for a long period of time so mail and mass text platforms will be less effective. To reach this group, consider a relational voter contact program that leverages the data that volunteers already have.
  • If you’re trying to reach an older or more suburban audience, consider gathering data through social media platforms like Facebook and using mass text programs that rely on existing data files.

Help trusted messengers connect with their networks on your behalf. Digital organizing is about more than 1:1 conversations. Leveraging supporters’ existing networks, and the people they trust the most, by having them publish content from their accounts or sending emails to their lists is critical to achieving the scale needed to distribute your message and build a volunteer base. And while we’re laser focused on this now, deputizing influencers and surrogates isn’t new. We worked with NextGen America to run paid media social media accounts owned by organizers. Doing so gave our program access to new audiences, ensured our messenger was credible, and the message was authentic.

Example promoted tweets from NextGen organizers

Create pathways for everyone to participate. Digital organizing is about more than just fundraising. We can offer supporters and volunteers many ways to support the campaign — from things as simple as registering to vote or sharing content, to bigger asks like sharing personal stories and virtual volunteering. Engagement with the campaign can and should be scalable to what folks are comfortable with, especially in such an uncertain time as this. So try to deputize volunteers to engage with atypical activities. For example, moderating organic Facebook groups or acting as a content distribution network to amplify campaign messaging.

What should our messaging be during a pandemic?

When it comes to undecided voter communications, campaign like you will govern. It’s critical that we meet voters where they are — worried about their loved ones, their health, their livelihoods. Voter communications should be focused on checking in, helping connect voters to resources, and listening to their story.

Use your convening power to support your communities. From connecting constituents to existing hotlines and information portals, to gathering and distributing information on efforts like food banks and ways to support local business — campaigns have a unique opportunity to use their operations to offer localized support. We’ve seen campaigns use their email list to fundraise for food banks, candidates use their platforms to clarify stay at home orders, and act as a megaphone for people who otherwise might not get the help they need.

Make sure any surrogate-driven content is authentic, but on message. Platforms are frequently adjusting the rules for talking about the pandemic. This means that you will need to work closely with any surrogates and influencers pushing out content on your behalf to ensure that it meets those guidelines and provides high-quality information.

The distinction between your recruitment lists and voter ID lists has never been more important. Your asks of likely volunteers and likely voters can and should be different. Closely tracking IDs and leads will be critical to thoughtfully making harder asks. While this is not the time for a hard sell to just any likely voter, those who have expressed interest should still be funneled into volunteer recruitment and given a range of ways to support the campaign.

How do you get started?

Don’t get too sucked into the weeds of what individual features tools do or don’t have — focus on your core needs. Regardless of what tools you use — or if you choose to organize directly through twitter, facebook, email and virtual phone/text banking — it’s important that you create a structure that is impactful and sustainable. We recommend starting with a few best practices, including:

Write down a measurable and specific goal. Most campaigns should be using digital organizing for direct asks until this summer at the earliest — like building volunteer pools, gathering donors, and forging relationships with activists. Write clear goals and set a deadline as you build up these practices.

Start small and track your progress. If you’re not familiar with these tools, we don’t recommend a full launch on day 1. If this is completely new, start with a few volunteers who can focus data tracking efforts on production and conversion rates. Limit your tracking to 2–3 key metrics that actually answer the question you’re asking and don’t waste your time on things that are not interesting

Documentation is key. It takes time and is thankless, but focus on documenting learnings to form best practices that can be shared as your team grows.

Focus on data quality. Digital organizing requires more than landlines. Depending on the tool, you’ll need cell phone numbers, emails, social media profiles — you name it. This means that continuing to gather data through paid media campaigns or using organic actions to collect information that can be funneled into an organizing program.

Be careful with your time. Organizers may find themselves sucked into conversations with folks who are not yet ready to support the campaign. Work with them to build rules around when you should continue to listen and when you should pivot to a new conversation.

This is an unprecedented and uncertain time — the BPI team is here to help you navigate campaigning during COVID-19 and we’re more than happy to answer any questions big or small. Please don’t hesitate to reach out at info@bpimedia.com.

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