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Move Aside, Marie Kondo: Tidying Up Digital Organizing

You might have clicked on this blog thinking it’s about the hottest organizing tech, or the best way to text out the vote, or the newest use for Facebook Groups. All of those things are critically important — but we shouldn’t just talk about bringing technology to field organizers. We should also talk about the best way to leverage the strength of organizers in digital media campaigns. Last cycle, we worked with NextGen America on a comprehensive digital program that integrated elements of their field efforts, leveraging organizers voices online and complementing offline contacts with digital ads to create an authentic, effective voter communications and mobilization program. As Democrats are starting to think about what to say to voters in 2020, we hope this case study is helpful in thinking about the method(s) in which they say it.

The contemporary thought of political organizing is built on the belief in human-to-human contact to evoke a connection between candidates/causes and voters. For decades, in-person field organizing has been the predominant way to establish this connection. It is grassroots, authentic, and, in every sense, that human-to-human contact that political campaigns seek to establish. Field helps identify voters, educate them on issues, register them to vote, and is such a genuinely reliable source of content (content!). Just ask our friends at NextGen America. In 2018, they knocked on over 1 million doors in 11 battleground states, organizing hundreds of thousands of youth voters.

But field isn’t the first and last organizing tactic that campaigns should be establishing. Most field campaigns have their organizers and volunteers recruit other volunteers, hold in-person events like rallies, knock on doors and make phone calls. But when it comes to using the internet to talk to their friends, neighbors, and classmates, campaigns can do more.

As you probably guessed, we are talking about digital organizing. Increasingly, campaigns and organizations are using relational organizing apps, digital phone banks, and Facebook groups to push out their message online — which is great! But it is just the beginning. Tools and tech are critical, but they live in a silo with your field team. True digital organizing requires arming your field team with the best of tech and tools, then supporting and amplifying them across the rest of your campaign. Whether that’s leveraging their voices in your owned content program or deploying their message in your paid media strategy — effective organizing requires using your full toolbox to build an authentic connection between your field team and voters. Organizers are often our best communicators, but they are only human! Your field team can only talk to so many people in a day, leveraging paid media to amplify their voices allows us to reach more people, more times, more authentically than when these two efforts live in silos.

The most natural place for this kind of integration is within mobilization paid media programs. Mobilization is the category of campaign efforts aimed at persuading and motivating voters who might be on the fence about voting to turn out on election day. In our partnership with NextGen America in 2018, we reached over 6.7 million youth voters online as part of our mobilization paid media program, leveraging the voices of their field organizers within our advertising campaigns and offering additional touchpoints for those 1 million doors the NextGen field team knocked.

Let’s keep it 100.

We are not suggesting you take field money, hug it, say ‘thank you,’ and gently put it in the trash pile. Much the contrary. What we believe (and tested last cycle) is that programs ought to approach voter contact strategies with one word in mind: integration. Integrating field and digital takes the form of optimizing voter contact with messages that field organizers are hearing at the doors and pushing them to voters online, identifying physical locations that need additional digital touchpoints, and showing a cohesive strategy to voters in a given district or state.

Here’s the challenge.

If you’ve ever done field organizing, you know you have to have an excessive capacity to withstand…. well, everything. It can be grueling, time-consuming work to contact a lot of voters. On digital, we can reach lots of voters (y’all are always on your damn phones), but we often treat audiences monolithically. It is a slower, sustained conversation with groups of voters, which means we choose our messaging based on what we believe a majority of voters want to hear (or what the polls tell us).

In 2018, we implemented an approach that amplified NextGen America’s field organizers voices and leveraged their on the ground intel online. An approach that helped bridge the gap between field and digital organizing. And an approach that we won gold for Best Use of Social Media Advertising at the AAPC Pollie Awards Conference.

Here’s what we did.

Knowing the reach and limitations of NextGen’s expansive field program, we decided to bring their organizers online in the areas they were organizing. If you were a student at Arizona State and organizer Zoe was knocking on your door, you were also going to see her face and message on Twitter when you logged on. If you were a first-time voter who registered to vote with organizer Manny in Reno, Nevada, you were going to get a reminder from him to vote in your Twitter feed in the weeks ahead of Election Day. We brought the voter contact strategy full-circle, showing not just how integrated our effort was, but also organizing voters with faces and voices from their districts, precincts, or schools — online.

When voters (especially youth voters) are seeing GOTV messaging from their peers rather than brands — which in today’s saturated media environment, are increasingly ignored — they pay closer attention, they engage, and they recognize the human-to-human contact. In 2018, youth voter turnout was up 13% from the last midterm election. NextGen America’s investment in organizing youth voters, with an intentional approach to connecting field and digital programs, played a huge role in that result.

This midterm case study is one example of breaking down the silos of voter contact effort to build a cohesive organizing strategy with field and digital, but the idea of integrating with digital is applicable across all aspects of your campaign. Whether it’s comms creating content platforms, fundraising running attribution models, digital relational organizing complimenting in-person contacts, or other kinds of integration with field operations, digital is there. And if that doesn’t spark joy for you, then we got some more tidying up to do.

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