Colin Delany April 4, 2012

Mobilization: Getting People to Act on Your Behalf

New Version! Available now on Amazon.com and as a PDF

This article is from an earlier ebook and is now out of date! Please check out the NEW ebook, “How to Use the Internet to Win in 2014.”

Ebook: How to Use the Internet to Win in 2014

Mobilization is simple in concept: it involves persuading people to do things — donate, vote, volunteer, make phone calls, whatever. For instance, as the experience of the Obama campaign showed, one of the most effective ways to spread a campaign’s message online is to get someone else to do it — every supporter is a potential outreach hub in his or her social universe. Campaigns can make the process easy by preparing banners, badges, buttons, videos and other content that fans can post on their own pages. But to get someone to act, first you almost always have to ask — and their answer determines whether or not you’ve succeeded. Therein lies the complexity — how, when and what do we ask of people to help them realize their true political potential?

Motivating Donors and Volunteers

If political support ultimate comes down to emotion — how a potential donor or volunteer feels about a candidate or a race — each contact people have with a campaign influences their propensity to give time or money. Every interaction matters: their experience at an in-person event or a storefront office, what they see online, the ads on their TVs and radios, and of course any direct communications they receive via email, Facebook, Twitter, phone or direct mail. Successful online organizers realize that they are essentially managing virtual relationships with many people at once.

Like any friendship, a political relationship that heads downhill can be hard to salvage (disillusioned donors are unlikely to open their wallets again), and unless a campaign is entirely short-term and doesn’t mind burning bridges, properly managing and motivating supporters over the course of a race will be paramount. List size matters, and campaigns should take every opportunity to grow their own, but list response is just as important, since a relatively small number of motivated people can outperform a much larger group whose members don’t have much coordination or reason to care.

One excellent way to turn people away over time is to treat them like cash machines, something that’s entirely too easy for political professionals to do. In fact, early in the Obama campaign, manager David Plouffe frequently had to mediate between a fundraising team eager to maximize short-term revenue and a new-media team with an eye on the long game.

At a basic level, not every communication from the campaign should ask for money. Instead, campaigns should think of ways to provide value to supporters in the form of news, information and giveaways, as well as of non-monetary ways they can contribute. Getting people to recruit ten friends via email, for instance, is an easy way for them to participate without having to part with a dime — and once they’ve taken that action, they’re more involved and committed than they were the day before.

The Ladder of Engagement

A common approach to supporter management is to provide activists with escalating levels of involvement. Like a the rungs of a ladder, each higher engagement level requires more work and holds fewer people, but it ideally also creates more value for the campaign or cause. Over time, list managers will obviously try to move people to higher tiers, converting casual list-members into donors, donors into volunteers, and volunteers into precinct leaders. With a sophisticated CRM, campaigns can get creative in how they track supporters, noting the most reliable activists in the database and putting these “super-volunteers” to work in ways that use their skills, connections and time.

Tiers of engagement work in the other direction as well — if you’re planning a social media-style create-a-video contest, for instance, find a way to involve people who AREN’T actually doing the shooting and editing, perhaps by asking them to rate or comment on the submissions. The overall goal: keep the most casual supporters working at a basic level, while also providing more strenuous outlets for the smaller core of true activists.

More Than Money: Mobilization Means Votes

Political campaigns often focus on wringing donations out of their online supporters, but real people are are worth more than just the contents of their bank accounts — smart campaigns will try to tap their brains and time as well! The 2008 Obama campaign relied on volunteer enthusiasm to a remarkable degree, with hundreds of thousands of people downloading “walk lists” of houses to visit in their neighborhoods and phone numbers to call. They reported the results of their outreach work through a comprehensive grassroots data collection system, in turn giving the leadership priceless data about how the campaign was playing out at a neighborhood level.

This kind of sophistication had been out of the reach of most state- or local-level campaigns, though that situation is rapidly changing. Regardless of their level of technical sophistication, though, campaigns can still use online communications to mobilize supporters to perform just about about every traditional political task — and plenty of new ones, too. Among other things, campaigns can ask people to:

  • Show up for in-person events (rallies, house parties) and invite friends and family.
  • Volunteer at local offices.
  • Phone-bank, either at a campaign office or over their own cell phones (“virtual” phone-banking).
  • Connect with their neighbors door-to-door.
  • Spread the word about a fundraising push.
  • Recruit friends via email, Facebook or Twitter.
  • View a YouTube clip, blog post or other online content and spread it virally. When supporters post content to Facebook and Twitter, it turns their profiles into a “virtual yard signs.”
  • Put up (actual) yard signs.
  • Create content such as blog posts, Tweets or online videos all on their own.
  • and of course, vote!

The importance of that last bullet cannot be overstated for down-ballot candidates, particularly if they’re trying to buck a national trend in their own districts!

Rapid Response

We discussed the role of online video in “flooding the zone” to push unflattering content down in search results online earlier, but video and other online pushback doesn’t spread itself — in fact, a campaign’s supporters can be its best defense online. For one thing, people tend to make political decisions based on the opinions of friends and family, and how they react to a scandal or other negative event may be filtered through what’s said by people they trust.

If your supporters are out there speaking on your behalf, either in person or on Facebook, Twitter and their own blogs, it’s likely to be a better defense than any “facts” you can muster. As an example, Obama ’08 went to great lengths to recruit their followers to fight back against the Manchurian Muslim Candidate meme, to some success — though that particular little legend had long legs and still refuses to die, even in 2012.

Field Organizing

One area that’s REALLY changing fast is online-enabled field organizing. For an example, in the 2010 senatorial special election in Massachusetts, both Republican Scott Brown and Democrat Martha Coakley deployed tools that leveraged the internet to improve the classic on-the-ground campaign activities of block-walking and phone-banking, connecting individual volunteers with information from the Democratic Voter Activation Network (now NGP/VAN) and the Republican Voter Vault. Both campaigns made it possible for supporters to phone-bank from home, for instance, with Brown using technology from an independent vendor and Coakley an equivalent developed by the DNC to connect volunteers with potential voters’ phones without disclosing personal details in the process.

Both campaigns also produced database-generated “walk lists” for local volunteers to use while canvassing their communities, but Brown supplemented them with a clever web-based application optimized for iphones. By geo-locating users through native iphone features, the app could show volunteers the nearest house to visit, directions to get there and talking points to use during the conversation.

Once they’d gathered the responses, organizers could enter them into a Google Docs spreadsheet, a free online tool that helped the Brown campaign assemble the same kind of granular data that benefited the Obama campaign during the 2008 race — a powerful development, and one likely to be widely copied.

As an alternative to platform-specific apps, many vendors are turning to mobile-optimized websites, which can provide similar functionality without requiring different technology for iphones, Android phones, Blackberries, etc. We can expect these tools to be widely used in 2012 by campaigns up and down the scale, since vendors like NGP/VAN on the Left and Engage on the Right provide them to clients as a matter of course. Sophisticated field operations are no longer limited to the big players!

Field Team Structure

I’m no field-organizing expert, so if you’re going to create a robust grassroots operation, be sure to hire someone who is! But it never hurts to look at the best model we have, once again turning to Obama ’08. From the “Learning From Obama” e-book:


Volunteer Management — Context, Training and Accountability

How the Obama field operation organized their volunteer teams deserves special mention, in part because their grassroots GOTV technology depended on it and also because it provides an excellent model for community-based organizers of all flavors. The structure evolved in the primaries and went national during the general election season. Its critical features:

  • The campaign developed a clear team structure for the volunteer operation, replicable just about anywhere and with standard roles for each member. Each volunteer team included a leader (to hold everyone accountable), a data manager (because data doesn’t exist unless it gets in the system), a phone bank coordinator, a campus coordinator and a volunteer coordinator.
  • Training was absolutely vital, both for team members and for the individual neighborhood volunteers they organized.
  • Teams had clear vote-getting and voter-contact goals and were held accountable for them.
  • Example: for the general election, the Obama organization fielded 400 teams in the state of Missouri, supervised by paid campaign staff, with each team covering 8-12 voting precincts and starting work weeks or months before November 4th.

One thing stands out about this system: it required a lot from volunteers, both in terms of training and in actual sweat. To keep them working, the campaign was careful to let them in on the kind of strategy details that campaigns usually strive to hide. One trick to motivating people: let them know how their efforts fit into a larger framework, in this case via David Plouffe’s online video briefings, so that they know that their work has context and is actually valued. If you want to create a successful national grassroots outreach effort, focus on context, training and accountability. I.e., take your people seriously and they’ll return the favor — they want to know that they aren’t just blindly making calls or knocking on doors.


Note that much of the training discussed above took place via online video, particuluarly in areas outside of battleground states, where the campaign invested less in on-the-ground staff.

Social Tools for Field Organizing

Field organizers can obviously use social media in their work, from Facebook Pages to Twitter feeds (protected or otherwise), but a new development for 2012 is the advent of tools that mine followers’ social connections for data useful to the campaign. Also developing fast: dedicated platforms like National Field that use a social model to create behind-the-scenes channels for field organizing. For more on both of these developments, see this recent C&E Technology Bytes column.

Custom Social Networks

Some campaigns provide additional opportunities for volunteers by creating custom social networks along the lines of MyBarackObama.com. Bob McDonnell’s 2009 campaign for Virginia governor featured a community based on the Ning platform, as did that of 2010 Massachusetts senatorial candidate Scott Brown, both of which provided an outreach and fundraising hub for activists.

A custom social network turned out to be a useful tool for Obama volunteers, particular when it let them organize themselves in places where the central campaign’s infrastructure wasn’t fully built out. But Obama’s campaign also had an enormous supporter list to populate MyBO from the moment it launched, and other political social networks risk sputtering out if they can’t reach a significant scale right away (a site is neither social nor a network if no one’s using it). Most down-ballot campaigns will be better served by focusing on reaching people in the online spaces they already frequent, rather than trying to get them to join a new one.

Next up, the big kahuna of online mobilization: fundraising.

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