The Urgency of Digital Organizing, Part One: Scaling Real Relationships

Voter canvassing

New contributor Will Conway (of NationBuilder) starts a three-part series in which he thinks big about a major change technology is bringing to political campaigns and political organizing.

In the years since the 2012 election cycle, a camp of forward-thinking digital strategists has emphasized the importance of digital and data in the world of political spending. Where campaign dollars used to be spent on direct mail and television ad buys, their thinking goes, modern political infrastructures should be spending money on YouTube pre-roll video ads, search engine optimization, promoted Tweets and Facebook posts.

They’re right, of course. As more people spend more time online, incredibly precise online targeting can yield higher returns with more obvious direct engagement than traditional, broadcast-TV spending. The rationale behind the urgency of incorporating digital into campaigns is that more people are online, and that campaigns that don’t incorporate digital are missing a major opportunity to reach voters. But this thinking is still fundamentally applying the traditional model to new technology: what it takes to win a campaign is spending a bunch of money on advertising and persuasion.

But new technologies let us do much more than just talk AT people — they also let us talk WITH people at scale, all at once. It’s an opportunity to build genuine, personal relationships with millions of people, both online and offline. Digital engagement, after all, has very little to do with engaging people digitally, and far more to do with using technology to figure out exactly who your supporters are, how they’re engaging with you, and what they want to talk about, whether online or offline.

If this sounds hard, that’s because it is. But there is good news: engaging people at scale is no longer impossible, as it had been until recently. It used to be that a human being was only capable of maintaining somewhere between 100-230 meaningful relationships. That meant that large-scale political infrastructures were institutionally limited to building and maintaining a set number of relationships. Because the entire goal of their operations was geared towards changing people’s minds around politics and encouraging people to vote one way or another on issues and candidates, campaigns were forced to build two very different types of relationships.

The first type involved meaningful/high-touch relationships, which were reserved only for people who could deliver a major value-add. Traditionally, these people were high-dollar donors and local power brokers who could provide the financial resources to fund a political operation and/or the social capital to build influence. The second type? Far less meaningful relationships with the people whom campaigns tried to influence in bulk, primarily with things like radio and television advertisements, direct mail, and now, digital advertising.

But something happened recently that changes this dynamic and empowers political infrastructures to morph and adapt not just based on the views of the elites, but also based on the views of the general public. This allows infrastructures to adapt quickly based on the interactions of all types of people and build strong autonomous coalitions and leadership structures. It allows campaigns to mobilize more efficiently and effectively.

What changed? Political organizations are now actually capable of using technology to maintain an infinite number of meaningful relationships. Technology has allowed leaders to build, grow and organize relationships like never before. More than that, political infrastructures can track and maintain relationships at scale across many different engagement platforms as they grow and develop anywhere it happens — whether in the real world or digitally, whether in the field, on the finance team, online or in person.

For this reason, using technology to run modern campaigns is not just about building a better mousetrap for disingenuous persuasion efforts. It’s actually about reinventing the model to build genuine, real relationships with every single voter and supporter — influential, wealthy or not. It actually IS a tool capable of empowering activists, not scaling persuasion. Political technology is not just an incremental improvement on the previous model; used effectively, it is exponentially more powerful than all that preceded it.

Accepting the premise of the above, the truly urgent goal of digital campaigning becomes clear: political infrastructures that are able to scale to the point that they can build and manage an infinite number of genuine, one-to-one relationships can become infinitely more powerful than those who continue to maintain just a couple hundred relationships with rich and powerful people and try to persuade the rest. These scaled, organized digital infrastructures will forever dominate efforts that view digital as nothing more than an improved persuasion tool.

Political consultants and activists tend to intuitively accept the importance of scaling knowledge and information about voters: traditional field campaigns, polling and consumer data and analytics are all attempts to scale knowledge about their voters. Where those attempts have struggled, though, is in combining all these traditional methods with the information that voters are actually telling them every day.

Imagine, for instance, a typical voter profile: in this case, imagine a young female independent who has voted in a given set of elections and lives in a middle class neighborhood. Let’s also add some consumer data and analytics, so we know she drives a Ford Taurus. And, our modeling tells us she’s likely to vote, and will probably vote for our guy. Awesome.

What if we also knew everything else? What if we knew she said she cared about education when our volunteer knocked on her door, her Twitter biography tells us she is an elementary school teacher with a passion for volunteering at a homeless shelter, she donated $20 when we sent her an email six months ago about education, but unsubscribed this morning when we emailed about fiscal policy? What if, when she donated to our education email, our volunteer coordinator called her within 48 hours and said, I understand you like what we’re doing on education. I’d love to chat with you about helping us make a difference for people in the education community?

She voted for us in the old model. That’s great. In the new model, though, she’s taking ownership, she is volunteering, and she is rallying other teachers to our cause. Infinitely more powerful.

But this is where many modern political campaigns struggle. Very simply, they silo their engagements into information buckets: they run a field campaign independent from their communications effort, which is separate from fundraising, social media, digital advertising and volunteer management. They prohibit themselves from building scaled relationships by fundamentally failing to conceptualize it.

Technology is now capable of scaling 1:1 relationships, and that fact revolutionizes the political process in itself. But it can actually do so much more. Knowing how people are engaging with a political infrastructure opens up a world of possibilities around creating pathways for increased participation, local autonomy and ownership. In other words, technology makes organizing at scale a reality.

Look out for Part Two next week for more on using technology to organize and empower leaders.

2008 canvassing image courtesy Wikipedia.

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Will Conway
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