The Urgency of Digital Organizing, Part Two: Empowering Activists with Leadership

Obama field team

Ed. note: Will Conway’s three-part series on the power and promise of digital organizing continues.

Author’s Note: In Part One of this series, I discussed the importance of using technology in political efforts not just to build a better persuasion tool, but to scale meaningful relationships with an infinite number of people. Those campaigns, parties and PACs that do so, I argued, have a powerful new advantage over traditional organizations: limitless real relationships with millions of people as opposed to limited real relationships with a small number of people. I recommend reading “Part One: Scaling Real Relationships” before reading Part Two below.

For those campaigns, PACs and parties that opt to use technology not just to better optimize persuasion efforts but to actually build meaningful relationships at scale, a whole slew of traditional campaign pitfalls cease to exist. Because these organizations are no longer siloing information about supporter/voter interactions in different technologies, and instead housing information in one central engagement tool, they are able to see a far more complete, cohesive picture of each potential supporter or voter.

The existence of dynamic, adjusting and complete profiles that include constantly updated engagement and interaction histories of every single supporter and voter has two net effects. First, it solves many traditional coordination problems that prevent campaigns from scaling relationships effectively. Second, and significantly, knowing every single piece of information about relationships at scale allows for incredibly well-coordinated engagement and organizing strategies, pathway and leadership development, the empowerment of new local leaders, and, most importantly, the mobilization of activists.

Before outlining new advantages of such an approach, though, what traditional coordination problems do cohesive, dynamic profiles and relationship scalability solve? To start, most issues that originate in communication problems between campaign departments are an easy fix. Because campaigns now institutionally knows everything about a supporter — from their donor history, social media engagement, field responses and activity, website signups, and email open rates — many notorious miscommunication opportunities between field, finance and digital teams fall away.

No longer will the field team knock on the doors of high-dollar donors, for instance, because they will just click a button and eliminate those people from their field universe. No longer will the communication team send a volunteer ask to people about the Second Amendment who said in a field survey they really care about education and have no interest in volunteering. Because it’s not terribly expensive to append email addresses to voter file records, and tools like NationBuilder can match social media to emails, campaigns can trim direct mail budgets by engaging with people on social media who they know prefer to talk digitally.

And when some people inevitably stop opening blast emails altogether? Easy. Hit them on another medium and gauge the response. Create multivariate tests around Twitter targeting for those who stopped opening emails and keep the most successful Tweets in the arsenal. Maybe even put those dormant people in the field team’s targeted call/knock universe and see what happens.

Organizing like this also solves the problem of knowing exactly how many times a targeted voter or supporter has been touched. No longer will campaigns forget the last time they knocked on a potential supporter’s door, nor will they forget the response. And if the same person retweets the campaign three days after the door knock? The digital team can incorporate whatever the person said at the door in a direct message and make a next-level ask, like a donation or volunteer pitch. All of these actions used to be vaguely possible, but the time and sometimes the financial investment they required made them prohibitively complex. Now, though, everything outlined above is a couple clicks of a mouse if you have the right technology.

But the scalability of meaningful relationships actually allows for something else far more important than a well-coordinated campaign. It’s this something else that allows the true power of organizing to shine at the highest levels. It’s this something else that allows what Professor Hahrie Han calls a “relational model of activism” to be built in a coordinated, intentional fashion among millions of activists.

It is the intersection of organizing and mobilizing. It is the building of strategic pathways of increased involvement for every single potential supporter — through the level at which they take full ownership and can act autonomously — and the mobilization to action tailored uniquely to their engagement tendencies.

In the past, a volunteer coordinator had a spreadsheet housing potential and active volunteers. Usually, he or she had a mental idea of the skillset and dream-scenario level of involvement of each person on that spreadsheet. Down the hall in another office, a finance assistant had a similar spreadsheet of every potential and past donor. Now, the spreadsheets merge, as do the pathways in the two people’s minds.

Moreover, the spreadsheet of potential volunteers or donors gets longer and longer as volunteers in the field log contacts about voters in the field who say they want to volunteer for the campaign, or as people signup on the website or engage on social media, and interact with emails and digital content. The spreadsheets come alive with activity, interactions and engagement, both going out from the campaign and coming in from the supporter, and actually become the people they represent. What seems intuitive — that all entry points to engage with a campaign lead to the campaign knowing more and more and acting based on it — is now actually attainable.

In fact, well-organized campaigns can now create complicated ladders of engagement that change and adapt based on the engagements of their supporters. They can create pathways that increase the amount of work activists do on behalf of the campaign, slowly handing off more and more responsibility, with autonomy and leadership as the ultimate goal. Those who engage on social media can be encouraged to become social media ambassadors, whereas those prone to picking up the phone can become call-bank volunteers. Those droves of young low-dollar donors with strong social media presences? They can become online recruitment donors, each with their own personal fundraising pages, recruiter tracking, individual goals, and competition-based incentive mechanisms, like leaderboards (which have been proven to increase participation by up to 400%).

But what’s next for those supporters successfully turned from base-level supporters to activists? What happens to the volunteer or donor recruiter who has exceeded her goals every week, has knocked on more doors than anyone? She needs to be rewarded with more responsibility and leadership. She should recruit and train new volunteer or push donors to ask their friends to donate. She should build a local network and create her own universe of supporters and activists, who then grow into autonomous leadership positions of their own.

This sweet spot is what Professor Han, mentioned above, calls “the difference between organizing events and organizing organizers.” No longer is the campaign itself responsible for event turnout. Rather, the campaign is responsible for building a local activist infrastructure so strong that local leadership will independently handle the burden of finding event attendees themselves. Then the campaign identifies attendees, institutionally pushes them to increased level of activism, and the process repeats. This process exists elsewhere on the campaign, too — the communications team sees email open rates and click-through rates improve dramatically, because the emails they send are tailored very specifically to a supporter’s needs and interests. Fundraising dollars improve because asks are better tailored around engagement and past participation.

Creating an organizing model that allows autonomous organizers to mobilize supporters is what inherently scales a campaign, PAC or party’s ability to build relationships. Using technology to allow the campaign to build relationships infinitely and know every single component of the organization’s relationship with an individual inherently improves upon the organizing model.

But in all of this, there is actually another level of coordinated engagement, one standard deviation above the scaling of meaningful relationships, organizer pathways and empowerment. There is now the ability to coordinate campaigns, build and scale relationships not just within the confines of one campaign, but to create institutional legacies between organizations that last forever.

For that, though, you’ll have to read Part Three next week.

Thanks, Will! I know I’m not the only one who can’t wait to read it. – cpd

Obama 2008 Field Team Photo via Wikipedia/Flickr user Matt B.

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