To kick off the DNC, Organizer hosted a panel where the stars of political technology discussed the rise of a new era in politics and voter engagement. Chris Kelly, Lucy Flores, and Brent Blackaby sat down with attendees for a discussion that covered impact in digital engagement, campaign budgeting, and the future of technology and progressive politics. Read some of our panelists major insights here:
Delivering Impactful Messages
The panelists began with a discussion on the changing climate of modern politics and the distinction between interaction and engagement. In the social media age, many candidates put a high emphasis on reaching voters, particularly young voters, through spaces like Twitter and Facebook. While it is smart to channel a campaign’s resources into spaces where it knows its voters are reading content, there are two major issues with the way campaigns are currently handle digital engagement: they mistake interaction for engagement, and often miss the mark on really connecting with their audience.
Lucy Flores brought up an essential point during the discussion: a retweet is not a vote. In other words, a campaign that reaches a voter and even gets them to press that like button still cannot necessarily count on them to show up on election day. With the rate at which voters now consume information and the lack of intentionality with which they “like” or “retweet” one another’s posts, content on social media has limited impact when it comes to compelling people to take real action. This, they mentioned, is where the importance of high-impactful outreach strategies become particularly important.
Panelists also emphasized the significance of authenticity and tone. It can be tempting to appeal to younger voters by using slang and other accessible language, but this runs the risk of sounding unnatural and inauthentic. Lucy Flores, recalling an outreach attempt from the past in which a politician tried to use slang to appeal to millennial voters, noted that “just because you use woke in a tweet doesn’t mean you’re woke.” In other words, young voters often see through candidates’ attempts at seeming connected to them.
So how can campaigns mobilize social media correctly? Brent Blackaby brought up the example of the Sanders campaign creating a snapchat filter for events. It reached millennial voters in a way they were comfortable with and allowed them to engage with Bernie’s cause in a very humanizing way. It was fun and lighthearted, without coming off as awkward by changing the tone of the campaign’s voice.
The moral here is that candidates don’t have to learn any new words to speak a language their voters understand. The most important way of making a campaign accessible and approachable is simply giving voters easy ways to engage with it. The use of snapchat filters and simple, shareable graphics that became the standard for the Bernie campaign made engaging with politics fun and appealing, which, as Chris Kelly noted, is one of the most important steps toward increasing voter turnout in the modern era.
Putting Donation Dollars to Work
After the discussion on digital media, panelists shifted their attention to effective forms of voter engagement. Many campaigns struggle to decide where their limited donation dollars will have the most impact, and often pump their budgets into mailers and television ads. However, many of these programs are expensive and don’t have the desired impact.
Following the conversation on the importance of engagement and authenticity, panelists agreed that field outreach is an essential opportunity to convince voters to show up on election day. Because of the low engagement and ultimate impact of digital engagement, it remains clear to most veterans of political work that campaigns will always be most personable in person.
Lucy Flores spoke to her experience planning her own campaign, during which she placed a heavy priority in supporting her field program. “You can talk substantively with a person for a minute and multiply the likelihood that they will actually vote by several times. You don’t get that with a mailer.”
So if traditional, in-person outreach methods don’t need replacing, what is the role of tech in this space? The panelists were in agreement that field organizing tools that empower users to have higher-impact conversations are the way forward. Field engagement already has a very high return on investment, and putting money into field technology that boosts engagement can make drive this up even further.
The Future of Progressive Politics
The progressive movement has always been defined in part by its commitment to bottom-up organizing and decision-making, and its attention to the needs of its constituents. A big part of maintaining this is running a powerful field program that allows campaigns to engage their voters more deeply and turn those conversations into insights and action. Chris Kelly noted that digital field organizing technology is an essential tool for ensuring that contacting voters is a meaningful process that produces real data on what the campaign needs to strive for.
But not every campaign can afford a robust field program, let alone the field organizing software to run it. One of the most important strengths of the progressive movement is the grassroots-level organizing for local candidates, and smaller races are where people are really fighting the real battles for representation and inclusivity in politics. More women, people of color, and young people than ever before are entering these races and trying to make a difference in their communities. As Lucy Flores noted, these candidates need to succeed. Small wins in big numbers will make all the difference when it comes to facilitating real change in America. So how can the progressive movement support them?
Chris Kelly mentioned the open source movement as a good model of a push to make these tools more accessible to the people who need them. By making this technology more available to smaller campaigns with limited funding, progressive technology companies can make a drastic impact on the number of candidates winning local races, and true progressives have a moral imperative to help make this a reality. On the other hand, the companies providing these tools and services are technology companies and to continue providing them, they must turn a profit. The way forward for political tech, our panelists concluded, is starting the conversation on how partisan tech companies can stay true to their ideals while keeping themselves up and running.
Lucy FLores closed with a note about the importance of diversity in the political technology space. There is no cadillac of campaign tech, as every campaign has unique needs. Instead, the future of organizing technology needs to be a cooperative ecosystem in which campaigns can create cocktails of products and services that work together, tailored to their needs and budgetary constraints.
View the full video from the event to hear all of our panelists' insights: