News & Insights

Four ways COVID has changed campaigns forever (and one way it hasn’t)

By Jenn Ridder

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2020 rewrote the rule book for campaigns. As the national states director for President Biden’s campaign, I saw first-hand how the pandemic turned once-novel digital organizing tools into a necessity to win, changing the way we campaign forever.

In politics, organizing is a given because that’s how candidates and campaigns connect with voters, hear their concerns, and build support to win. Companies and causes are starting to catch on to the power of organizing, taking an increasingly grassroots approach to digital marketing that helps drive advocacy around the issues that matter to them.

Smart brands can benefit from the lessons we learned running Biden’s winning campaign. Here are four of the most important changes to how campaigns will engage their supporters moving forward — and one key fundamental that is more important than ever.

  1. Organize wherever (and whenever) you can
    How do you organize millions of volunteers and harness a supporter network that’s distributed in communities across the country without ever opening an office? The pandemic required us to not only rethink how to engage and grow our supporter base, but also how to better utilize supporters once they were signed up.

    The Biden campaign’s distributed organizing program put our supporters first: connecting wherever they were and whenever was most convenient. This allowed us to organize volunteers from any state in the nation and put them to work wherever they were needed most. We could have volunteers in California make calls to persuadable voters in Arizona or send texts into specific counties in Colorado. This setup was not only convenient for volunteers, it also helped us maximize the value of every supporter.

    This lesson applies whenever you’re organizing people to support a cause. Whether you’re part of a political campaign, a non-profit, or a socially-minded company, building grassroots support means empowering supporters to engage whenever and however it’s most convenient for them.

  2. Personalize the supporter experience
    Organizing support for a cause is inherently personal, but with social distancing mandates, new tactics were necessary.

    For starters, we used the Vote Joe app, which allowed volunteers to reach out directly to their family and friends — what’s called “relational organizing.” This was not only fun for the volunteer, but much more successful in terms of conversions.

    To reach beyond those personal networks, our teams organized house parties to discuss climate change, happy hours on tech policy, and other unique events like dog walking meet-ups, drag bingo, and virtual Zumba. These events harnessed organic interest and affinity groups to get people engaged in ways that interested them. Once in the door, we were able to then ask them to do the voter contact work we needed.

    We also built customized Spanish and Haitian-Creole bilingual voter contact programs and had our Spanish-speaking volunteers reach out to likely Hispanic voters through WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram. These programs helped connect with people in ways familiar to them.

    No matter the campaign you’re building, cultivating connections helps empower your supporters to use their personality, skills, and personal networks to advance a shared cause. For anyone looking to engage a broad audience, consider the ways you can best engage different parts of the community to help amplify your message.

  3. Experiment, automate, optimize
    Too often campaigns fall back on old or inefficient tactics because the imperative is to move as fast as possible until Election Day. Taking a step back to reevaluate or experiment with new ideas can cost valuable time. Yet in a world turned upside down by the pandemic, developing new strategies was fundamental to success.

    We constantly deployed new tech to scale and automate our efforts. We tested new audience modeling and chatbots to connect with hard-to-reach voters on social media. We used an event automation system to streamline the management of thousands of individual events. We optimized our website user experience to funnel volunteers to areas of greatest need. These tactics improved volunteer conversions, increased our capacity for voter contact, and made staff workflows significantly more effective — a crucial efficiency when time is the most precious commodity.

    The results here prove that any campaign, cause, or corporation would benefit from regularly pushing themselves out of their comfort zone to test new ideas, just as the pandemic did for us on the campaign.

  4. Virtual events can be just as good as traditional events — or even better

    While the pandemic may have started with awkward Zoom calls, it ended up launching an entirely new category of organizing event.

    Because let’s face it: the Inauguration festivities (and the Democratic Convention that preceded it) totally rocked. Shout-outs from every state and territory. Musical acts from nearly every genre. A tightly choreographed program that actually looked and sounded good to the audience at home. This is the future.

    Virtual (or hybrid) events remove many of the constraints of in-person events. Participants can join from anywhere on the planet — significantly expanding the range of voices we can include.

    And these are more than just made-for-TV spectacles. The convenience of these events means campaigns of all sizes can better utilize surrogates, instantly connecting with volunteers in Nevada one day and donors in Pennsylvania the next. And for other organizations trying to reach consumers, investors, or other stakeholders, these events also allow us to streamline logistics, potentially cut costs, and expand the scope of storytelling — creating more opportunities for long lasting engagement.

While the last year changed a lot, it also underscored that certain fundamentals are just as important as ever. One of the most critical elements of a winning campaign always has been, and will remain, that they focus on people, not just platforms. 

Ultimately, every campaign must meet its supporters where they are. Sometimes digital platforms will aid this effort, but they will never replace the value of in-person connections. Even during the pandemic, our supporters still yearned for ways to touch and feel the campaign. That’s why some of our greatest organizing successes came from connecting with voters – or employees, partners, and supporters – in-person (even if socially distant!).

On the campaign, we rented moving trucks and turned them into “mobile offices” that went places we may never have staffed with brick and mortar operations. We wrapped a bus with campaign branding and drove to neighborhoods big and small. The bus tour was so successful we ended up with four different buses driving around the country at once, stopping for endless socially distant selfies. Moving forward, organizers will need to continue having these real connections with supporters, including going door to door. New technologies should supplement these connections, not supplant them.

While these lessons were front and center on President Biden’s campaign, they hold true for any organization or cause seeking to organize supporters. Whether mobilizing voters or organizing support for a worthy cause, campaigns at any level must compete for hearts and minds – and clicks and retweets – in an increasingly competitive environment.

The last year has permanently disrupted the way we campaign. To win in the future, organizations of every size must embrace the disruption, scale rapidly, and create the authentic connections that are the key to lasting support.

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