If you’re an organizer, you almost always know if your work is delivering results. And if you lead a digital program, that tendency is magnified — you can measure your success (or failure) hour by hour. In other words, you can know what works, and for the better part of 17 years (since the Dean campaign in 2004, really), that tendency has led campaigners to focus on efficiency.
The short-term results have often been impressive in terms of dollars raised and people reached. But as a long-term proposition, the impact is a lot harder to assess. As a profession, we’re all constantly talking about deliverability, retention, and how we can reactivate the supporters who no longer open our messages. At conferences, we organize panels to discuss why more people aren’t engaged with our work more consistently — and increasingly, we’re asking tough ethical questions about the way our programs are oriented.
Now, the technological terrain is shifting underneath our feet.
For the better part of the past year, Google and Facebook have been scaling back advertising options for campaigns and advocacy groups. After the 2020 election, mobile carriers began moving to introduce major changes to which groups can send peer-to-peer text messages and the volume they’ll allow on their networks going forward. The Justice Department brought charges against the organizer of the Keep America Great Committee over the substance of the group’s grassroots fundraising program and warned that aggressive match appeals from other groups might amount to “material misrepresentations” that violate mail and wire fraud statutes. The Federal Election Commission voted unanimously to recommend that Congress pass a law banning recurring contributions through pre-checked boxes on donation pages, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar introduced legislation to do just that. This month, Apple announced that the Mail app in iOS 15 will block open rate tracking.
We won’t see all these changes all at once. Some of them might not happen at all. But going forward, our reality will look different. And collectively, we’ll be forced to wrestle with how we can meet our goals — engage voters, win campaigns, achieve progress — when the people we’re trying to reach are demanding more privacy, and the platforms we use to run our programs are increasingly feeling inclined to oblige.
Resistance can’t be our first instinct.
No one has to make a choice between running a resilient, ethical grassroots program and seeing success. There are candidates and organizations who navigate that territory every single day. The way they work often requires more effort upfront, but those teams are also better positioned for the future — no matter what it brings.
What might that look like? Here are three ideas to start with:
We should internalize the fact that scale matters less than engagement. On email, for instance, we should think more deeply about how we ask new supporters to sign up to receive messages. Clear double opt-ins should be standard practice. If we have a stronger onboarding process, we might see fewer conversions and higher costs per acquisition — but the people who do join our programs will be primed and ready to participate in the work. We need to accept that any organization that makes it difficult or confusing for a supporter to unsubscribe from their list is setting their program up for eventual failure.
We need to live up to our values. If we’re actively collecting contributions that aren’t made in earnest, we’re failing a basic test of decency. This past week, for instance, the New York Times reported that 7.4 percent of all contributions processed by WinRed (and 2.3 percent of all ActBlue contributions) from the state of California were refunded in 2020. We should all be measuring ourselves against that ActBlue benchmark — and working to better it.
We need to think more about long-term impacts. Peer-to-peer text messaging is one of the most important organizing innovations of the past decade. It might be the single best way we have to reach some of the voters who matter most to Democratic campaigns and progressive causes. And it might become exponentially harder to do in the build up to the next election because AT&T and T-Mobile are concerned about spam. If we redesign our outreach programs to deepen the quality of the conversation that organizers have with voters and supporters, we stand a better chance of preserving our ability to continue to use peer-to-peer and potentially see better results as well.
These suggestions are just a beginning, and other organizers will have different ideas for where we should focus. That’s fine. But the important thing is that we don’t wait to start planning for a new reality.
There are too many changes coming from too many different directions — some of them are going to happen whether we like it or not. Reporters are watching how campaigns implement these tactics, and they’re eager to write about anything they see as disingenuous — so there’s no more hiding an optimization that isn’t grounded in our values. And ultimately, many of those changes are being driven by our supporters themselves — so we owe it to them to create programs that live up to their belief in us.
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