In part because 2020 has been so strange and disorienting, we’ve learned some valuable lessons. We’ve had to rethink best practices, question old assumptions, and toss a lot of conventional wisdom out the window. 

So even in a year to forget, there’s a lot we want to be sure to remember. 

We’ve asked people across Blue State to write about one idea or insight that they can’t stop thinking about. We cover topics ranging from pandemic-induced accessibility and bad actors in the email space to the power of visual design. 

At some point — hopefully soon — we’ll emerge from this pandemic. And when we do, I hope we step back into the world with some additional knowledge — starting with more flexible work streams and more empathetic ways of connecting with people. 

Until then, here’s our attempt to capture some of that understanding. 

Using systems built for corporations to bring about progressive change

As mobilization strategies increasingly depend on digital media, a big question I have about the future of this work is the role of big tech, big media, and big corporations — and how their corporate interests will influence their products. 

We rely more than ever on tech companies to mobilize communities, while at the same time becoming increasingly concerned with how these companies tend to use data in ways that prioritize profit. How do we bring the changes needed in these industries while balancing our reliance on the platforms and systems that these companies make available?

Jiffar Abakoyas, Analyst

Informing toward action

On the other side of the election with COVID-19 continuing to blaze through the country, the protests following George Floyd’s death and the national reckoning that followed may feel like a lifetime ago. It’s important that we not let these moments and the lessons from them recede from our memory: Many white Americans were exposed for the first time to the challenges and very life or death risks that exist just for being Black in America. 

Instagram became a powerful tool for informing and educating wider audiences about systemic racism and white supremacy culture. Organizers also cleverly employed Instagram to lower the barriers on high-value actions. With a swipe, you can get a pre-populated email to send your local lawmakers. By clicking on the link in the bio, you get the names of city, state, and federal representatives along with phone numbers and a script of what to say. 

I haven’t seen the performance metrics on these tactics, but their quick proliferation this past summer would indicate they were working. I believe it’s not just the tactics or the platform responsible for their success, but rather the efforts and patience of organizers in educating the audience and taking them on a journey before asking them to act. 

As fundraisers, content creators, and mobilizers, we sometimes make tradeoffs between short-term wins to reach KPIs, whether a fundraising goal, clicks, or actions taken. We use behavioral science to inform tactics that we know are successful in nudging action. We know they work and that their outputs are important but can result in short-term engagement. How can we instead meet our audiences where they are to inform them about our key issues and motivate action to drive longer-term involvement?

Rena Barch, Senior Strategist

The importance of interpersonal connections 

The most important thing I learned from the 2016 election was about the salience of identity — how our individual senses of self worked to define and explain our political beliefs. The most important thing I’ve learned from 2020 is how identity extends to connection with those around us. 

This year, numerous people studying the effectiveness of advertising creative for political persuasion picked up on a similar trend. Slick, high-production TV spots consistently performed worse than low-fidelity, direct-to-camera videos from voters. The most important way to change an attitude was for the voter to see herself reflected in the message. 

That same sense of connection is the insight at the heart of deep canvassing. It’s why asking canvassers to knock doors in their own zip codes is measurably more effective than asking them to go door-to-door further afield. It’s why yard signs can create permission structure that helps to broaden support for a candidate or a cause. 

And it’s why some of the most encouraging organizing work in 2020 was focused on how we can leverage our interpersonal networks to achieve our campaign goals.

Matt Compton, SVP, Mobilization & Strategy

Democratizing access to messaging

It’s now a commonplace notion that American politics have become destructively partisan. We live in bubbles — both media bubbles and geographic bubbles. Our sense of isolation only grew in 2020 as we literally sought out like-minded pods of people to co-exist with. Not coincidentally, the Right has effectively merged with powerful media platforms and is now looking to create more of them. What was once considered a loud right-wing messaging machine that some thought could be countered by MSNBC or Air America (the fact that you might not remember it speaks volumes) has now become an ecosystem of active and aggressive disinformation.

So I can’t stop thinking about this question: How do we as progressives confront this daunting challenge? I’m hopeful that the new administration will leverage executive tools like antitrust alongside state attorneys general. And maybe we’ll see action from a more toothy FCC. But we can’t rely on these. That’s why I’m enthusiastic about efforts to democratize strategic messaging. Our voices can have more power — on social media and maybe even traditional media — if together we amplify smart, focused messaging. Call it talking points for the masses.

Kudos to Dan Pfeiffer for doing this through his Message Box newsletter in advance of the election. He shared tested messages and encouraged subscribers to spread them through social media. I did, because I was convinced by the data supporting the messages, and because it was easy. I’m excited about the potential to empower folks to convey effective messages personally, breaching our bubbles more effectively than packaged media can alone.

Lee Crawford, Senior UX Designer

Prioritizing visual design

I’ll admit it: I’m guilty of doomscrolling. But all that doomscrolling (or, as I like to call it, industry research) has reminded me just how important investing in and prioritizing visual design is to any organization, movement, or company. Stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines have led to jarring increases in screen time and content consumption, making it even harder to break through to supporters, customers, and fans than in “normal times.” 

Despite how much content I’ve consumed over the past nine months, there are some campaigns and organizations that have stuck with me — thanks to their clear and consistent visual design. The MTA’s “State of Respect” campaign, in which they partnered with the Brooklyn-based design agency Conquistadors, not only grabs your attention but also delivers a clear and important message — all while reflecting the great diversity of the city that MTA serves. On the other end of the design spectrum, Anti-Racism Daily, which was started by Nicole Cardoza in the wake of George Floyd’s death to discuss the dismantling of white supremacy, is committed to the tenets of clarity and consistency. Anti-Racism Daily’s Instagram grid consists almost entirely of informative Instagram slideshows, with the first slide being a text-only graphic in an earth-tone hue that gets straight to the point, like “Acknowledge whiteness in classical art” or “Fight for food insecurity.” 

Not only have I found myself sharing content from these sources, but it feels like my eye is now trained to stop when I see these graphics (or something like them). That is the power of visual design. And I’m hopeful that leaders across the political and nonprofit world will continue to recognize this power and invest in visual design talent earlier and more often in 2021.

Julianna Egner, Director, Project Management

Bad actors in the email space

Political fundraising emails weren’t just in our inboxes this election cycle. They were in the depths of progressive Twitter and headlines of outlets like Vox. From the melodramatic subject lines like McConnell is TREMBLING [600%-MATCH], to Trojan horse appeals disguised as flight or interview confirmations (in a time of limited travel and record unemployment, no less), to the inundation of 10, 15, 20+ messages a day from a single organization … it’s not hard to see why.

And, to an extent, I get it. In my own work as a fundraiser, especially now during year-end, there’s a very real temptation to dial it — the tactics, the volume, the urgency — all the way up when the chips are down. Which usually works in the short term but carries with it the huge risk of burning out supporters and losing their trust. 

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the repercussions of disillusioning activists that go beyond an unsubscribe. What do bad actors do to the efficacy of the channel itself? I’m mulling over questions like: What are our responsibilities as organizers to our craft and to the audiences who keep our movements strong? What does it mean to be an ethical messenger? Do ethics even matter? 

To that last question, I’ve arrived confidently at “yes.” In grassroots movement-building, ethics have to matter. Respect and trust have to matter. Boundaries have to matter in digital relationships, just as in our personal lives, so that we can be wary of crossing them. 

Behind every “unsubscribe” is a real person who stared at their computer or phone, considering whether or not to hit the button — and as organizations devalue their audiences with over-the-top matches and sensationalized need, it becomes easier and easier for them to devalue us, too.

Gabby Greenberg, Associate Strategist

Pandemic-induced accessibility & digital organizing

To have a baby in 2020 was to feel isolation in a whole new way. At a time when my village was supposed to gather around me, I was on lockdown in a small apartment, scared to go outside, mourning the loss of a period in my life that I thought would be full of joy and family.

This experience of isolation was new for me, but it’s not a new experience. We live in a world that often refuses to make accommodations for the elderly, those with chronic and mental health issues, those facing disability, and many others. Loneliness is its own epidemic, and it’s been with us well before the coronavirus.

So if there’s one thing I will celebrate about 2020, it’s that it forced institutions that rely on in-person experiences to get creative. This included political campaigns. Phone banking from home was made so much richer through the thought and care that campaign volunteers put into training, Zoom check-ins, and break-out groups. The “Text for Biden” Slack channel was WILD, but it was clear people found joy and connection in sharing their texting wins.

For an individual for whom knocking on doors or attending political rallies may be out of reach, organizing — and the community connections that come with it — became more accessible in 2020. I hope I’m not the only one who felt less alone because of it.

Kaitlin Juleus, Director, Content & Campaigns

The power of more traditional forms of communication

Getting together with a friend in a park and writing letters to voters was a 2020 highlight. We weren’t alone. Vote Forward’s 2020 election project, The Big Send, ultimately had more than 180,000 volunteers all across the country send more than 17 million letters.

As with most things, my teenage sister, Zofia, somehow figured out this lesson first. A couple years ago, she had the opportunity to attend an event with a bipartisan group of U.S. senators. Taking inspiration from youth climate activists around the world, she decided to personally deliver letters to them at the event. The letters shared why, as a high school freshman and aspiring nurse, she was so passionate about the issue. A few senators actually wrote back, with one responding with a handwritten note urging my sister to keep up her activism and interest in science. 

In this remote activist world, driving calls to legislators is among the most effective actions we can do. But at this moment, I’m increasingly interested in older forms of communication — things like handwritten letters, conference lines, and neighborhood groups. On the activist’s side, they help us feel rooted and connected. And on the target audience’s side, whether legislators or voters, they seem to inspire a different and more personal response.

Sabina Tarnówka, Senior Strategist

Tiktok for driving meaningful activism

The short answer? Yes. This social media platform is long past the days of just being known for catchy 15-second dance videos that captivate the attention of millions. With 800+ million active users globally — 100 million in the US alone — it would be a HUGE missed opportunity for companies, organizations, elected officials, and brands to not explore how to genuinely engage with such diverse audiences on this platform. 

From advocating for abortion rights and calling out MAGA falsehoods to supporting the Black Lives Matter Movement, TikTok users are taking storytelling to the next level, and many are weaving their identity with politics and culture — capturing the zeitgeist in a compelling video that can be easily shared and distributed widely. I slept on Snapchat’s power and potential when it was first released and won’t make that same mistake again!

Lauren Tsuboyama, VP, Strategic Communications