Digital Campaigning in Covid-times, an example

This one is fun. I was in the running for a job, over a year ago. The job involved serving as a consultant to organizations around the world that do online progressive politics of a certain style (emails, petitions, ladder of engagement, etc). I love these organizations, and I think this would have been on the easier and more wholesome side of my options.

Ultimately, I ended up removing myself from the running. (I had a more interesting gig lined up). But the application process was really interesting! To advance in one round of the process, you were given a toy example of a hypothetical digital-first organization, and how it saw things change because of Covid. (This was around May 2020). Given this information, what advice would I give them?

A lot of people don’t really understand what digital campaigning and organizing is. I figure that sharing what I wrote might help. So here it is:

The challenge:

The prompt, edited down: A European organization experienced rapid membership growth since coronavirus hit, but their engagement levels have been dropping lately. What ideas do you have for retention? How can we help their long-term strategy of building member-focused power? Write your response as a 2-page memo.

My response:

My response, edited for clarity and mild obfuscation:

Hello! My name is Sahar, and I’m here to help you think through your membership retention today.

Below, I’m going to walk you through some hypotheses of what might be going on, and how you might validate them. If this is all obvious to you, I apologize. Feel free to skip it! 

I’ll also include 3 tactical ideas of what you might try. 

Through all this, I’m assuming some similarity with some other organizations: (e.g. “member” means “person on the email list”, a lot of work happens through member-driven petitions and email blasts, etc). Since I don’t have a full view of your operation, I must also assume that you *haven’t* tried out what I’m proposing. I imagine at least part of these simplifying assumptions are wrong, and I apologize in advance.

First, identify the problem:

I have two hypotheses for what’s going on. 

Hypothesis A: “Non-political” people are joining because Corona. Then, they’re getting follow-up for actions that are aimed towards existing membership. These new members didn’t think they were signing up for “politics”. So they’re tuning out.

Hypothesis B: People joined because Corona was a big huge problem. Now, it’s both less novel and more exhausting. People are generally tired of Corona-related actions and less energetic and generous. 

To prepare to check these hypotheses, I’d segment your members to find a cohort of “joined pre coronavirus” and a cohort of “joined during coronavirus” members. The former are those who joined in the short amount of time before the surge of membership, and the latter are those who joined in the last 2 months. 

Once you’ve done that, ask the data some questions. Do pre-Corona members have the same MeRa engagement metrics as post-Corona members? Have engagement levels of new members been steady until the last fortnight? Is this an artifact of how you measure? Does the response to member-initiated petitions look different than the response to the staff-initiated campaigns?

Now that we’ve done that, let’s try to validate each hypothesis. If Hypothesis A (apolitical people joining) were true, we’d see that the “pre coronavirus” and “post coronavirus” cohorts look very different, after normalizing for “time since signed up”, and other demographics (if you have them). Post-coronavirus people would tend sign on for relatively less ideological/political appeals, and “pre coronavirus” members would have relatively flat or increasing engagement rates. To sum it up: it would be the “during coronavirus” members that are driving the decline.

If Hypothesis A were correct, we might try treating new members differently for a while. We might exempt them from new email blasts, perhaps making sure to put them through a new ramp-up flow over time, acclimating them to the mission and values of your organization. We might even handpick the right petitions for them. In general, treat them as a separate population (with A/B testing targeted solely to them), as you gradually reintegrate them back into the main population of members.

If, on the other hand, Hypothesis B (Corona fatigue) were true, we’d see pre-and post-surge members acting at roughly the same rates, on both corona and non-corona related content. We’d see Corona related petitions doing worse or equal to others.

Next, execute new tactics:

I’ll address 3 tactics below that might help (and might help in hypothesis A as well.)

3 Tactics for engagement:

I’ve done a short sweep of a subsample of [your] partners around the world. What are they trying specifically in a physical distancing / Corona environment? Some examples: distributing masks and stickers, holding signs in-person while waiting in lines at stores, phones out the window at appointed times blasting a message, twitter storms, petitions and email blasts, etc. While helpful, nothing seemed to stand out as particularly gripping. 

Here are 3 things I suggest you pay attention to, if you haven’t already:

One: Organizing “Get-to-know you calls” in neighborhoods. 

This isn’t a tactic attached to a demand or list growth, but instead builds longer-term relationships. You could make this as structured as you like: maybe give potential hosts facilitation training and a list of questions, or maybe just allow neighbors to find each other and then talk organically. This will neatly tie-in to the existing mutual aid efforts around them, and buy goodwill and deeper engagement in the future.

Two: Go anti-corporate. 

Firms, generally, are both less experienced with, and more vulnerable to, tactics that we generally use on politicians. Are there obvious corporate villains around? Can we pressure them (through petitions, emails, etc) to, for example, pay sick leave, not bust unions, etc? Members might find it a refreshing change of pace.

Three: Find existing online organized online communities.

As you know, digital campaigning was sometimes called “online organizing” in the past. The term fell out of favor, in part, because there are existing things — forums, facebook groups, subreddits — that are indeed organized online communities. Establishing more of a presence in Swiss-specific online groups of this kind not only can fuel raw growth and reach. It can also give members a constructive, fun thing to do. Imagine a tactic like: “Are you a member of one of these 10 subreddits? If so, apply to be a <your org> ambassador there”. 

These are just some ideas. No need to take them on if you dislike them! But I do urge you to pay attention to the analytics part of this one-pager. Understanding the situation allows you to identify potential ways to fix it. Without some analysis, you’re flying blind. 

Hope this was helpful, and thanks again. 

Sahar Massachi