Turning Engagement into Empowerment | npENGAGE

Turning Engagement into Empowerment

By on Aug 25, 2011


The following post is by Joshua Gee. Joshua is a public relations professional, political technologist,
social media nerd, amateur public policy wonk, Eagle Scout, bleeding
heart liberal and a son of the American Revolution. He currently works
as a Digital Strategist at Alipes CME and previously served as New Media
Director for Governor Deval Patrick’s successful re-election campaign.
He has also worked on several political campaigns and in Public Affairs
at Edelman New York. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jgee
and at his blog, joshua-gee.com.

Most of us have some experience with many of the things we consider engagement on this blog. We have strategies for crafting compelling email campaigns or fostering communities on different social networks. We know how to work with our volunteers and donors to get them to support our organizations. We know how to engage our supporters, but what about empowering them?

That is what we did when Deval Patrick ran for reelection Governor of Massachusetts. Traditional campaigns rely on a field plan that focuses on phone banks, going door-to-door, and rallies. Larger ones have new media, press outreach, and advertising strategies. The silos occasionally overlap, but not very often. In the end, you get a structure like this:

That was the structure we had used successfully on the Governor’s first campaign. However, we knew it wouldn’t work this time. We were in the middle of a recession, Governor Patrick was at a historic low in the polls, and Senator Scott Brown had just been elected in a huge upset, energizing the Republican party and deflating Democrats.

Beyond the political realities, we were facing a voting public that was better than ever before at filtering out messages they don’t want to receive. Gmail filters out the unimportant as a matter of course, people are getting savvier at managing their social networks, and when was the last time you answered the phone when you didn’t recognize the caller ID?

We felt that we would have a very hard time engaging with our supporters and communicating with the general public if we utilized the same old tactics. We needed more from our supporters than just making phone calls, knocking on doors, and stuffing envelopes.

When someone asked how they could help, we didn’t ask them to attend a phone bank or write a check. Instead, we asked them to pledge to talk to 50 of their friends about why they supported Governor Patrick. We didn’t care if the people they talked to were Democrats, if they planned to vote for the Governor, or even if they were registered to vote; we just wanted them to have those conversations. We asked our supporters to become organizers.

Eventually, our organizers got more comfortable talking about the Governor. Once they had exhausted their initial round of conversations, we started sending them messages and campaign updates so they could go back to their circle of friends and keep them posted on the election. Not only were we drawing people who were likely supporters closer to us, we were reaching new groups and networks traditional campaign tactics might miss. People were getting updates about the campaign from their friends and neighbors – a much more powerful source than any newspaper article or TV ad.

We also equipped our organizers with new digital tools to help them communicate with their friends quickly, to report back the campaign, and even run their own fundraising campaigns. By the time we finished, we ended up with a campaign structure that looked something like this:

In the words of one political journalist, this was “a plan that some think is somewhere between moronic and insane.” It was a nightmare to track and very hard to hold our regional organizing staff accountable. But that was the point, we weren’t trying to build a movement based on contact percentages and Voter ID totals. We were trying to empower our supporters to have conversations. That meant our campaign would win the book clubs, the soccer fields, and the coffee shops where people make their life decisions. Beyond that, we were giving our supporters the tools to run full-on campaigns, doing their own field organizing, communicating, and fundraising within their social networks. This let us reach around around media and technological filters.

It wasn’t perfect, and we still ran robust traditional field, finance, and communications campaigns to complement it. It also required a lot of trust in our organizers. We basically said, “You know how to talk about the campaign better than we, the campaign staff, do.” Some of them didn’t always do a great job, and many of them pushed back strongly at the new things we were asking them to do.

However, many, from campaign neophytes to seasoned veterans, embraced this idea and went far beyond what were asked them to do. By the time the primary rolled around, we had over 7,624 organizers who had identified 33,404 voters. This was comparable to the number of IDed voters we had in 2006, when then-candidate Patrick was skyrocketing and we had a competitive primary driving us. People were regularly talking to their friends and neighbors about the Governor, and his approval rating had climbed from 28% to 49% percent.

So, as you read another blog post on how to squeeze a higher open-rate out of your next email campaign or see a link on the top ten ways to have great conversation on Twitter, take a step back. Engaging with your supporters in those ways is great, but really empowering them to represent your organization is better. It is messy, it requires a lot of work and trust from both you and your supporters. However, your supporters are smart and they believe in the same things you do. More importantly, they have social networks — online and offline — that, with a little prodding, they will use to help your organization achieve its goals.


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