Every year, Higher Ground Labs reviews the latest innovations in the political tech space.
They have recently released their report on the last 2022 mid-terms in the US, and a lot of the report is specific to the dynamics of US elections — so what, if anything, can unions learn from the report?
Hybrid virtual and in-person tactics
The 2022 mid-terms saw a lot of scrutiny on canvassing techniques (door-knocking for persuasion). In particular, the trend for “deep canvassing” (which got talked up by outlets like Vox) was criticised for being ineffective, expensive or impossible to implement.
Nonetheless, the Democrats and their partners saw major gains in engaging young people at events, e.g. with voter registration at concerts.
Another bright spot is the use of technology-amplified relational organising, where tools allow volunteers to find contacts in their phone book to call/SMS and engage about voting. By matching volunteer contacts to voter rolls, tools like Rally/Relentless claim a significant increase in voter turnout.
The promise of tools like Rally for unions in Australia are significant. Imagine if your workplace leaders and delegates could link their phone books to high quality lists of leads and potential members — combined with talking points for having recruitment or campaign conversations. As a movement, we could unlock thousands of connections that we didn’t know existed.
The Democrats in 2022 prioritised in-person door-knocking, and faced a major challenge of a volunteer/worker shortage. At the same time, newer techniques like SMS have seen declining contact rates. Consequently, many campaigns mixed Zoom with in-person events and activities — but the Higher Ground Labs report notes that doing this remains a challenge.
Hybrid organising is a challenge well known to unions. The Democrats don’t seem to have solved this.
Shared data exchange and warehousing
A few years ago, the Republicans in the US leapfrogged the Democrats in the data space, by launching the Data Trust. This gathered all of the voter-file data held by Republicans into a single (for-profit) organisation — whereas the Democrats’ data was still held in silos across each state and party organisation.
In 2019, the Democrats tried to address this by creating the Democratic Data Exchange (DDx), and in 2022 it was far more widely adopted by Democrat campaigns.
Improvements to data collection and analysis significantly improved efficiency in door-knocking and phone-calls (canvassing), and improved accuracy of polling. The Democrat campaigns also started to share phone data for voter outreach, meaning that phone records were updated across campaigns.
All of this benefited not just the Democrat campaigns, but also advocacy organisations and US unions who are also in the “eco-system”.
For unions, data and analytics remains a major area of untapped potential. As a movement we would benefit enormously from developing shared suites of data analysis tools for organising, communications, industrial and bargaining. More investment is needed here. Without better, easier to use tools, and staff with the skills to make sense of the data, our potential will continue to be hindered.
Especially for unions engaging with the Union Innovation Hub, and transitioning to the IMIS membership system, there is exciting work being done in this area.
The Democrats in 2022 relied significantly on getting out the youth vote. Engaging with influencers (both paid and unpaid) was therefore vital to reach under 30s who increasingly don’t consume traditional media like TV, radio or even social platforms like Facebook. Tiktok and Instagram were the favourite platforms for reaching young people — both platforms are heavily populated with influencers.
For unions, developing an influencer plan is an area of potential. For the Democrats, any influencer who had 10,000 or more followers was considered as part of their program.
These micro-influencers could also be a good target for union engagement — especially as research suggests that young people have positive attitudes to unions (even if they’re not joining in large numbers — read more about recruiting young workers here). Micro-influencers can also be very local (geographically speaking) or have followings in specific niches. This means you could engage with people in specific regions or cities, or for particular interests.
The Democrats also used platforms like Greenfly to distribute campaign material to influencers. This platform is typically used by sports marketing teams to share social media content with Gen Z influencers and content creators, and allow those content creators to mix and edit the content themselves.
Social media: Tiktok and Facebook
For the Democrats, Tiktok and Facebook are the two main social media channels of importance for reaching voters. Tiktok is mainly for reaching Gen Z voters, and Facebook for older voters. However, Facebook continues to decline in terms of its user-base and its return on time spent/ad money spent.
In Australia, Facebook remains by far the largest social media network. Unions should continue to focus most of their efforts on this platform above others. The major risk with Facebook is its aging user-base, and its growing hostility to “brands” and pages. Over the past year, this has meant organic (non-paid) engagement and reach has massively dropped for almost all pages and brands.
For unions specifically targeting under-25s, Tiktok is worth considering. A large and growing number of Gen Z people use Tiktok daily, and use it to find news and information. But it comes with some major warnings — including the possibility of a ban in the US and Australia, and the fact that using it effectively has a steep learning curve. Moreso than other social platforms, Tiktok has a “vibe” that requires authenticity and a high degree of digital meme literacy.
US campaigns have the advantage that almost all union campaigns lack: access to large amounts of money. Consequently, the US campaigns are able to benefit from field-campaign and advertising campaigns that extend over 12 months or more.
For example, the Higher Ground Labs report notes an example of a six-month campaign of persuasion advertising resulted in impressive results.
The take-away: continuous campaigning works, especially for persuasion. If you want to change peoples’ minds, then it is hard to do over a short period of a few months leading up to an election. But if you spend six months or 12 months reinforcing the same key message — then you can see results.
The full report is available here.