Digital Organizing Tech: 2020 Investments and Learnings
By: Vishal Disawar and Jeff Chang
The Biden for President campaign was tasked with a vital yet nearly insurmountable job — organize hundreds of thousands of volunteers to talk to millions of voters across our critical battleground states to turn them out to vote for Joe, and do it all online in light of the pandemic.
Thanks to our staff and volunteers, a massive movement was built online, and we won.
From the start, we had to ask ourselves the following questions every single day about the tools we were using to reach voters and engage volunteers:
- What core functionality do we need to build to enable staff to execute on their voter contact program plans?
- How can we design the most intuitive volunteer experience across our platforms that achieves our organizing goals?
- How do we ensure our tools can scale to handle the massive volunteer energy being built up across our voter contact programs?
To answer these questions, we (Jeff and myself) collaborated closely with our vendors, tech team, data/analytics team, and digital organizing teams.
As Digital Organizing Platforms Director, my role was focused on collaborating with leadership in each of our digital organizing department verticals (distributed organizing, online communities, states programs, and digital engagement) to identify opportunities for our program to optimize our end-user experience for staff, volunteers, and voters with our organizing platforms. Additionally, I’d work with PMs (internal and vendors) to provide strategic direction on scoping for our projects as well as manage the click to messenger chatbot advertising program.
As Senior Product Manager for Organizing tools on the tech team, Jeff’s role was focused on directly managing vendor relationships for organizing tools, gathering feature requirements, scoping projects, ensuring progress to internal and external milestones, and coordinating directly with software engineers to ensure rollouts for new features were smooth, secure, and stable.
Throughout the campaign, we’ve learned key lessons on what has worked well and what could be improved to best support organizing teams that we wanted to share. Above all else, tools should always serve organizers in their objectives, and the successes of our platforms are a direct result of our program teams putting together and executing effective plans along with vendors and engineers who were enthusiastic about building for our needs.
When needed and if possible, utilize dedicated infrastructure and run with two tools for core programs
For our calls programs, our campaign primarily utilized ThruTalk — a predictive dialer that automatically dials cell phones and landlines, connecting a volunteer with the next available voter that picks up. This allowed our teams to optimize our volunteers’ time to have far more conversations. Our campaign collectively made a record breaking 332 million calls.
For our peer-to-peer text programs, our campaign utilized ThruText to enable volunteers to quickly text large lists of voters one-by-one and continue the conversation with those that reply — enabling all departments collectively to send 334 million texts, breaking another record.
The calls and text programs were going to be the largest drivers of direct voter contact — given we couldn’t do in-person activities in a pandemic. To make sure we could scale to the millions of calls to make and texts to send, we arranged to have our accounts on dedicated infrastructure.
As we began to scale our calls program we reached the mechanical limits of LiveVox, the underlying calls provider ThruTalk utilizes, in their ability to support the number of callers we had at a given time (having too many volunteers is a unique, but good problem to have!). We then invested in another dialer, VPB Connect. Campaign leadership split off some of our programs to utilize that as their primary dialer — resulting in an overall additional 10 million calls made.
With ThruText, we prioritized sending texts using two texting providers simultaneously — Bandwidth and Twilio. This enabled us to continue sending messages even if there was a service disruption or significant delays with either of the providers.
Larger scale campaigns should consider launching their core programs with two tools — even if one of them will only be used at limited capacity to start — so that it’ll be far easier to switch over if the primary tool has any service disruptions or use both tools simultaneously to further scale.
Furthermore, vendors should work closely with campaigns who are operating with their tools at high volumes and ask for relevant projections to ensure their platform can handle the traffic patterns (including spikes).
Personalization is key to optimizing on multiple goals simultaneously
The JoeBiden.com website was the starting point for many new supporters to get involved with the campaign. The website needed to optimize for 3 key goals — donations, votes, and volunteer recruitment.
In addition to signup flow optimizations directing volunteers to the highest-impact activities for their specific state, the website, fundraising, and digital organizing teams collaborated to personalize the homepage experience of a visitor based on their location, if they’ve previously donated or signed up on the website, and the date. Starting in October, if a new website visitor was in one of our core 8 battleground states, the homepage content provided those visitors with a way to learn more about Joe’s story / vision and voting asks relevant to their state (e.g. push to early vote before state early vote deadline).
The personalization enabled us to collect 120,000 volunteer signups, drive 30,000 polling location lookups on IWillVote.com, and an additional 220,000 visits to IWillVote voter education, voter registration, and vote by mail pages.
Experiment with new methods and platforms
One of the biggest limitations our campaign had while organizing during a pandemic was not being able to reach key voters that we didn’t have phone numbers for. We experimented with reaching those voters over Facebook, via click to messenger ads, and have them engage in a conversation with a chatbot. We partnered with Authentic Campaigns to place ads and utilized the Amplify.ai platform to build out the conversational flows.
We ran ads across battleground states in the final 3 weeks of the campaign and spent $2M — which resulted in 247,000 unique conversations (about $8 /convo) with voters we were unable to reach up until that point and help Biden supporters make a plan to vote.
Additionally, we worked with the Amplify.ai team to build an integration to HelpScout, the helpdesk software our correspondence team used to engage with supporters one-to-one. The integration handed over conversations to correspondence volunteers when a voter said they’re undecided or needed help making a plan to vote — enabling 3,000 additional voters to make their plan.
Scale how you guide your supporters and volunteers
Voting during a pandemic was going to be new for our supporters who were either unsure of how they should vote or wanted to learn more about how to vote by mail or vote early — and have never done so before.
The digital organizing team partnered with the Biden tech team and the DNC’s IWillVote.com team to build MakeAPlan.com, an interactive experience that walked you through your voting options step-by-step to make sure a voter understood the process and provided them the resources to vote successfully. By election day, the website received 559,000 unique pageviews with 112,000 voters completing their plan to vote.
Additionally, our campaign utilized Vote Joe (a whitelabeled version of the Outvote app) to enable the campaign’s relational team to guide volunteers to text family/friends in their contacts and help them make a plan to vote based on their state and get involved with the campaign — enabling 200,000 relational conversations.
Automate core and time consuming tasks for your staff and volunteers
Automating key tasks became crucial to help staff train and support more volunteers at scale.
The Biden campaign utilized MobilizeAmerica for event recruitment because their platform made volunteer management easy and automated various forms of volunteer re-engagement. When all events became virtual because of the pandemic, we collaborated with the Mobilize team to roll-out a Zoom integration and have their links automatically texted/emailed to attendees right before the event. Our campaign recruited 5.5 million shifts via the Mobilize platform from April — Nov 2020.
For other areas where we saw pain points or inefficiencies, the internal tech and data/analytics teams built custom tools which either integrated on top of vendor platforms or ran alongside them, to optimize workflows and maximize impact. For example, the internal tech team built tools for quickly assigning/triaging text messages and the internal data/analytics team built tools for creating custom texting campaigns. Both of these endeavors were done by coordinating with the vendor in order to use their APIs. The internal tech team also built a custom Slackbot to walk new volunteers through various onboarding steps, which reduced the burden on human volunteer staff. Security measures against bad actors were also enforced across tools when possible.
Strategy and Operations
To ensure we focused on the highest impact projects, we established the following framework for prioritizing projects with vendors and internal analytics/tech teams:
First, ensure all programs have the core functionality they need to run their operation
- Core functionality also included stability and scalability improvements to make sure platforms could stay up as growth rates exponentially grew — and these were always prioritized first. The exception sometimes was quick wins to solve strong pain points or critical upcoming program needs.
Measure impact and capture learnings
- Before investing in optimizations, we made sure to prioritize capturing platform utilization data. This helped to understand where to invest improvements in and learn more about volunteer and voter behavior.
Optimize, automate, and experiment
- Optimizations generally were looked at through a lens of increasing voter contact attempts, improving quality of attempts, or improving staff workflows.
- Quality vs. quantity is a hard balance to strike — but we’d evaluate that trade-off by looking at analytics (e.g. comparing growth rate of voter contact attempts vs. retention / conversation quality) and feedback of pain points affecting staff/volunteers.
Buy vs. build
The 2020 cycle was the first presidential cycle that was able to invest in mostly partnering with existing tech vendors to provide voter contact and volunteer engagement tools vs. building platforms from scratch because of the growth and investment of the political tech space. Thus, we bought tools that met our needs, fit our budget, and had been proven to show results.
Where possible, campaigns should buy tools that have been proven out so that internal tech/data teams can focus on building more automations and experimental projects with existing tools and their APIs to allow your programs to further innovate.
Support and feedback loops
One of the hardest yet most critical pieces of managing organizing tools on a presidential campaign (with 17 state teams and a national distributed team) is ensuring all teams get the support and training they need, and that a steady cadence of feedback is collected from team members utilizing the tools to inform roadmap and scoping decisions.
Feedback generally came from team leads and tools guidance was usually sent in written format over email. However, we found the most effective way to get feedback and share learnings of effective ways to utilize tools was done via office hour video chats with the staff who were directly managing tools. This wasn’t done often, but should be invested in more in the future.
To ensure our tools functioned properly at all times, we created upstream escalation processes for in-state teams to directly get in touch with the organizing tools team in HQ if any tools were not functioning and vendors were unresponsive or unable to fix an issue rapidly. We also had monitoring in place for the vendor tools we were using and were in constant real-time communication with vendor teams if there was any downtime or issues with their tool(s). If we detected a partial or full outage and determined downtime was going to pass a critical threshold, we would trigger a switch-over to a backup tool. Furthermore, we conducted dry runs of the backup tools and had pre-written contingency plans/processes in place so that these switchovers (when necessary) were as smooth as possible.
The escalation processes were especially critical during the final four days of the election — otherwise known as the Get Out The Vote (GOTV) period, when it was critical for our programs to not have any downtime in voter contact efforts.
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We want to give a major shout-out to the Biden for President tech and data teams, digital organizing teams, and vendors who collaborated with us to be able to support staff and volunteers in their critical work to do hard things and talk to voters to elect Biden and Democrats down the ballot.
If you have any questions or feedback for us, feel free to drop us a line!
Vishal Disawar: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jeff Chang: email@example.com