The Audacity of Taking Risks: an interview with Lori Coleman

Despite a desire to bring positive change into the world, many of us often feel timid about jumping into organising large-scale systems-changing projects because we feel we don’t have enough experience or structural support. That’s one of the things that most inspires us about DemCast’s story. Tectonica’s CEO Ned Howey recently sat down with Lori Coleman, co-founder and Director of Digital Strategy at DemCast to talk to her about what inspired her to create DemCast despite having zero background in professional politics, its immense impact on political races across the U.S., and the ‘audacity’ of taking risks and learning from failure.


Their operation had a tremendous impact, generating thirty-six billion organic impressions on Twitter with the DemCast hashtags (equal to $234 million USD in paid promotion). Moreover, DemCast partnered with about one hundred and twenty local and national organizations all across the U.S. Read excerpts from their interview here. 

Ned Howey: A lot of people don’t feel like they can make a big systemic change because they don’t have the background or experience or work for a company or organization that does digital work. What I find truly inspiring about what you did is that this isn’t a field that you’d been working in for years, and you were able to jump in and create something so critically important and big. What was your background coming into this?

Lori Coleman:  My career background is in health care. I've spent 30 years being a physical therapist who specialises in geriatric therapy. I communicate and direct remote teams in multiple locations. So from a management perspective, I understand what it's like to connect like-minded people and help them learn remotely the skills they need to be successful. 

I ended up joining a group on Twitter that coalesced in the wake of Trump being elected, and we started training people. None of us were career Democratic operatives. We were able to come together in message rooms and train probably two hundred people on how to be social media rock stars on Twitter. Our focus was strongly on making sure that you're sharing source material that defends what you're saying: show your receipts. We weren’t just focused on Trump. Jon Ossoff ran for a special election in 2017 and we got involved in that, but not through his campaign. We independently decided to use social media to educate people about what his platform is, encourage people to register to vote, remind them to vote, and inform them of their rights when they're in line. Basically just finding ways to move people to action and helping them understand that you can be an activist on a digital platform or an in-person platform. 

Our goal at DemCast is to be the megaphone for the grassroots that says, “Look at this cool thing these folks over here are doing.” “Check out this awesome candidate.” “How can we support your candidacy?” “Tell us about the issues in your state or district.” Our approach was so radically different from everybody else's. The vast majority of what we do is through partners on the ground. We listen to the people in the state and ask how we can help get their word out. A lot of times they don't know how to formulate the message in a way that it will come across on digital, so we offer training. Last year we did some training for individuals and groups doing things on a local level. There’s a group of people in Vermont that wrote postcards and is composed of older women who supported flipping Pennsylvania blue, for example. 

Ned Howey: I'm wondering if there's any insights from the work that you did with DemCast for what they can do better or learnings that we can pass along about how they can help amplify those voices in a world that is very ready to shut them down.

Lori Coleman: When I tweet something and I would get people trolling me on my tweet, I don't pay any attention to that, and I would never directly respond to someone who's doing that. I'm not going to respond to crazy talk. But I might respond to myself and say something [to clarify the reality]... But we don't owe them any oxygen, is what I would tell people. We don't have a troll hunting army. We don't do that. There are other groups out there that do that, and that's fine. I've been down that rabbit trail and it can suck you dry. I just feel like my time is better spent on pushing out a good message rather than chasing all the people who have a bad message. Now and again, I might respond to a bad message that's out there, but it's a standalone message from me explaining why this is bad.

Ned Howey: I wanted to get your hot take on a couple of things about failures. You mentioned that you just went out there and did this pilot, which in itself is amazing and finding that something's worked and didn't work. But I find a lot of our industry is also very scared to take risks sometimes in a world, in an industry, especially when we're talking specifically about digital organizing; there's not that much out there on what actually works and doesn't work. Still, there's a big empty space. And so we're still learning a lot. And I'm wondering about taking risks and any input on when to take that risk or to what degree you should be afraid of failure, to begin with. Or when to try a new approach, a new strategy, a new technique and a tool, whatever that is.

Lori Coleman:  For one thing, it's just not being afraid of failing. You know, if you don't take any risk at all, you're going to stay right where you're at. So, if you're happy where you're at, then you should keep on doing the same thing. But if there are things that you want to change, you have to risk failure. So I think DemCast did that. In hindsight, I think knowing what we know now, we probably would have chosen fewer states to focus on. It was a hard decision because it felt like all the races were important. 

We got input from all of our partners on the ground on maybe narrowing our focus as we have very limited resources. We had basically one paid full-time person last year. Still, we generated thirty-six billion organic impressions on Twitter with the DemCast hashtags. If you could pay to promote that material, which you can't, it's about $234 million USD worth of paid promotional material. We generated a million dollars in small-dollar contributions to candidates, which was another outcome that we didn't anticipate having. 

Ned Howey: You are showing that a small team can have a big impact if taking risks and trying new strategies as well as touch base with people on the ground. And it wasn't even your strategic focus, right?

Lori Coleman: No, it was at the spur of the moment and that's one of our failures actually. We picked our focus 14 states and set up state contribution tandem funds on ActBlue including our target candidates in that state. The idea was that if somebody wanted to adopt a state, they could contribute to that fund and they would know that the money is going to candidates that we feel had a chance to win. It just didn't work. In reality, when you go and you have $25 to give to somebody and you're going to a page that is going to split your twenty-five dollars across twenty-five candidates, you end up not giving money because you think “I'm only giving a dollar to each of these”. Doesn't feel like you're making an impact at all. We still had people contribute, but that was not a good fundraising strategy. 

Ned Howey: I'm just so blown away by what you've accomplished. The fact that we've seen so many people, better-funded or better-resourced than you, wanting to do big things but you guys really dove in and made it happen, were nimble, learned along the way and found a way to impact the structure online in order to amplify those forces and have amazing results for election. Thank you!

Lori Coleman: I like to think we played a small part in that, but it takes the power of the community. It is the power of people and giving the tools to people so that they can actually have an impact. That’s extremely rewarding to me, teaching people how to lift and use their voice.