Political Parties: Five Concrete Steps To Put The Five Part Framework for Digital Organizing Into Action Today

Contributor: Ned Howey

Five concrete examples of how any party can implement digital actions across the framework for powering people-based growth.

Since we launched the Five Part Framework for Digital Organising in 2020, we’ve heard from those campaigning around the world how helpful it has been in understanding what work they are doing, and more importantly, what work they aren’t doing that they should be. 

Note: We originally developed the framework to help us map the multitude of online campaigning activities as part of the European Report on the State of Digital Organizing. The order of these categories is dependent on levels of supporter engagement, beginning with one-way communication, moving through top-down direction, and ending with activists creating strategies / acting autonomously. As decision-making is decentralised, relationships develop and are sustained through the organising activities.

The report painted a clear picture that the more decentralized and personalized an action was, the less likely it was to feature in the campaigns we surveyed. 

Note: When comparing the activities survey participants said should feature in a successful digital campaign with what they actually do, the difference becomes apparent. As activities are more decentralised, organisations are doing less of the activities they know they should be doing.

As the report and framework took wings, though, we soon learned  that the trends we observed in Europe were not specific to the continent. While we have not conducted studies to provide proper data to confirm this, we heard clearly that the same issues with campaign practices existed fairly universally in progressive campaigns around the world - including in those in North America. 

We’ve also heard quite clearly from those in political parties (particularly small and medium parties) and seen in many parties we’ve worked with, that the Framework almost perfectly described where they were stuck, the types of activities they were not conducting, and the places they were not innovating. What also became clear was that while the framework is a great tool for diagnosing the problem, parties are often stuck understanding its implications for how they should be operating as a result.

While this is work we do closely with our clients around the globe - to identify and implement the best places to grow their digital organizing practice strategically for their context, and we’d love to help even more parties - we often hear that they feel they can’t innovate due to limited resources. We’ve heard too many times that small budgets were the reasons parties were sticking to a model of the monthly newsletter and not doing much more with their supporters. 

Some digital interventions do require significant money or volunteer teams. But based on our experience, we don’t believe that you need large budgets to operate in a way that pulls from the full range of possibilities across the five different framework areas. In fact, the European Report surprised us by showing that while resources were a barrier to true deeper organizing, knowledge of how to do so was actually a greater impediment. 

While there are multitudes of digital campaign actions that can follow under any one of these areas, here are five concrete examples of how any party can implement digital actions across the framework for powering people-based growth. These are just a few of our favorites here. 

1. Broadcast Communications & Social Media:

Suggestion: Use Communications as an Invitation to Participate 

We’ve seen political parties become increasingly better in recent years at getting outside of the campaign team’s thinking and into who they need strategically to be talking with to win elections (although we also know there is a lot more work to be done there). That said, we also find communications in general to continue to be extremely focussed on issues without any accompanying action for the audience.

We believe continually sharing what you stand for as a party in order to educate can be ineffective even at the communications level. People live in a world of social media where being able to participate, see the opinions of their peers, and take actions is taken for granted. If there is no role for stepping up and taking part in solving the problem identified, not only can the repetition of messaging without engagement feel patronizing, it can reinforce the natural tendency to distrust the authoritative voices sending the message. If the message is accompanied by an invitation, it will be easier for the audience to see themselves in the movement, buy-in as part of the effort, and grow needed trust.

Additionally, and perhaps even more importantly, a good narrative can get reach and attention, but misses a huge opportunity to grow power that can come from the supporters themselves. From fundraising, to volunteers at GOTV time, to new members, this is a huge set of ways to drive power from people for elections besides just voting. Without giving the higher value opportunities with an invitation to more deeply engage, the full potential of people within your campaign is being passed over. 

For social media - where much of the “noise” happening around your party is taking place, we recommend roughly a third of your content should be linked to an invitation to take action.

2. Recruitment, List Building & Engagement

Suggestion: Make the Sign Up as Low a Barrier as Possible

This very small thing is one of the largest impediments we see currently to political parties growing. Many parties still have their lowest bar engagement as a long and frustrating form. While we know that many political parties need large sets of information for legal implications of membership, accepting donations, etc., it is important to remember that these don’t need to, nor should they, be your lowest bar engagement opportunities with supporters and the public. (Below in section 4 we talk more about development of an accompanying supporter program for those only operating member programs). 

When people are signing up for their first time, certainly the less information you require, the better - but of course you will need at least Name, Email, and GDPR consent (yes, parties outside of Europe, you should also ask for consent to be contacted or not). We recognize that there will likely be a number of other essential fields you will need to ask - location, phone number, etc. - and you will need to weigh the importance to your specific program - but we’d strongly encourage no more than five fields. Remember - you can always get additional data through automated or manual follow ups or on future ‘asks’ to your supporter list. (It's not the last chance to get the data you want and need). 

Lots of political parties just default to the standard “sign up for our newsletter,” however, we find these to be generally not compelling, and to have low conversion rates for list building. Far more compelling is to have sign ups of various types that are more meaningful, hereit specific actions (petitions, pledges, surveys, etc.) or tied to issues themselves that are important to your audience. If you must have a general newsletter sign up, we recommend you don’t frame it as such, but talk about the value people will get from being on the list. “Get information about ways to be involved in our upcoming campaign” is certainly a better CTA than “Sign Up for Our Newsletter.” 

Note: Philippe Bossin, then Digital Strategy at Groen, the Flemish Green Party, talked to us in 2019 about how Groen uses websites to engage people locally and nationally on the issues that matter to them most.

If you absolutely must ask more for data in more than five fields, we recommend you stage the form actually as multiple forms - where the user submits the core contact information before going onto other details. In cases where we’ve implemented this, we’ve found the ratio of completion is around 10 percent, and having the essential information of those who didn’t complete the process allows you to follow up with them. In every case we’ve applied this, we’ve seen very positive results. 

3. Audience Segmentation & Organization-Directed Activism

Suggestion: Segment Your Email Communications and Send Single-Topic Action-based Emails 

There are so many exciting mobilization activities your political party could be doing, from targeted advocacy to online actions -but before you go there, we’d recommend you evaluate your basic email practices. Far too many parties still rely on a regular multi-topic email to supporters and members. The reality is for political work these are usually strategically ineffective. Because they often don’t contain calls to action, the lack of conversion metrics reinforces a myth that they are working, but, quite simply, they are not. 

We recommend a shift from multi-topic newsletters to single-topic action emails and multi-option action emails. Put that CTA button in the email where the person opening it is likely to see it no matter what device they are on. It’s also, of course, great to segment who you are sending to according to information you have about them and their interests. Even simple email programs like Mailchimp allow for this kind of segmentation. Political systems like Action Network often have high level email features specific to campaigning.

And if you are on a higher level CRM system - organizing-specific ones like EveryAction or NationBuilder, or even ones like Hubspot (Enterprise level), the things you can do with automations allow you to really customize, automate, and get huge impact to make the email experience very personalized at a large scale, with little team resource investment once its set up. 

4. Supporter-Based Organizing

Suggestion: Create a Supporter Level of Involvement Outside of Your Membership Program

Many political parties today only focus on their membership programs. While that to some degree makes sense, the reality is that party membership overall is declining - particularly among people under 40. Those that think they can continue to maximize people-power just through their member base without having other ways of being involved are likely to be on the losing end of political power.

Note: We have worked with Parti Socialiste from Belgium to provide two kinds of call to action: Become a member and Become a supporter with compelling and brief explanation behind this action.

While a support program can take many forms and can be large projects, getting started by allowing people to engage and sign up, as well as express how they’d like to contribute, is a key start even for parties that are less resourced. If the lowest bar for participation is being a member, there is likely a huge group of people whose involvement you are missing out on, and, furthermore, many of these might eventually become members, but aren’t willing to start their relationship at that depth. It’s advisable to also be cautious of the problem of the “missing middle,” where low and high bar CTAs exist, but where supporters struggle to find a place between these two or are not able to move up the ladder of engagement. 

Some parties we’ve worked with focus their new supporter programs on moving their supporters up the ladder of engagement. Other parties make the decision not to, recognizing that a separately branded program can have benefits of its own.

It’s great when planning a supporter program to have your team think through all the impacts additional volunteer resources could have for your party. We’d recommend thinking outside the box and trusting that their involvement will pay off in ways beyond just the hours they volunteer. But having these resources on hand outside of party members can make all the difference - particularly when it's campaign time and you plan to mobilize or coordinate a GOTV program.

5. Fully Decentralized Organizing

Suggestion: Ask Members if They Feel Heard

While most political parties have formal mechanisms for party members to participate, we find these formal processes often grow stale and members start to not see their membership as a form of ‘ownership’ over a party, which membership truly should represent. It's understood that considering member voices in decisions - including what policy or issues to take on - can seem like an extra burden, but we fundamentally see it as an investment and one of the most important ones that can be made by any political party.

A party that is truly ready to win using people power is one that has a relationship which Hahrie Han, Michelle Oyakawa and Elizabeth McKenna describe in their work as one of “mutual accountability”. Such a relationship scenario is one which, when established, seems to have almost magical powers in terms of what it can accomplish.

"For an organizer to maintain her “fangs,” she has to be in an “authentic relationship” with her base. In other words, she has to be in an accountable relationship with them, so that leaders and constituents alike remain committed to a shared agenda. With this kind of shared commitment, grounded in mutual accountability, the leader can deliver the constituency in the recurrent ways she needs..."
Prisms of the People: Power & Organizing in Twenty-First-Century America, Elizabeth McKenna, Hahrie Han, and Michelle Oyakawa

Mechanisms that allow members to hold the party to account do not just have to be about voting for positions or party platforms. Policy input, crowdsourcing that is later signed off by party leadership, and small or local group issue development, are just a few of the ways to expand in this direction of input from members. We’ve worked on projects where specific sections of the party website were only accessible to party members and where discussion around policy issues was possible for those who were members. 

How do you know if your members feel the party is accountable and represents them? Simple: ask them. You can phrase such a survey in any number of ways from more general (“do you feel heard”, “do you feel the party represents you, your interests, and priorities”, to more formal “do you feel you have a significant opportunity for a role in the party’s platform”). Being open to the answer here is certainly the key, and is often a great opportunity to genuinely listen. In designing such a survey, you should be preparing to be ready to listen and respond. (There is nothing more disempowering than being asked for your opinion only to be ignored afterwards). If you’ve got some decentralized organizing infrastructure already in place, you can even use members themselves to give input on how to better be engaged, involved, and give input. (And yes, we know that sometimes means opening a dialogue with members about what limitations are due to Party democratic processes). 

Running a political party is never easy. Certainly resources such as staffing, technology, and budget are always in shorter supply than the need. Adding the need to innovate on top of that which the team is already juggling can feel overwhelming, but is very clearly the key to winning more power. The bad news is there is no one tool, tactic, or strategy which serves as a silver bullet to propel things forward. But we’ve seen major advances in parties we’ve worked with, even ones with very limited resources, by aligning a team dedicated to the right practices. Developing people-power as the central driver of the party’s campaigning has serious returns for scaling and winning. While this can look different in many contexts, and certainly go beyond the strategies mentioned here, we hope that these practices can help give some ideas for parties to move forward in innovating their campaign work.