The Future of Organizing is Relational

By Russell Mindich

Successful political organizing programs are built on mutual trust. However, campaigns often struggle to establish trust while striving to tackle tangible electoral goals. Budget crunches, ambitious contact targets, and tight time frames make it nearly impossible for campaigns to optimize each individual interaction with voters; at the same time, voting decisions are deeply personal, and voters are best persuaded by uniquely targeted messages on their most frequented platforms. While the increasing number of channels for voter outreach makes it easier than ever for campaigns to meet voters where they are, it also incentivizes campaigns to strive for quantity over quality.

In order to build broader coalitions of supporters, reduce voter contact fatigue, and re-establish genuine familiarity, campaigns should meet voters through whom they are most likely to listen. That’s the advantage of relational organizing: Outvote’s central philosophy for voter engagement.

Relational outreach is contact between voters who know each other, like friends or family members. It has proven to be 3–4x more effective than cold contact from a campaign, which makes sense: aren’t you more likely to take political cues from a close relative or best friend than from a stranger who shows up at your door? Campaigns are now opting to include a relational program in their toolbox of voter contact strategies, as it’s become hard to ignore glaring data on the efficacy of friend-to-friend outreach.

Relational organizing is not a new concept. To some extent, it’s what community organizers have always been doing. One of the first concrete forms of voter contact used in American elections was rooted in relationships. Yard signs, dating back to John Quincy Adams’ 1820 campaign, served as both an awareness raising and persuasion tool — neighbor endorsements, displayed via signs planted in front of homes, leverage the same social influence that makes Facebook such a powerful organizing force today. But until recently, campaigns have not had the digital tools necessary to prompt and scale friend-to-friend organizing. The political technology industry was birthed after Obama’s 2012 campaign and expedited by the creation of Higher Ground Labs in 2017. Outvote and many other pivotal technology companies are now working to improve campaigning by scaling effective outreach programs across the entire progressive movement.

The history of campaign strategies for reaching voters is directly correlated to the development of the modern media. Over the course of the last century, the introduction of radios, televisions, phone banks, mailers, tech-enabled door-to-door canvassing operations, web pages, email marketing programs, SMS, and social media platforms drove the evolution of political organizing.

Scalable relational organizing tech represents the most recent milestone in this evolution. But digital relational tools stand out from the landscape of political messaging developments, as relational organizing did not emerge in response to a particular development in the broader media. Rather, it represents a long-overdue shift in campaigns’ foundational outlook on political engagement. We’re already seeing progressive campaigns, organizations, and political tech companies take the monumental step towards a relational future.

The Obama campaign’s “Snowflake model” represented the progressive movement’s foray into distributed (decentralized) and relational organizing. The Snowflake model operates through a network of super-volunteers, who are tasked with building the organizing infrastructure for their local community and recruiting their friends and neighbors to join the effort. By empowering motivated supporters to organize in their own communities, the Obama campaign harnessed the power of friend-to-friend outreach and demonstrated relational and distributed organizing’s vast power on the national stage.

Recognizing the idea that vocal, local supporters are the most trusted messengers for their communities, Organizing Core 2020 began recruiting young activists to be Field Organizers for this cycle’s presidential campaign. By training organizers to take on leadership roles in their community, Organizing Corps 2020 began building the infrastructure for successful relational, community-based organizing programs in 2020 and beyond.

Digital organizing tools such as Outvote, Mobilize, and OpenField, all make relational and distributed organizing more manageable and effective. Outvote enables campaigns and volunteers to conduct nearly all of their traditional functions through an app and web page, but instead of limiting volunteers to only contacting strangers, Outvote lets you upload your contact list and digitally canvass your friends. Mobilize enables supporters to create and promote their own advocacy events on behalf of a campaign, reflecting the principles of the Snowflake model. OpenField encourages volunteers to canvass their local communities without being limited by a strict campaign script; instead, supporters can take notes on lengthy, free-form conversations with their neighbors that OpenField then translates into actionable insights.

Relational organizing facilitates successful voting outcomes without forcing campaigns to adopt an entirely new medium. Relational organizing still takes place at Americans’ door steps, in their inbox, or on their social media feeds; the difference is who delivers the campaign’s message. Outvote makes this work even more efficient with our simple interface prompting voters to reach out to their friends.

In short, campaigns are beginning to recognize that the messenger matters just as much as the message. By matching voters with their most trusted messenger, rather than their most frequented platform, campaigns can reach voters in a setting where they are most inclined to be receptive.

Interested in using Outvote for your campaign’s relational organizing program? Reach out to our VP of Sales, Jamie McGonnigal, at jamie@outvote.io.

Outvote is a friend-to-friend texting app for political campaigns and advocacy organizations. Follow us @joinoutvote on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.