7 Questions on Virtual Canvassing in the Age of COVID-19

by The Campaign Workshop

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Alan Rosenblatt and Craig Johnson on Virtual Canvassing and Digital Communications

Craig Johnson and Alan Rosenblatt are both a part of Unfiltered.Media, where Johnson is the co-founder and Rosenblatt is a partner. Together they have more than 35 years of experience in digital communication. Now, more than ever, virtual canvassing has become essential for the success of campaigns. Here are the 7 questions we asked them to gather their insights on virtual canvassing during COVID-19:

1. What initiated your interests in digital and social media politics?

Alan: From the moment I saw the first web browser (Mosaic) in 1993, I knew this was all about connecting people. People who called the Internet an information revolution were selling it short. It was a communication revolution where people shared information one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-one, and many-to-many. In the 90’s, I referred to social media as “strategic communities,” online communities focused on achieving specific goals.

Craig: My father worked for Intel for most of my life and that afforded me the opportunity to get on the internet during its early formative years. I’ve always had a natural inclination towards technology and after being inspired by Obama’s 2008 run, digital became a natural fit for me. Campaigns always need that one IT person and I ended up always being chosen/volunteering for it. I always knew there was tremendous potential in digital politics and saw natural fits between online communities like ICQ, AIM, blogs, and other real-time chat sites and politics. If you could energize these people, they would energize everyone else, and the best part is I didn’t have to knock any doors to do it.

2. How do you define virtual canvassing?

Alan: Virtual canvassing is targeted person-to-person campaigning via non-face-to-face means. Like door knocking and tabling at offline events, virtual canvassing employs a conversation between campaign staff/volunteers and voters/activists. Thus, email blasts and digital ads that are only one-way communications are NOT virtual canvassing, unless they are part of a program that facilitates a way for people targeted by them to reply back and engage in a conversation with a real person. Messaging people via social media, chat apps, and text messages, like phone-banking programs we are all used to by now, are these new channels for campaigns to engage supporters interactively at a human level without requiring face-to-face interaction.

Craig: I’d like to add one point to what Alan said; that virtual canvassing isn’t just about your ability to have conversations with voters, volunteers, and activists, but with today’s technology the way you go about targeting these cohorts looks very much like traditional canvassing. You can cut virtual turf geographically and by platform - allowing you, much like a conventional walk packet or call packet, to communicate with precisely the right people at the right time. I don’t see much difference between a field manager cutting turf for this next weekend and a digital manager cutting ad placements, peer-to-peer texting programs, or other digital outreach like Facebook messenger or Twitter.

3. What advice do you have for candidates and campaign staff who are virtual canvassing for the first time in their careers?

Alan: Campaigns must be committed to using social media to its fullest potential to be successful at virtual canvassing. As staff and volunteers use social media to reach out to supporters targeted by the campaign, they must engage in conversations, collect contact information, get the people they talk to, to connect with the campaign on social media and email, order lawn signs, and recruit as many supporters as possible into volunteer teams to amplify the campaign’s messages and to do more canvassing themselves. If the campaign is not committed to social media and staffed with people that will put in the virtual legwork needed, it will not be successful.

Craig: Data. Data. Data. Good data hygiene is the difference between success and failure - full stop. Digital canvassing allows you to reach a magnitude of more people than traditional methods. The result is often systems that are unprepared to handle the necessary processing of contacts, tracking follow-up, and other complex tasks as you move activists up the ladder of engagement. Tools like AirTable are replacing Google sheets and providing greater insight and data analytics to programs while allowing many of the same functionality. It’s imperative that campaigns implement new data practices in order to see the forest through the trees and provide real ROI and decision-making metrics to the campaign. 

4. What benefits does virtual canvassing have over door-to-door canvassing?

Alan: SCALE! And it is virus free. Done right, virtual canvassing will reach more people in less time. It is as highly targeted as a walk list but does not require people to open the door to talk to a stranger. As the number of staff/volunteers grow, it is increasingly possible to have virtual canvassers engage with people they already know. But it also allows them to engage with anyone, anywhere.

Craig: I would also say that there is probably a hidden benefit in the pool of volunteers who are willing to help you with your virtual canvas. Those people who may not be as extroverted or able to walk the distances required by traditional canvassing can now make a difference online where they may be more comfortable interacting with strangers Further those volunteers who may not be physically able to canvas are no longer stuck with just phone banking, but can explore other equally important ways to make a difference.

5. What is a common mistake folks make when virtual canvassing and how can it be avoided?

Alan: Driving my earlier point home, the most common mistake by virtual canvassers is not committing to fully engage people on social media. These engagements need to be sustained; nurtured. The weakness of traditional canvassing is that it is too often a “one-and-done engagement.” There is not enough meaningful follow-through. Social media, especially, allows campaign teams to continue the conversations after the initial interaction, thus deepening the relationship between supporters and the campaign. 

Craig: Just to add more flavor to Alan’s answer, outside of traditional field programs, campaigns view TV and the internet as advertising platforms, and advertising platforms only. They are not. You can create beautiful vibrant communities on them that will give your campaign unique on-the-ground insight, with instant feedback.  Changing the frame of the internet from that of a broadcast style advertising platform to that of community, organizing and personal interaction is the difference between success and failure. (Alan says, “Hear, hear!”)

6. What are the biggest challenges associated with virtual canvassing?

Alan: Not everyone is adept at expressing themselves in writing, so text-based virtual canvassing is not for everyone. Video chat makes it possible for canvassers to talk to potential supporters, but we cannot expect an immediate willingness of people to connect via video with a canvasser. But, for canvassers that prefer to speak with people, a quick text exchange on a chat app can be used to move the conversation to video.

Craig: It’s new. Your audience and your volunteers are still adjusting to the rapidly changing internet landscape, so you can end up with less efficient interactions based on the “newness” factor. People have been phone banking and canvassing for a very long time, and the lessons learned from that are ingrained into many programs. Those same lessons are being formed and thought out right now in real time, leaving us with perhaps a less experienced and less effective online volunteer. I think we can catch up quickly, it’s just a matter of time and resource investment.

7. Do you think virtual canvassing will become the new normal in the future? Why or why not?

Alan: I think that virtual canvassing will become integrated into canvassing programs even after face-to-face returns. It can be used at a first point of contact, leading to a face-to-face, and as a follow-up means for deepening connections with supporters after the initial connection is made.

Craig: It's already becoming the new normal. Brad Parscale essentially got President Trump elected using many of the strategies we alluded to above, and if Democrats want to catch up, they will have to implement similar data and outreach programs. You can see the progression already. In 2008, it was personalized email. In 2012, it was personalized and highly targeted Facebook ads. In 2016, it was micro-targeted Facebook, Twitter, Phone, Email, Google, and Display ads based on location. If you don’t evolve you will lose.

Bonus: What have been your favorite virtual canvassing efforts you've seen campaigns make during COVID-19?

Craig: Right now? I think perhaps some of the most interesting works are by African American groups in Pennsylvania. They are using technologies to determine exactly who is voting in the primaries and then using that information to reach out to them via online and offline measures in order to ensure that they vote in the general election. This, I think, is a small step forward towards a much larger and much more complex campaign.
Alan: Extending the tactics we discussed in the 7 questions above, I would love to see some of those identified as primary voters in PA be recruited to get their friends who did not vote registered and out to vote in November.

If you’re looking for more tips on what campaigns should be doing digitally, check out this blog and drop us a question below!