Building a sense of belonging in digital spaces
Stefan Smith on how campaigns should engage their supporters online
Welcome to Campaigner, a new weekly newsletter exploring the tactics that drive winning political campaigns and highlighting the players pushing the buttons. Produced by Arena & FWIW Media.
During the 2020 presidential primary, Pete for America was known for using innovative digital strategies that have already changed the way campaigns are launched. One of the campaign’s most disruptive personalities on the digital side was Stefan Smith, who helped manage digital platforms for Pete in the early days of the campaign before becoming its online engagement director right before the Iowa Caucuses.
Stefan’s career has been a wild ride, leaving a PhD program in his final year to become a social media lead at Comedy Central’s Drunk History, followed by digital roles on a congressional race, Hillary for America, a mayoral campaign, a Senate primary campaign, the New Mexico Democratic Party, and now the ACLU where he is Deputy Chief Digital Engagement Officer. Exuding creative energy and enthusiasm, he was excited to sit down with us for a Q&A on what it means to empower campaign supporters online and create belonging in digital spaces.
Resources from the Arena Toolbox
Arena Toolbox has videos, podcasts, and worksheets to help campaigners learn the critical skills they need to win elections. Today we highlight two tools that relate to our conversation with Stefan:
Campaign Launch— Stefan talks about what it was like to launch Pete Buttigieg’s campaign. This launch guide will help you launch your campaign and make the most of your campaign’s first big day.
Relational Organizing– Stefan talks about the growing distrust in institutions and people’s desire for belonging. Relational organizing is a strategy campaigns can put into action to tap into existing communities and build trust and belonging.
Q&A with Stefan Smith
Campaigner: Talk a little bit about joining the Pete campaign - what was your role and what was it like to start from scratch?
Stefan: Nothing will quite compare to helping launch a brand new political brand.
I was hired first as the Creative Content Manager, essentially doing anything and everything from running the SMS program to writing copy to scheduling social media posts. It was this wonderfully collaborative space—it had to be, there were only three people on the digital staff and maybe 17 or 18 people overall—and the process of building that brand from scratch was incredible. Almost every other candidate that primary came into the race with a pre-established team and branding and identity online. Pete didn’t come with a set of colors or logo or typography, let alone an email list. Everything had to be built from scratch and it was fantastic!
To have someone hand you the Instagram handle of a presidential candidate, a platform that he would admit wasn’t his primary social media platform, and to get to grow it from maybe 200,000 when I started to over a million when I left the platforms team—it was an incredible experience.
Campaigner: A lot of your campaign was crowdsourcing stuff to your fans. How did you and your colleagues approach building opportunities for supporters to get involved?
Stefan: I think they’d dispute the word fans, but I’ll let it slide this time!
A man named Dr. TJ Billard has a paper that talks about participatory aesthetics, which is this idea that you should give over ownership of your design elements as a way to get people to have a stake or ownership in what you’re building. And the Pete campaign, before I even got there, was already doing that by releasing their design toolkit. Our logos, fonts, colors, hell, the entire color story and explanation around specific design elements were all right there. It was a chance for the campaign to tell a story and they used it beautifully and empowered supporters.
And it worked, not just as a different way to get coverage, but it worked by giving supporters something they could own. At the very beginning, before the campaign took off, we didn’t really have the capacity to pay for or coordinate things like Pride Marches. But because we’d released the design toolkit, local volunteer groups took our campaign branding and created their own one-pagers and pamphlets with all of our positions on it; it was in keeping with the campaign’s brand and looked aesthetically like we had printed it. They did it themselves. It was amazing.
I think on some campaigns there’s this division between the paid staff and the volunteers, a sort of hierarchy that volunteers feel. And I think what we did on Pete’s campaign was tear down that wall and find space for all of us—paid, part-time, interns, volunteers—to contribute.
We had volunteers cataloging and publishing videos and translating news articles and running their own data analysis and creating their own Where’s Pete? graphics and doing all the things we’d do if we had the capacity—and some stuff we’d never think of in a million years.
Campaigner: During the primary, you all weren’t the only ones with digital armies - there was obviously the Yang Gang, there was the K-Hive... But one thing I noticed was that the Pete supporters would just fill up people’s replies on Twitter with an almost cheesy sense of gratitude and positive energy - especially if someone was announcing that they took a job on the campaign.
Stefan: You mean the digital hugs—literally, my favorite thing about #TeamPete! You call them cheesy, but I call them earnest and, it turns out, really effective!
When I became Online Engagement Director for Pete’s campaign, one of the things I created was a digital captains program meant to harness the incredible talents of the Buttiverse. There were a bunch of verticals organized around certain actions or communities, ranging from data analytics to content creation to fundraising to hype and promotion. But I also realized not everyone can make graphics or make phone calls or edit videos or analyze data or donate or a million other things. What could be asked of those people that would be beneficial to the campaign?
Boom! The Welcome Committee!
People will forget the things you tell them, but people rarely forget how you make them feel. The Welcome Team’s job was to canvas the internet from Facebook groups to Reddit to Pinterest to Twitter and everything in-between and look for people who were Pete Curious.
Maybe they posted something positive or they asked a question about him or they liked his answer on the debate stage or, really, any clue that they were thinking about Pete. And once those people were identified a link to their content would be dropped into the group and the Welcome Team would go and give that person a digital hug including likes and comments.
Thank you so much for supporting Pete!! Have you been to the website? Have you seen his answer on this issue? What about this issue? Want to contribute a photo to the Pete Mosaic? Have you listened to the latest Buttijams playlist? Just a huge hug of positive reinforcement.
The average person on a platform like Twitter has 250-300 followers. Imagine what it means when a dozen or two people see your content, like your tweet, comment underneath with positive feelings, and invite you to sit with them. To tell you you belong with them. I’ve always believed that if you make people feel good and they associate feeling with being positive about Pete online, then they're going to be willing to say more positive things about Pete online. It was a powerful motivator for a lot of people and one of the most successful programs we ran.
Campaigner: So these experiences are amazing, but Pete’s campaign had enormous resources and a massive team. What do you think is translatable to smaller campaigns? What else could be useful for someone like running down-ballot in terms of innovative strategies for online engagement?
Stefan: Here’s what I would say: Every race is different. Every locality has its own particular politics.
Things that I did for Pete would not have worked for a mayoral campaign I worked on in Boston What I did for the Democratic Party in New Mexico wouldn't necessarily work for a congressional candidate in Massachusetts. So I think my first bit of advice is to figure out what it is the campaign thinks it can do really well, and for whatever else is left, to figure out ways to give those responsibilities to your organizers and volunteers.
Everyone has something of value to contribute to a campaign. It is very easy to get into a conversation where the only things that matter are dollars -- money is very important, don’t get me wrong, my favorite sound is the chime sound on ActBlue when a new donation comes in. But there are other things that matter as much as money. If you asked me to choose between a $10 donation and a volunteer having a 10-minute conversation with someone about a candidate, I would pick the 10-minute conversation. I think it's so important to figure out ways to make it easy for people to talk about your candidate, to help them know what to say and how to facilitate those conversations. I think that's something everybody could do.
“If you asked me to choose between a $10 donation and a volunteer having a 10-minute conversation with someone about a candidate, I would pick the 10-minute conversation.”
I would also say, don’t chase waterfalls. If you're a smaller campaign, there’s always someone from Silicon Valley that claims to have some brand new product out of the box for your campaign. It's amazing. All it takes is 17 months to onboard every organizer you have and it costs $10,000 a month. (Laughs) Look, we love innovation. Love it. But don’t chase the new and flashy for no reason. Figure out what parts your team can do, and empower your volunteers to take over parts and aspects of the campaign that they can. As much as you can listen to your organizers, be close to the ground. Invest in a good ground game.
Campaigner: When you look towards 2022 and 2024, what’s one thing you’re looking forward to in terms of experimentation with organizing online?
Stefan: Well, I think I'm done with influencers. The age of the influencer is over. Everybody is an influencer now in their networks. Everyone who wants an audience has an audience. Anyone can be famous on TikTok for a day, and we are two weeks removed from us treating a 13 year old pug as a soothsayer. I’m done trying and thinking through the lens of influencers.
Instead of influencers, I’m focusing my attention on Conveners; the people online who not just want influence but want to wield their influence to bring people together around an issue.
Party identification is down, trust in our larger institutions is down, people are going to church less, people are having fewer civic engagements. People are the loneliest they've ever been and are desperate for a sense of belonging, to feel like they aren’t in this alone.
That's what 2022 and 2024 is going to be about.
Whenever you hear about declining engagement, which is a big problem at a lot of organizations right now across the political spectrum, that is at its core a belonging problem. If people felt like they belonged in your organization, that the information you were giving them was actionable and useful, if they liked your content, they'd feel like they belong there.
We talk about engagement now as these abstract numbers, but what do these actions that we count mean: likes, shares, comments, whatever... It's just people looking for a space to be with someone else online. I’m focused on how to build more belonging in digital spaces. 🇺🇸
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