Reaching audiences with WhatsApp featuring Taher Hasanali
A Democratic Party of Georgia staffer on effective outreach strategies during the Senate Runoffs
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Before we get started, we wanted to give a major shout-out to all the campaigners in Virginia, New Jersey, and elsewhere who gave their hearts, minds, and time to those elections this year. Regardless if your campaign won or lost, we have so much gratitude for the long hours and hard work you put in this cycle. As with every election, there are lessons from yesterday’s results that will inform our work moving forward but for now, log off of Twitter, disable your notifications for a few days, get some well-deserved rest, and then let’s get back at it - 2022 starts now, and we need all of your talents to save democracy.
Last winter, the Georgia runoff elections captivated the nation and secured a 50-50 majority for Democrats in the U.S. Senate -- altering the course of the Biden presidency. So many groups worked around the clock to make those wins possible: the campaigns themselves, the state party, local grassroots organizations, and national progressive groups. For this week’s campaigner, we spoke with Taher Hasanali, Deputy Political Director, Asian American and Pacific Islander Outreach Outreach for the Democratic Party of Georgia, whose team used the runoffs last winter as an opportunity to experiment with innovative organizing strategies online and off.
Arena Toolbox Highlight:
Arena Toolbox is a suite of 60+ tools that have worked on campaigns across the country. Here are some tools we think you should check out this week:
Organizing with WhatsApp (Taher contributed to this tool!)
Campaign Targeting (Learn how to build lists of voters for the purposes of persuasion or turnout.)
Gathering Your Metrics (When campaigns end, so does your access to data; learn how to gather your metrics so you can update your resume and quantify your impact)
Q&A with Taher Hasanali, Democratic Party of Georgia
(This interview has been edited for clarity.)
Campaigner: Everyone has a different story about how they got involved in politics. How did you come to this work?
Taher Hasanali: I had a very non-traditional path. I'm actually a chemical engineer and was working in the battery industry, (laughs) and 2008 was the first election I could vote in. I was kind of in the Obama wave generation, supported his campaign, did some work there, but to be honest, for eight years, I didn't really think about politics that much.
Then 2016 hit. I was working as an engineer and had just moved to Atlanta, and I started thinking about being more active in politics. I also saw this intersectionality to it, as climate change and renewable energy is my passion, and there was a troubling trend in terms of the direction we were going policy-wise.
I volunteered for Abrams a bit in 2018, did some other volunteer work, and was debating whether to go full-time. Then, I think the weight of the election in 2020 really pushed me to take the final step and look at full-time opportunities. I was able to find a full-time job with the Democratic Party of Georgia in January of 2020, working on state legislative elections. Throughout the year a lot happened pretty quickly to kind of get me to where I am now. So currently I'm the Deputy Political Director, leading Asian American Pacific Islander outreach at the Democratic Party of Georgia.
In politics, what has been your favorite thing you’ve worked or volunteered on?
I would definitely say the U.S. Senate runoffs in January 2021, specifically working with volunteers and Asian American groups on the ground doing targeted organizing.
That’s what I was going to ask you about! Let’s talk about the craziness of the Georgia runoff elections. What were your priorities, and what strategies did you rely on?
As you can imagine, it was a whirlwind. Coming off the general election, it took a week and a half to count all the votes, and we were basically in limbo. Then right after that, the recounts happened, and our team at the Georgia Democratic Party was a part of trying to ensure the recounts were carried out properly. Then suddenly, after the votes were tallied, we found out that we had two runoff elections. Everyone in Georgia was expecting the Warnock election to be a runoff because of the way the primary was. But, both campaigns becoming a runoff totally changed the operation. So it was kind of a whirlwind getting staff together, getting everything together, and by the time we started, it was already December, and we had about a month until the election. Oh yeah, and Georgia early voting started three weeks before the election.
On top of that, you have the whole country coming in and saying, “What can we do to help?” So it was both managing all of the people who were excited to help and balancing your own programming and knowing what you want to do. It was really about being intentional about the opportunity that we had. Typically campaigns are worried about a lot of things: money, resources, and volunteers - but during the runoff, we weren't. Everyone was focused on us. This was our opportunity to try new things. We were told that if there are things that you want to do and you think they’re going to be effective, then do them. That made it a lot of fun. Obviously, our limiting constraint was time and trying to get everything done as quickly as possible.
What were some of those things you tried?
During the runoff, I was specifically the Deputy Director of Asian American Pacific Islander Outreach. I was doing work centered around canvassing and lit (literature) drops, and wanted to be intentional about how we were reaching people. We would direct South Asian volunteers to South Asian households in their community. The same with Chinese and Korean volunteers and direct them to Chinese or Korean households. That way if the voters had questions, if there were any language barriers or issues, our volunteers were there to help with that.
That also permeated over to digital. We did that with online ads. We went to local media sources, Korean newspapers, Korean and Chinese radio stations, Indian radio stations. We had YouTube videos that were centered around in-language resources for some of these different communities.
Being intentional about reaching people in all of the different places where they would be, and having it catered towards them, I think was really a unique opportunity. Of course, you always wish you had more time to do it more thoroughly, but for the time that we had being able to get all that stuff out there made a huge difference.
At the end of the day, Asian American turnout in the runoff was pretty close to the turnout in the general election, which is pretty unheard of. In an election runoff, usually, you see the turnout at like 20% of what you saw from the general. So to be able to see that people resonated with the messaging and that they understood the importance of the runoff, just like they felt the importance of the general election was huge.
I like the idea of looking at the Georgia runoffs as a case study of what happens if we have unlimited resources and the ability to try new things. Let’s zero in on some of that. Particularly talking about some of your organizing and outreach tools - I heard you all built a program on WhatsApp to organize? Why did you choose to use that platform?
Absolutely. At the time, being in Georgia during the general election, we were all getting completely bombarded by text messages. I knew that [text messaging fatigue] was an issue within some of the circles and some of the groups under the AAPI umbrella that we had worked with. Being from that community, I knew that many people in the community don't use text as a primary messaging source. Especially for the Indian community, the reason people use tools like WhatsApp instead is that it's internet-based, and you can have groups with your family in India or elsewhere overseas and discuss things together.
Many of us have large families (my mom is one of, I think, 14 or 15 so you know, I have 50 to a hundred cousins), and the only way to keep in touch is through different messaging platforms like WhatsApp. WhatsApp is trusted and used in that way. So from the campaign perspective, we thought about what are other ways that we can message and reach out to people that came from a little bit more of a sincere source?
That’s where this idea to use WhatsApp came from. There was a group in Florida that was doing it in the Latinx community, doing some of this work already on a smaller scale. We ended up using and working with them on one of their tools, which helped to kind of standardize the outreach process. It allowed volunteers to click a button on their computer, create a WhatsApp message automatically, and will send it if the voter has WhatsApp, but won't send it if they don't. And we just took that and we ran with it basically in place of text messaging.
“Many of us have large families and the only way to keep in touch is through different messaging platforms like WhatsApp. So from the campaign perspective, we thought about what are other ways that we can message and reach out to people that came from a little bit more of a sincere source?”
We ended up messaging what I think was over a hundred thousand people over the course of the last week of the runoff. I think there are about 250,000 or 260,000 registered voters in Georgia who fall under the AAPI label. So it was a large percentage of them we were reaching and giving information. The cool thing about WhatsApp, too, is that you can see when a user has seen the message, so you can follow up! A lot of people don't respond, obviously. You're still cold messaging people, but being able to see that people have seen your message was really nice.
So our big philosophy was to meet people where they are and in a way that they were going to be more receptive than just treating everyone the same. So again, we tried to do the same thing culturally that we did with lit drops - having south Asian volunteers contact south Asian voters, Chinese volunteers, contact Chinese voters. And then we had a volunteer WhatsApp group that if there were any language questions, or we saw that someone was struggling with language, a volunteer in the group, for instance, might speak Mandarin and write something out and we could copy and paste it and put into the other message.
So I think that coalescing force of having people have each other's backs made it a really good experience in terms of being able to get the messages out.
Were you all just in a giant room eating pizza and hanging out on WhatsApp all day?
(Laughs) Unfortunately not, because of COVID and this was still before vaccines came out. We had to still be somewhat cautious, so our whole operation was remote and virtual. Most of our volunteers were still in Georgia, but we had some volunteers who were not in Georgia, too, who wanted to help out once the word got out that we were using WhatsApp to do this. This whole thing was made even more unique because we didn't have that typical campaign experience of everyone being in a room together till 2:00 AM... it was all on Zoom until late in the morning, putting this stuff together.
How important do you think this type of outreach -- both organizing AAPI communities not as a monolith and using WhatsApp -- is for other campaigns, say a state legislative race in northern Virginia or a governor’s race in California? Should folks follow your lead?
I think that when people come into organizing for the first time, this is the kind of organizing that they expect to see - community to community accountability. Being able to reach people on a personal level, but when the scale gets too large, campaigns historically have ended up just mass texting everyone. I think for campaigns with more resources, these types of outreach programs are incredibly important. WhatsApp is a powerful tool for reaching maybe the South Asian and Latinx community, and WeChat is more popular for the Chinese community. There are tons of different messaging apps that different audiences use. We should keep that in mind when implementing a campaign.
On our state-wide level campaign, we messaged an incredibly large group of people. Obviously smaller campaigns may not have the resources to do something like that. However, I think WhatsApp can also be used in a relational sense. When we think of “relational organizing” tools, you know, asking volunteers to message their family and friends, you can use WhatsApp in that way within these communities very effectively.
“WhatsApp is a powerful tool for reaching maybe the South Asian and Latinx community, and WeChat is more popular for the Chinese community. There are tons of different messaging apps that different audiences use. We should keep that in mind when implementing a campaign.”
No matter the size of your campaign, it's about empowering people already using these apps to post messages in the groups that they're in. A lot of the communication happens in groups, right? It's not just individual messages like a text is. Understanding how these networks work and being able as a campaign to provide content and resources there is important.
That's a long-winded way to say, understand what you're trying to accomplish with this. If you're in a Virginia House district that has a large Korean population, you know, let's say 5%-10% Korean population, using a messaging app like WhatsApp as a relational tool in that population would be helpful. Especially if you can get a list of Korean American voters in the area and then reach out to them through that, I think that's also pretty impactful.
It's probably even more impactful on a smaller scale because you're more likely to recognize the person who's messaging you. Right? My little group of voters in Chamblee, Georgia, for instance, may know my name, so when I message them, it has a greater impact than if I'm messaging someone in a part of the state who may not know who I am.
I would encourage smaller campaigns to use this most effectively with volunteers from their own communities. Most volunteers are more likely to want to do work within their community anyway, so take advantage of that and build a plan based on that.
I feel like for a lot of introverted folks it's always easier to get people to send messages than pick up a phone and make calls. What was the content and messaging that you all would send over WhatsApp? Was it all just GOTV and voter information?
Yeah. We tried to be more conversational than typical campaign text messages. We’d introduce ourselves, say “Hey, _____, I know you've probably gotten a lot of messages and we just want to ensure that you have the information you need to go out and vote. Let us know if you're planning on voting.”
If you're doing this earlier [in the cycle], you have more flexibility to just have conversations with people so that they know you. At the end of the day, the goal would be to serve as a go-to resource for people. If I've talked to the 40 people around me six months before the election, asked them how they were doing, you know, maybe asked them about getting a vaccine, etc. Things like that, then when the election comes around and I'm like, “Hey, I just wanted to let you know, these are the people who are running for office.” That’s how you start to build trust.
All of us want to just be able to build a connection with these communities long-term. I think some of these tools are the way that we start to do that.
What else did I not ask that we should mention?
I think the main thing when we talk about Asian American Pacific Islander outreach, is understanding the nuances and the uniqueness within each of those groups. You're obviously not going to be able to target all of those demographics with one message. There’s so much difference in culture and difference in opinion. But really the issue has been not being there, just having a presence makes such a big deal. Allowing space for these groups to kind of step up and speak goes a long way in terms of having these groups feel like they want to be a part of politics.
Particularly for many Asian American communities, you sometimes have two groups - you have the younger group who are the people that were born here, who tend to lean more progressive. And then you have, those who are naturalized citizens who come from a different government system entirely. They may be recently naturalized and voting for the first time. They may feel overwhelmed by the amount of information, candidates, and process of voting. Maybe English isn’t their first language and it gets overwhelming. You never want to go into the voting booth and feel unprepared.
I think understanding that and being more open to helping with that feeling is important. Especially as the Asian American population grows and becomes a larger American voting block, I predict we’ll see more targeted campaigns and more messaging to these communities come up. So, I think it's critical for people who work in campaigns to understand that. 🇺🇸
Arena Training Highlight:
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