What Is Bill Thompson Doing With His Email List? Organizing 2.0 and This Next Generation of Web Apps

While some of the smartest people out there are working on Twitter and Facebook apps, developing virtual gifts, farms, and other funny web wonders, there's an equally inspired group of entrepreneurs who are making bold commitments to some rather big hairy audacious goals in the online advocacy space. Under all the inspiration and warm fuzzies, there's also serious money in this business line to be made.

Last weekend I attended a conference organized by mostly volunteer grassroots social justice organizers. Among them, Charles Lechner, Online Organizing Director for the Working Families Party in New York.

The group was diverse and full of well-known thought leaders and doers working in the online organizing and Gov 2.0 space. Among those we all know were Tech President's Nancy Scola, Colin Delany of ePolitics, and Ari Melber of The Nation. There were also lesser known entrepreneurs contributing web apps to this evolving space like Summer Nemeth co-founder of Imagine Elections and Julie Blitzer of the Manhattan Young Democrats who recently played a lead role in the launch of an online campaign New Yorkers for marriage equality.

Together the conference was busting at the seams with talent and inspiration. Among the themes of hope and change, the group discussed the harsh empirical evidence of the 2009 elections in which we learned that new media and online advocacy tools were largely a failure. Of the Virginia Governor's race, Nancy Scola said it best, "Television is still king. Printed mailers are second in line to the throne. And somewhere, waiting out in the castle courtyard, is the joker that is new media."

It turns out that the success of the Obama campaign, touted for its innovation online, cannot be easily resized and applied to improve engagement in local elections. With voter engagement in local elections dropping to it's lowest rates in history, the challenge of leveraging online tools to increase voter engagement is enormous and poised for profitability.

To give you a real world example of the space (please also read Nancy Scola's Where Money Meets New Media") I reviewed NYC mayoral candidates Bill Thompson and Mike Bloomberg's websites on the eve of this year's election to see if/how both candidates leveraged online advocacy and social tools to encourage voter participation.

There are 4.5 million registered voters in NYC, and in both a close and controversial race the turnout was an abysmal and historical low, 557,059 voters for Bloomberg v. 506,717 for Thompson.

(largely designed and developed by Blue State Digital) and MikeBloomberg.com were saturated with red, white, & blue graphics and personal branding. Neither site was particularly innovative or effective in terms of innovative online-to-offline engagement.

Both sites leveraged a staple set of social icons. Bloomberg's site encouraged social media users to "donate" their Twitter and Facebook status updates on election day and Thompson leaned towards pragmatic design and provided a link to help voters locate their polling places.

If Facebook apps can inspire people to buy/give virtual gifts and even try on random hair styles, can a web app get someone out to vote in a local election?

Charles Lenchner and NYC's Working Families Party believe that it's worth experimenting with and so leading up to this year's elections they developed "Candidate Finder." It's a simple app, a voter inputs her street address and zip code, data magic happens, and she can share, download, print the list of candidates WFP supports in her district and get directions to her polling place.

Lenchner, NYC's WFP, and Candidate Finder bring me back to heavy-hitters Thompson and Bloomberg (and Bloomberg's 100,000,000 budget). I believe that web apps (including bootstrapped ones) matched with smart outreach and online uptake can become a major asset towards can help reengage voters at the local government level. Yet, Bill Thompson, though not the winner, amassed a valuable list of activists, so what is he doing with that data and community? To date, nothing. We're early in the game, but here are a collection of things learned by organizers, designers, and developers and shared at Organizing20.org.

10 tips for developing the next generation of political apps

1. Data-Hungry Developers Must Diet

Provide a data-driven activity to get the voter to the polling place (ex. WFP's Candidate Finder). Data-hungry folks, suppress your appetite for demographics. It's not about you;)

Don't ask for more information than you need (user dropoff will increase with the addition of every field, and the experience is about the user and getting her what she needs to vote.

2. Imitate, Integrate, or Borrow From "Four Square"

Provide a validation activity (like Foursquare's badges) for the voter post-polling (think of this as a virtual "I Voted!" sticker, but with the power of publication and dissemination across the web).

These activities can have tiers: be the first to vote, be the 100th voter, be the last to vote. Together this data can become a story of a community of users who can have a fun time spurring one another on throughout the day.

3. Meme, Mob, and Maybe Mock With Social Activities

Provide a mechanism for people to self-organize and go to polling places in groups (not everyone feels comfortable alone) or create a group-like activity that people can participate in.

  • Enable voting day meetups with organizers (organizers should be able to download and print recs for who to vote for via your app)
  • Seed flash mob-like experiences (everyone shows up to vote wearing fedoras at 10AM, which makes for great content for reporters)
  • All users to design neighborhood-themed photo activities outside of polling places (e.g. Brooklyn hipsters take a photo of yourself in an ironic tee-shirt or Yankee Fans wear your gear and voters should upload to the app's pool throughout the day)

4. Create a Feedback Loop Around Local Issues

Provide a feedback mechanism for people to get answers (keep it simple let users ask "yes/no" questions). Recycle the answers and data.

5. You Lose Your Virginity Once, But In Politics You Have Primaries

An app should engage the audience for more than a day, in fact, it should inspire a community who can in turn inspire each other to get out an vote. Experiment leading up to the primaries, optimize, and keep delivering an awesome experience.

6. Keep it Simple, but Leverage Advanced User Personas and Segmentation

Place focus on simple issues that impact voters' bottom lines (Vote "YES" against fare increases). Voters get mired in the complications and local votes are for compelling local issues.

Your app should speak to a set of personas and the segmentation of what impacts the users' bottom line.
  • I'm a parent - what matters?
  • I'm a single person - what matters?
  • I'm retired - what matters?
  • I'm unemployed - what matters?
  • I have no health care - what matters?
  • I'm the neighborhood curmudgeon, everything matters, but nothing makes me happy - what matters?
  • I'm the neighborhood gossip - what's the juiciest issue?

Identify a single compelling issue according for each and leverage that message repeatedly.

7. Get Your Google Map On

Provide an address, directions, and a map to the voter's local polling center (sms, email, print, and invite the user to invite her friends/neighbors to join you on voting day).

8. Provide "What to Expect" When You're Expecting Voter Turnout

Some people have never voted in a primary or a local election, while other people like to plan.

Tell your users/voters what to expect:

  • When are the busiest times
  • What should voters bring to identify themselves
  • Will there be Wi-Fi access (if there's a line?)
  • What should voters tell their employers?

9. Translation Party

Build your app with multiple translations based on what most of your the constituents.

10. Accountability Analytics Are Awesome

Voting isn't the end of the local politics process. Create a post-election utility similar to Politifact's Obamameter, which is tracking Barack Obama's promises and rating the progress of each one.

Your app should keep the community you cultivated engaged around how currently elected officials are doing and if they're keeping their promises.

If your app was designed to support a democrat, who didn't win, flip it to track how the republican elect is doing and how it's impacting the same issues your audience was encouraged to get out and vote on). By doing this you'll also be able to continue to grow your community, making your app's potential to be stronger and have greater reach in the next set of elections.

With American engagement in local politics at a historical low the frontier for app development is wide-open. Bloomberg spent $100,000,000 on his campaign, Lechner and WFP spent a few thousand dollars on something smart, user-friendly, and simple.

Back over to you, what kind of app would you build to help influence engagement around local issues, encourage and increase voter turnout, and most importantly help change the world in the process?

Organizing 2.0 is sponsored by The Murphy Institute for Worker Education, Working Families, Change to Win, Netroots Nation, Network for Good, Union Jobs Review, Manhattan Young Democrats, and the New Organizing Institute. With thanks to grassrootscamp.org's Nate Heasley

(Disclosure, I played a small role in Candidate Finder's development. I'm an independent user experience consultant and you can find my work over at chrissiebrodigan.com, and with my business partner at jjomedia.com.