One of the most exciting emerging fields in technology is online organizing. Lately, I've been calling this Activism 2.0, and by that I'm referring to online organizing powered by tech savvy activists and a series of developing web-based applications that leverage political, map-driven, and user-contributed data in powerful ways. Amidst great defeats, both online organizers and the tools they use continue to innovate rather than abandon their efforts.
The 38-to-24 vote blocking New York Marriage Equality was among the most disappointing legislative upsets in 2009, but it was also paired alongside activists' implementation of some of the most innovating technology on the market.
The loss was unexpected and upsetting to proponents and activists alike. In the days leading up to the vote, all signs pointed to a win. There has been plenty of analysis about how a movement that seemed to have all the right pieces in place, persuasion tactics, and commitments to vote failed so dramatically. The more interesting story now is what next for activists who garnered the support, email addresses, and created a Facebook fanbase of more than 15,900 fans continue to leverage engagement through web applications?
What happens to the email lists that powered donations, calls, emails, and more? What happens to the Twitter and Facebook accounts? What's the vision for these tools and the community/audience that were fostered in the frenzy of the moment? If Hilary Clinton isn't leveraging her 2008 campaign list in innovative ways for social-change and authentic advocacy, are there other "losers" out there who are?
Indeed, while the Hilary Clintons and Bill Thompsons of the world might not be ready to make the most of their online communities, one volunteer-powered group, the Manhattan Young Democrats (MYD) and their campaign New Yorkers for Marriage Equality have found ways in which they can turn their loss into a major win that will likely cause tremors of change in the coming year in the New York Senate.
I met with Julie Blitzer of MYD to talk more about the efforts, strategy, and technology behind New Yorkers for Marriage Equality. Put aside any preconceived notions that successful website and campaigns take a long time, lots of money, and plenty of full-time staff to create, New Yorkers for Marriage Equality was created in 2 days by an entirely volunteer staff, all of who also manned their full-time jobs.
The core inspiration for the project, site, and campaign, was to speak to and rally the straight community.
Surprisingly, NewYorkEquality.com was available, so the team executed a website, brand, outreach strategy and appealed to local technology company, Advomatic, who in turn made a pro-bono donation of their mobile platform "Click-to-Call." Click-to-Call allows supporters to connect from their computers directly to government officials (based on a query of latitude and longitude) to share the message directly with legislators.
This rapid and hassle-free connectivity and the self-organizing power of tech savvy, entrepreneurial, and impassioned groups like MYDs are co-founding this next wave of advocacy, out of which the idea of change, will become the actuality of change. Sounds hopeful and idealistic? Great change in the world has been almost always been inspired by small groups of thoughtful, committed people who could organize. Long before there was ever an internet, and indeed in an effort to create one to begin with.
Lessons Learned From New Yorkers for Marriage Equality's Campaign
1. ) Assume Authority
Before launching an outreach campaign, look for existing organizations whose efforts you can support and contribute to. Creating multiples of existing organizations is not always effective, in fact, the factioning can be counterproductive to achieving the two core goals: Get it to a vote. Get it to pass.
However, if your efforts meet a lukewarm reception or no reception at all, or if you think that there's momentum and reason enough to create a new campaign, then it's time to strike out on your own. At that point, in order to get the attention of bloggers and the press, your website and brand must present accurate, fact-based information that is relevant to informing and compelling an audience to act. Sometimes having information that no other organization has provided can give your team the edge. Authority matters.
2.) Create Administrative Chaos for LegislatorsMake it ridiculously easy for supporters to send single-click messages, calls, etc. using tools like Click-to-Call. Appeal to tech organizations who might make a pro-bono donation. The sheer volume of activity -- email, phone, fax, and SMS -- will have a profound effect on the legislator's decision. Many online tools now make it possible to easily engage elected officials, which has the added effect of engaging supported who otherwise might not be labeled as activists.
New Yorkers for Marriage Equality was supported by 25+ different organizations, but together under the single brand NewYorkEquality they were able to activate thousands of supporters, reducing distraction and faction for the sake of focus.
4.) Reach Out to Your "Perez Hilton"
MYD creative outreach efforts prompted a link from popular gossip blogger Perez Hilton, giving NewYorkEquality.com national attention and support. This was creative, surprising and effective. On the same note, play the game professionally -- write proper press releases.
5.) Prepare for Political TV
If your efforts to become an authority are successful, you'll need to prepare your team for ad-hoc media appearances, in which they may have little to no time to rush to the shoot. Figure out ahead of time who on your team will handle press communications, can be interviewed by phone or even on tv.
6.) Focus on Facebook Fans
New Yorkers for Marriage Equality supporters were smart and shameless in getting uptake to their Fan page. Step 1: Be shameless and invite all of your Facebook friends to become a fan. Step 2. Reduce the request, to something more manageable: Share this page with 3 of your friends who support marriage equality.
Facebook was also the best tool in getting a message across and to a large audience and communicating around events. It was also a powerful tool that educated the public through experience how the legislative process works, where the failures are, and how to collective organize for more than a the passing of a single law, but for organizing for true reform.
Ultimately, the Fan Page has become a micro-community in which members comment and interact with content on a daily basis. While many large brands conduct contests with short-term engagement, New Yorkers for Marriage Equality' continues to provide content "glue" to keep the community engaged and create a cohesive ready-to-respond base. This community management has transformed a Fan-Page-on-the-fly into a long-term asset.
7.) Recalibrate and Elect the Right People
MYD, like many other advocacy groups, was prepared for Marriage Equality to pass December 2, 2009, however, they also prepared a plan to mobilize in case of a loss.
In order for Marriage Equality to pass MYD is recalibrating in the short-term to focus on an interim step -- changing the makeup of the NY legislature (all seats are up for grabs in November 2010). Al Benninghoff, current president of the MYD has explained that the MYD team is now looking for the pro-equality challengers to counter those legislators who voted against Marriage Equality last year. The goal is to explore and identify ways to help these newcomers.
Maintaining the momentum of 2009, but recalibrating messaging to the group to convert Marriage Equality activists and supporters into volunteers and informed voters focused on 2010 elections, so that we can elect the right people and pass Marriage Equality legislation in 2011.
8.) Translate Online Activity to Offline
MYD delivered letters in person with NYC Council Speaker Christine Quinn, marched in pride parades in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and maintained an in-person campainging presence at almost every rally. They also used the Facebook page to target and inform supporters of rallies around the city and in their own neighborhoods.
9.) Bowling Alone No MoreMYD and their campaign tactics for Marriage Equality demonstrate a change taking place in the world of advocacy and organizing. More than any toolset, technology, or trick, the vibe generated by this particular campaign blows massive holes in Harvard political scientist, author of Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam's position that Americans are participating less and less in civic life. In fact, I'd argue using some of Putnam's own words, This could be a moment movement that changes the political dialogue of the country.
Special thanks to Julie Blitzer of Advomatic and Manhattan Young Democrats (social strategist for the YDA local chapter). Julie managed online outreach and social media for New Yorkers for Marriage Equality. Julie volunteered with Rock the Vote and Music for America at concerts around New York City in high school. She now has experience in local, state, and congressional offfices, including the Manhattan district office of Rep. Jerrold Nadler (NY-08). Julie worked on the technology team for Mark Green for Attorney General in 2006, which she managed one of the first campaign video blogs. Catch Julie at SXSW 2010.
Thanks also to Al Benninghoff, current president of MYD. Al was elected President at the end of January 2007. Before that, served as Co-Chair of the Political and Governmental Affairs Committee.