The Pandemic Forced Us to Completely Embrace Digital — and It Worked.

How We Helped Increase Voter Participation & Change the Culture Around Voting in 2020

We didn’t reinvent the digital organizing wheel, revolutionize livestreams, or pioneer the meme. However, when the pandemic hit, we shifted quickly from digital-first to an almost exclusively digital-only strategy using all the tools at our disposal to listen to the needs of young people and people of color, meet them where they are online, and provide accurate and accessible voter information with no pretense.

This meant not only using every digital tool for both organizing and information sharing — TikTok, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, digital ads, email, broadcast SMS, and peer-to-peer texting — but investing in digital from the top and developing a strategy that used these tools in a targeted and culturally relevant way. This included:

  • Building massive volunteer texting teams on Slack
  • Engaging both big-name celebrities and hundreds of lifestyle micro-influencers
  • Plugging into the latest TikTok and meme trends and Gen Z focused platforms
  • Using the digital reach from big brand and community partnerships
  • Building out livestream parties on Zoom and IG Live that mixed special guests, music, and volunteer trainings together to keep the momentum going
  • Plugging into big cultural moments (online of course!) including music festivals like Roots Picnic and Lollapalooza, and the biggest trends on IG like joining in on DJ D-Nice’s ‘Club Quarantine’ and even dropping into the Verzuz battles.

As a result, we reached over 100 million eligible voters and got 512,000 people to start or complete their voter registration. On top of that, we educated countless more, specifically young people and people of color, to influence the largest voter turnout our country has ever seen. 70% of young people got information about the 2020 election on social media, and we made big strides to provide the facts and make them accessible. On Instagram alone, our content was organically shared 422K times and saved 74K times in the 100 days leading up to the election. Even better, 80% of the 20 most-shared Instagram posts and 70% of the most-saved posts focused on strictly educating voters, voting registration and the act of voting itself.

Here are just a few of our biggest takeaways to engage young people and people of color online in each and every election:

Celebrities and influencers can be used to bring in new audiences and help build trust — but only if we let them stay true to their voice.

When we tell a meaningful story, and are honest, vulnerable and authentic, people listen. By working with our celebrities and influencers, we were able to: 1) Bring in new audiences who might have been intimidated or feel ostracized by the political process previously, 2) Create more authentic, creative and tell a story, and 3) Increase overall engagement and trust by working with lifestyle micro influencers who have deep, trusting, and personal connections with their audiences.

When We All Vote co-chairs include Michelle Obama, Selena Gomez, and Kerry Washington. We partnered with Lebron James and his organization, More Than A Vote. Our ambassadors, like Billie Eilish and DaniLeigh, drove some of our highest performing content and thousands of visits back to a When We All Vote voter registration portal.

Unpolished creative content & authentic storytelling

But just having talent on board isn’t enough to turn people out to vote. Young people can see right through empty sentiments and ‘pre-written’ slick script nonsense from celebrities. No one wants to be told to vote by someone who is wholly unaffected by the problems of today (yes, like the Imagine video).

What talent can provide is a way in, if and when they tell *their story* authentically. For example, when Selena Gomez told her fans that she did not vote in 2018 because of her mental health struggles, but was now more committed than ever before to making change, people listened. When Shaq told the world he would be a first-time voter, it validated and empowered millions who worried about the shame of never participating before either. When Addison Rae asked Kerry Washington to help her make a voting plan for her first time voting, her young fans saw just how easy it was — driving 35,000 people to her voter registration portal in less than 48 hours.

Out of all the content we produced, our best performing piece of content of *all time* happened to be a 40- second selfie video of Billie Eilish directly telling her fans to use their voice and their vote. It was short, authentic, and relatable because Billie Eilish herself is a first-time voter like the majority of her young fans. This authenticity not only drove 359K views, but also 10K shares and 423K impressions with 96% of all engagements coming from people who did not follow When We All Vote. This wave of engagement drove 19K people to our Instagram profile and resulted in over 700 link clicks to our website and almost 800 new followers. From the traditional marketing funnel perspective, that is pure awareness, consideration, and conversion happening all in one Instagram post.

Expanding Reach to Those Who May Be Left Out of the Convo

On National Voter Registration Day, our Instagram Live takeover that included JLo, Zendaya, Fat Joe, DJ Khaled, Michelle Obama and Chris Paul, allowed talent to speak freely and authentically to their audiences and bring them into the voting conversation. In total over 300K people tuned in to all of our Lives across talent handles. It was so important that the majority of these Lives did not come from our account, but from talent’s. Why? To bring their followers, predominantly young people and people of color, into our fold — 49% of 579K accounts we reached with our #NationalVoterRegistrationDay Instagram content did not follow us (yet).

Using lifestyle micro-influencers

While they don’t always have the largest reach, micro-influencers have some of the most trusted relationships and highest engagement with their audiences on Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube. On top of that, they are able to be used in more targeted ways. We prioritized influencers like Denisse Myrick (@ChasingDenisse), the daughter of immigrants who lives in Arizona and reminded her followers, in Spanish and English, why voting was so important. Or Patrick Starr (@PatrickStarrr), a Filipino-American YouTube beauty expert who posted on his YouTube and Instagram channels. Overall, we worked with 100 of these influencers who helped us reach over 32.2M people outside of our own online universe with an average engagement rate of 9.7% (industry average is 2%). While we had the farthest reach with our millennial influencers, we ended up having the strongest overall engagement with our Gen-Z influencers.

We also tried out combining a big celebrity like Michelle Obama and put her in a Zoom call with 20 lifestyle micro-influencers. Not only did it bring in press, but it was also the content on Instagram that had the most engagement on these influencers’ accounts driving 19.9M in reach from 22 pieces of content. Overall, we found that combining both big celebrity reach with micro-influencers’ strong engagement worked well to bring in new people who weren’t already engaged with When We All Vote.

Young people want the facts. They don’t want bullshit.

Research has shown for years that historically low voter turnout among young people is not an issue of apathy, but access. How do I register? And when? Where is my polling place? How do I fill out a ballot? What does my vote affect in my community? They don’t teach you this in most schools.

And because Gen Z and young millennials grew up with the world at their fingertips, they are often scoffed at for not knowing information many older generations (who had civics classes) take for granted.

Social media, especially Instagram, has exploded as a source of information regarding protests, politics, and voting. It is our job to create a safe space for first-time voters. We had to make young people comfortable by speaking their language — using memes, TikToks, interactive Instagram stories, cultural references, and aesthetically pleasing graphics. But we also had to push our audience to take the next step as well, like tagging friends in the comments as a reminder to register.

While the big changes to voting this year due to COVID-19 were a challenge for many voters, it was also an opportunity to set new behaviors for first-time voters, like voting by mail and early in-person voting. Before the end of March we began our educational campaign around vote by mail: how to do it, how safe it is, and it’s positive effects on voter turnout.

Other “explainer” graphics included how your vote impacts the criminal justice system. We broke down the importance of elected officials other than president that are on your ballot. We outlined the rights every voter has at the ballot box. We provided resources for questions about voter suppression and voter ID rules.

In the last 100 days before the Election, When We All Vote content on social media was shared 627K times and generated 420M Impressions. Our best performing content was overwhelmingly focused on educating voters about current events, voting registration and the act of voting itself: 80% of the 20 most-shared and 70% of the most-saved Instagram posts, 50% of the 20 most-retweeted tweets and 80% of the 20 most-shared Facebook posts.

When reviewing our best-performing posts of all time, educational content represents 65% of the top twenty most-shared posts on Instagram, achieving above average engagement AND reaching new audiences who hadn’t previously interacted with When We All Vote.

On top of that, these educational graphics when posted on Instagram brought in more people who were not already following @whenweallvote. For example, our polling place hours graphic, shared 24 hours before Election Day, had over 52K shares with 73% of the 213K people who reached this post were not following When We All Vote on Instagram. Content shared by celebrities and influencers engages new voters because they are a trusted, relatable source. It also allows new voters to receive important information about voting without having to search for it on their own. Becoming a trusted source of information in a world of disinformation isn’t easy, especially in politics. But if we can get young people and first time voters to trust us, to listen to us, and to use our resources to become empowered, we are halfway there!

Don’t underestimate the power of sliding into DMs and the 1:1 conversation

With historically low voter turnout amongst young people in the U.S., in this election it was imperative that we engage first-time voters. This age group can be one of the hardest to reach and engage, especially during a pandemic. One of the places we turned was Instagram, one of the best places to reach young people. Our My School Votes’ student ambassadors created 100 individual Instagram handles, each handle run by one or multiple students, accumulated over 14,000 followers. The students running the accounts not only pushed out content that was provided to them via toolkits and graphic templates, but also created an abundance of their own content. Some accounts even created their own brand and color aesthetic, and spent time introducing the members of their team on their Instagram grid.

Overall, the students exceeded our expectations by taking it one step farther: These students became their own content creators, making relevant graphics, videos, and engaging posts that spoke best to their peers.

Students used these accounts to run an Instagram direct message campaign that focused on 1:1 conversation, driving voter registration through school and student accounts. In the first wave of the direct message campaign, they sent over 165,000 voter registration direct messages, creating a groundswell of traffic to trackable voter registration links via these direct messages and the affiliated links in each Instagram bio. As a whole, the My School Votes Instagram accounts brought in 1,554 voter registrations. 85% of those registrations came from direct messages and 15% of those registrations came from people clicking the link in the bios of the student-run Instagram accounts. These accounts were the second largest driver of student voter registrations for the My School Votes program.

Changing culture isn’t about just making something “cool” — it’s about utilizing the power that relevant brands, companies, and grassroots organizations can bring to the conversation.

What’s cool or trendy changes roughly every 5 minutes. Memes can grow stale in less than 24 hours and trends change daily. What is chic one day is cringe worthy the next. While it’s important to engage in these moments and be a part of the conversation online, it also requires big brands and national and community organizations to also use their power for good.

In 2020, you saw messages about registering to vote from everyone — from your Lyft receipt to an email from GrubHub to Glossier to the Divine Nine talking to their members. You might have found this repetitive message annoying, but it worked because it reached a lot more people who weren’t already hearing the message. Our corporate partnerships yielded hundreds of thousands of registrations. Some of the top contenders were Yelp, Postmates, Supreme, and Glossier. Like using talent or influencers, these brands allowed us to reach new audiences and meet new people where they already are online during a pandemic (ordering food and buying stuff for serotonin). Glossier and Supreme made stickers while Yelp and Postmates added colorful banners to their app’s homepage.

But we can’t build sustainable power just through big brand partnerships — we need grassroots power too.

You cannot replace grassroots and local power.

That’s why we built a community of 27,000 Voting Squad Captains and over 42,100 volunteers who took action in their communities with When We All Vote. These were the community members, the teachers, the moms and dads, the aunts and uncles, the sorors, and the congregation members who took Michelle Obama’s challenge to get their squad together and make sure that everyone in their community was registered and had a plan to get out and vote. They shared voting information online with their networks, were responsible for texting over 7 million voters with critical voting information in 2020, got their friends and family to join over 40 national digital training moments and festivals (like our Couch Party!), and hosted voter registration and early vote events across their communities. We launched a relational organizing program that empowered our volunteers to reach out to their networks, by brainstorming who in their life they could be an influential messenger for. We provided a framework of training that resulted in almost 50,000 friend-to-friend text messages sent, with simple conversations and straightforward resources that felt genuine to the way so many of us communicate with our friends and family.

We realized that people are organically and authentically engaging with their friends, families and communities, so how do we help fuel these conversations around voting? We created the Social Squad with this question in mind. What if, instead of telling volunteers exactly what to say, we gave them a simple framework and context? What conversations can they create on their social media accounts when they use their own voice? The result was countless engagements with @WhenWeAllVote on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook where people could share our graphics, but spoke to their communities in a way that felt authentic to themselves. The sort of work we’re doing is focused on building and engaging volunteers for the long haul.

And we know that our work isn’t ending in 2020. Our volunteer leaders have shown us the power of their communities, and their commitment to turning out their network of friends, family and neighbors — election cycle after election cycle. When We All Vote Voting Captains and volunteers will continue to lead the way in organizing, training and empowering their networks to build long term civic power in their communities, whether it’s a race for school board or another national election. These volunteers, and their commitment to their community and to their own civic engagement, will continue to change the culture of voting in this country.

What’s next

What we’ve learned during this 2020 elections cycle is that digital needs to be embraced, invested in, and fully integrated into any voter registration and turnout strategy moving forward. With young people spending an increasing amount of time online, it’s imperative we reach them there and engage them through the platforms they use and influencers they look up to.

If we really want to bring more young people and people of color into the electorate, we can’t just do this every four years during buzzy presidential elections. We need robust digital organizing strategies for state and local races too.

We have the opportunity at When We All Vote to lead the way as a digital civic engagement organization to not only change the culture around voting, but engage and empower the growing electorate of young people and young people of color that will soon decide every election.

So here’s what we do next: We invest in digital technologies and — even more importantly — talented staff that bring their own diverse perspective. We keep educating, informing, and empowering voters. We keep meeting people where they are online. And that is how we keep building the political power of young people and people of color — turning them into lifelong voters.

We’re shaping the promise of our democracy through voter registration and participation. Because #WhenWeAllVote, we can change the world. WhenWeAllVote.org