Leadership as Dialogical Communication

Democracy is Dialogue

South African artist and sculptor Lawrence Lemaoana has a piece called "Democracy is Dialogue" standing in front of old Johannesburg City Hall. The statue is of "a woman protester with a baby strapped to her back. She has a protest placard in one hand and a candle in the other to light her way." Lemaoana has been a fierce post-apartheid social voice and was a critic of president Jacob Zuma. President Zuma would often publicly raise his fist, a sign of victory, but for Zuma, a call to silence criticism.

Public communication is not always communication geared toward dialogue. Donald Trump rose to the presidency through, among other things, his aggressive use of Twitter to draw attention to himself and to criticize others. Twitter's simplicity and tendency to vitriol set the tone for Trump's messaging. The communication wasn't multi-directional; it wasn't a tool of dialogue. Nevertheless, "In a 3–0 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that President Trump's practice of blocking critics from his Twitter account violates the First Amendment." What Trump thought was a bullhorn at least required him to allow others to scream back at him. Still though, not a dialogue.

But the Second Circuit Court's rationale for the decision draws from a more civic-minded philosophical well: because Trump's Twitter account was a government account—official seal, held up as such, "with interactive features accessible to the public"—the First Amendment was relevant and in need of protection. After all, as the court points out, "not every social media account operated by a public official is a government account," so if Trump had wanted to rant without response, he could have done so on an account not specifically identified as governmental. He even arguably could have done so on his reelection campaign accounts. "The court found that President Trump, therefore, 'is not entitled to censor selected users because they express views with which he disagrees.'"

The underlying philosophical principle is just as important as the legal distinction. That underlying principle is that public, government-mediated communication with public officials is dialogical. Dialogical means having the "character of dialogue," a discussion between two or more individuals.

That's a profound distinction, even if it comes off as functional and factor-based in the court's analysis. Democracy is a process, but it's also an approach. For proponents of more participatory democracy, that approach is, among other things, dialogical—based on ongoing conversations between officials and their constituents.

But even though a court can rule that people have a right to tweet back to a public official, that doesn't mean doing so constitutes meaningful public or constituent dialogue. Even if there are dialogic elements to social media, its underlying structures and its practices in a mass marketing context may undermine whatever dialogical function it has. Samantha McDonald, who studies how technology mediates communication between citizens and policymakers, writes at her blog:  "major social media players like Facebook and Twitter were never designed to be spaces for quality policymaker engagement. Just ask Congressman Rick Crawford, who replaced Facebook with his new texting application. Or Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who points out that these platforms are huge public health risk. In addition, why is Congress communicating to constituents through platforms that sell citizen’s data?"

It's important to remember that not all constituent communication is about important policy dialogue (in another piece, McDonald points out that congressional staffers "report that contact can be untimely" or consist of "emotional reactions to government issues that the office cannot help"). But policy discussions with constituents are possible. Focused dialogue which is proactive and "hard-wired" into a deliberative event can result in "diverse participation," particularly if accompanied by "balanced, factual reading material for participants; single topic focus; a neutral, third-party host; and live member participation." Structured communication is also possible through constituent-focused CRMs—designed not for consumers, but specifically to foster official-constituent dialogues over time.

One Quick Trick for Increasing Your Podcast Plays

Back in 2009, I produced and hosted a no-budget podcast about the emerging use of social media in government called “Gov 2.0 Radio.” If I were to do it again today, there’s one tool I’d definitely use to grow my audience: ActionSprout. 

During my Gov 2.0 Radio days, Twitter was often how I’d juice exposure for my new episodes and related blog posts. I’d also use Twitter and RSS feeds to gather news about emerging Gov 2.0 trends and often published link roundups. If I’d had a tool that brought the best performing content from Governing, Social Media Today, and the rest of the crumbling Web 2.0 media right to me, with publisher and advertising tools to boot, maybe I’d still be interviewing up-and-coming PIOs to this day. 

I’ve worked with ActionSprout for several years, first as an early NationBuilder partner, then to help the company distribute $2 million in Facebook ad credits to nonprofits. Today, I am organizing a network of news and good government organizations to curate and promote quality anti-corruption news on Facebook using ActionSprout’s tools. 

If I were podcasting or producing video shows today, I’d simply load a list of Facebook pages for my best sources into ActionSprout Inspirations, sort for the top performing posts each day or week, schedule out my favorites with new commentary, and share the roundup in my broadcasts. 

Here’s an example from a list of political sources I’m presently following: 


How does following and sharing relevant viral stories help a podcast grow its audience? One, drop a link to your relevant shows into your commentary on a trending story that is going to outperform and reach beyond your fan base. Two, use the ActionSprout Timeline feature to identify your top trending posts on your own page, edit post commentary with a relevant link to your own content, then use ActionSprout’s advertising tools to boost the viral content. Don’t miss the opportunity to repost your best content, either - Facebook will find new, relevant audience for it, not repeat it in your fans’ feeds. 

What if you want to collect more information, such as text opt-ins, from listeners? You can use a phone append database from a vendor like Accurate Append with a data append API to validate forms in real time. You can also use ActionSprout’s petition tools to begin building an email list based on your Facebook fans. 

Engaging deeply with a listener base, whether through public and exclusive groups (a good example here is Beep Beep Lettuce, which has a public Facebook page, a group for supporters, and a Discord channel for the most hard-core fans), Patreon updates, an email newsletter, or even text subscriptions, is foundational to long-term audience growth. 

Join ActionSprout's government accountability networkfree for media and nonprofit organizations.

Local Government Transparency as Value Criterion

Stick the word "transparency" into a news database. Limit the search to the past week. You'll pull hundreds of links: letters to the editor on a local government body's lack of transparency. Congressional hearings on transparency in the federal judiciary. Pushes for transparency in health care charges. The applicability of police transparency laws to various police records. Transparency in all levels of decisionmaking that affect the public. 

We hear the word "transparency" all the time. It's a "god" term in nearly every aspirational statement of nearly every political ideology. We don't spend a lot of time contemplating those times when transparency might not be the highest value (protecting the privacy of vulnerable people, allowing public officials a little deliberative space rather than reminding them they're always essentially on television, and so on) because we've seen too many instances where secrecy has been abused. Transparency not only has the denotative meaning of openness, but the connotative meaning of: essential for democracy. 

Although American legal scholars have long characterized states as laboratories for democracy, a growing consensus is building around municipalities as better serving that space. Municipalities have a disadvantage, resource scarcity, that actually interacts with the advantage of direct contact with constituentseveryone gets to complain and argue about that scarcity together. 

What is transparency? According to one extremely in-depth treatment of the topic, "[t]ransparency is understood as the opening up of information on actions and laws to the public, providing citizens with the tools to improve understanding, vigilance, and communication. Coupled with action from the public and media, this should lead to accountability where public officials take responsibility for their actions (or inaction)."

We hear a lot about how technology aids secrecyand it certainly does. But technology also supercharges the potential of governments ethically committed to transparency. As Catherine Yochum points out, technology has made direct participation easier than it's ever been in history. It allows citizens to participate from their homes, it facilitates the establishment of what Yochum refers to as "community dashboards." Cities looking to implement these sort of systems should seek out CRM and data analysis software built specifically for government

Although accessing these platforms requires investments from the jurisdictions that use them, the technologies involved aren't just commodities. So when Yochum writes that municipalities "are, for lack of a better word, 'competing' against other cities for residents, businesses, tax dollars, state grants, and federal grants,' I don't know if the competition metaphor is wholly appropriate. People don't choose where to live like consumers choose products from vendorsat least the vast majority of people don't. And relationships between cities are part of creating political geographies that work for people in a complex, economically insecure, and interdependent material landscape. In fact, cities and counties can work together for even greater transparency and efficient information delivery than they could alone, perhaps using joint powers authority like the kind that exists in California. Speaking of California, the state has other transparency-facilitating advantages as well: a robust home rule law, as well as being the pioneer of the Public Records Act, enacted in the late 1960s, requiring "municipalities to disclose government records to the public." 

Finally, U.S. municipalists can look internationally to see how voters and residents can empower themselves using transparency tech. Kenyans are enacting tech fixes to make proceedings of parliament more accessible. Jordana monarchyis involving citizens in direct decisionmaking via a system called Ishki. Chile has the very nicely named Vota Inteligente, "informing Chilean citizens about corruption and policy debates through the use of social media." Seoul has its own corruption reporting systems, while Peru, Russia and Germany have all adopted constituent conversation systems. And "[i]n India, technology and independent mass media has also allowed people to put pressure on the government to act against corruption and be more transparent . . . in Mumbai a number of groups of 'activists, geeks, data people, lawyers and techies' hold 'datameetings' to discuss how data and technology can be used transparently."

Transparency is seen as a core valuethat is, a value that informs other values and policy criteria. It's really a synthesis of the right to know with freedom of expression, as either of those values by themselves would be meaningless without the other. Both of these are enhanced by technology in accountable hands. 

Google and the Right to Be Forgotten

The "Right to Be Forgotten" doctrine is controversial in the United States in ways that frankly surprise most Europeans. The latter are used to the eternal complex struggle to balance the rights of individual and community, and are not used to the deference given in the U.S. to large corporations. So when a "leading French consumer group filed a class-action lawsuit" last week "accusing Google of violating the European Union's landmark 2018 privacy rules," this hardly raised an eyebrow in the European press, but plenty has been said about it in Google's home country. 

The lawsuit was filed in an administrative court in Paris by UFC Que Choisir, a consumer advocacy group. It seeks a little over a thousand dollars in damages for each of 200 users. The EU rules in question are known as GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), and they prohibit operators from publishing private data on non-newsworthy individuals. Google has responded in the media by saying its privacy controls are consumer-driven and adequate. 

Some legal scholars argue that the U.S. should follow suit, implementing a right to be forgotten doctrine, which would protect both adults and children from humiliation and bullying online. Not just because parts of the unregulated online community can, as the Connecticut Law Journal pointed out years ago, be literally violent and traumatic. Which it can. Understanding why some people believe we actually can balance privacy and freedom of speech requires at least an acknowledgment that there are good arguments for excluding "a right so broad that wrongdoers and corporations can expunge important data relevant to, for example, consumer and investor decision making." 

This is in part a technological question. "The Internet does not have to preserve information forever," and so proponents of a right to be forgotten are essentially saying that technological possibility needn't determine ethical permissibility. RTBF proponents say that an egalitarian society requires the right to a private life separate from capitalism's colonization of public life, if that's possible. There is also a wide distinction between the kind of data append, email, and consumer marketing data long used to reach consumers privately and the detailed public dossiers of individuals created by and accessible through today's internet giants. 

Julia Powles, researcher in law and technology at the University of Cambridge, argues that the private "sphere of memory and truth" must be kept separate from public memory in order to preserve that part of freedom that keeps egalitarian values from becoming inegalitarian hierarchies. Homeland Security NewsWire's Eugene Chow argues that the European rules have made life better for internet users, where Europe's "conception of privacy" could set a model giving "Americans [ . . . ] a legal weapon to wrestle control of our digital identities." There are limits on even robust RTBF policies, and people can't hide information just to make their lives more convenient or escape accountability. 

On the other hand, there are good reasons to be skeptical of RTBF. It lacks clear standards, checks and balances, and as Jodie Ginsberg of Index on Censorship points out, the appeals process isn't what Americans would expect. Speaking of one particular EU court decision, Ginsberg calls it a "flabby ruling" and argues that, even aside from the free speech questions, there are practical resource issues: "The flood of requests that would be driven to these already stretched national organisations" for RTBF status should deter people from turning the right into "a blanket invitation to censorship." And to be sure, these requests will include public figures seeking to game the rule, such as the case of an actor requesting the removal of news articles about an affair they had with a teenager, or the politician who wanted stories of their erratic behavior wiped.

But in the final analysis, the experiences of totalitarianism in the 20th century suggest that if we can't trust governments with our private lives, we can't trust corporations either. Both the far right and Stalinism produced, as one scholar puts it, "shockingly tight surveillance states."

As Jeffrey Toobin points out, it was the EU's proximity to such totalitarianism that has led to the "promulgat[ion of] a detailed series of laws designed to protect privacy." We really can't trust hierarchical authority, whether it comes from the market or the ballot box, even if we have to work with such forces. So even if it's not an EU-style RTBF, the experience of Google in Europe suggests that Americans should at least come up with some reasonable guidelines to protect the privacy of non-newsworthy data—whatever we might decide, through endless deliberation, that might mean.

Comprehensive Communication Tools and the Culture of Government Teams

How is organizational culture changing in government offices? And how are collaborative platforms part of that evolution? Although this is far from a scientific observation, I think as our political culture has embraced more grassroots populism over the last several years, space for similar participatory culture has opened up at least among the structures and blueprints of government org culture. We've come a long way since I first started the "Government 2.0" podcast in 2009!

We can see part of this transition just by reading what people have written about such organizational culture over the last several years. A 2013 article mentioning "participatory leadership" had good suggestions for its time, but seems quaint in that it mentions nothing about technology, nothing about communication and collaborative work platforms.  

So even though the article calls for "mechanisms such as an employee advisory team that allows employees to provide input into policies and programs to design a first rate work environment," we can picture all of these programs being enacted in real time, absent shared work platforms beyond Google Docs, perhaps in a meeting room like the one in The Office. The article even mentions "open and honest communication  . . . with a handwritten note," and while I hate to be dismissive about the power of handwritten notes, let's just say that nowadays it's the very exceptionalism of a handwritten message on paper that makes it noteworthy. After all, we can private message people--or praise them publicly--on integrated platforms like Slack.

Fast forward to 2017. Slack and Asana are in play. But not all government workplace cultures are participatory. This piece in Governing took me by surprise because it led with the negatives of public sector workplace culture and almost reads like a libertarian manifesto: "Curating a healthy workplace culture in the public sector poses unique challenges," it reads. "In contrast to the business world, governmental organizations have constantly evolving priorities, excessive bureaucracy, shifting political winds as elected leaders come and go, ebbing and flowing budgetary resources, and, too often, a lack of understanding by leaders and managers of culture's power and influence."

To solve these things, the article points to the example of Coppell, Texas's city government, which has cultivated a "high-performance workplace culture" including "a code of ethics, an oath of service, behavioral guidelines and what the city describes as a 'culture of credibility'" which is "reinforced through extensive learning/training programs and a variety of other means." All of which sounds incredibly disciplined, probably efficient, but not necessarily participatory. I fear that such a regimented work culture is susceptible to groupthink and bad decision-making unless it feels democratic and deliberative to team members. I have no idea whether the good people in the Coppell city government have such a voice, but the article doesn't flag it.

But then check out this 2018 piece, "Organizational Culture in Local Government," and it's also in Texas--in fact it's the Texas City Management Association's blog. This almost reads like a worker cooperative: "mutual trust, fairness and justice for all employees, recognition of individual worth . . . People join for the purpose of giving rather than to get." The emphasis is clearly on building non-punitive, non-fear-based, participatory culture. The article goes on to emphasize that leadership shapes the organization's culture. But again, nothing about communication platforms.

The only posts that seem to account for the role of comm tech in creating an egalitarian workplace culture are those written by the people selling the apps, like Staffbase; their blog contains "11 Ideas How to Rethink Internal Communications—and Boost Your Employee Engagement," and the suggestions aren't bad--and they recognize the role of the platform. The post points out that the rising generation is looking for values alignment, and in my experience those who look for values alignment in their organizations almost always look just as hard for participatory work environments.

Integrated communication platforms can, in fact, establish trust by providing a natural, organic, accessible method of collaborative work and easy, horizontal communication. This is all because the wave of democratization and grassroots politics that we're seeing grow in the political realm is also taking shape in government workplace culture, making platforms that integrate internal and external government communications, including texting and service requests, normal instead of the exception. The development of collaborative platforms isn't just a business evolution. It's a governance evolution and, really, a humanity evolution.

Juicing Your Twitter Visibility To Get Quoted by the Media—Secrets of an Unabashed Reply Guy

I want to tell you what I did to get millions of new Twitter impressions and win coverage in five news articles in just 28 days.

I was quoted fighting for progressive values here:

Trump Just Threw Some Serious Shade At Fox News For Their ‘Very Strange’ Town Hall With Bernie Sanders

Trump Loses It On Twitter And Attacks Fox News After Bernie Had Successful Townhall

Bernie Sanders answers Lindsey Graham’s jab on letting terrorists vote by pulling the race card

‘Not a radical idea’? Bernie Sanders doubles down on giving violent prisoners the right to vote

President Trump Schooled Bernie Sanders On Our Booming Economy


For a long time, whenever I'd give a talk or introduce myself on a panel, I'd mention running for Congress in 2009 and getting more Twitter followers than votes. It's a good laugh line, and blunts the pains of that loss. Today, more new people follow my Twitter account in a month than the 347 who voted for me in that special election.

Still, those were heady times. National Journal wrote about fundraising through Twitter (you didn't) and the party was calling from DC to learn how I'd come out of nowhere to score breathless political coverage from coast to coast. "Here’s another milestone for Twitter," Politico reported. "The first congressional candidate has announced his campaign through the trendy social networking site."

Thanks to the bombast of our current President, Twitter is hot, again. "See what’s happening in the world right now," it promises. And any candidate or media figure who wants to be taken seriously, who wants to win in our frantic media environment, has to have Twitter game.

I've recently been experimenting with taking Twitter more seriously again as a branding tool - working with a coach and writing about my assumptions and experiences, first for data appending vendor Accurate Append (client), "How Influencers Use Twitter Replies to Build An Audience," then in more depth for Campaigns & Elections' Campaign Insider, "Five Ways to Explode Your Twitter Game." Like most of my strategic and tactical work, I am sharing this to help those who aren't able to work with big agencies level up with those who arethese are the simple lessons that helped me take a decade of tweeting from middling success to millions of impressions and tens of thousands of dollars in earned media exposure with just weeks of practice.

Our work proved that you can ramp Twitter results dramatically in just weeks: more impressions, more followers, thought-leadership recognition like the C&E article above, visibility in industry viral media stories, and tens of thousands of visits to your Twitter profile.

Here's a graph of my Twitter stats from March - at the tail end, I'd started to practice lessons from my coach, Nathan Mackenzie Brown, founder of the viral Really American Facebook page:

One thing that immediately jumps out is that I had to tweet more often in order to get more content views. Twitter visibility does usually grow with activity. However, a big lesson I took from Nathan is that if I wanted to be more successful using Twitter as a business tool, I needed to be much more thoughtful about my use. No more scrolling Twitter restlessly at night. No more tripping on uneven sidewalks while lost in Twitter addiction. Instead of letting the Twitter algorithm work me on my phone, I deleted the app and began constraining my Twitter use to my most productive times of day - and desktop use only. I would work the algorithm instead of letting it work me.

The results were dramatic. This is my stats graph for April:

The critical success factor for blowing up your Twitter visibility is targeted replies. They get your tweets in front of hundreds of thousands of people, and they get your tweets into news coverage, like Mediaite, Heavy, and the George Takei pub Guacamoley!

Saucy replies to a single Trump tweet account for the big mid-month spike above. Twitter also prominently features viral reply threads, giving you lots of digital real estate to get a point across. The winning "reply guy" strategy isn't trying to get attention from the original target, it is about drafting on the target's viral attention and audience. If you're looking to grow on Twitter, I hope you'll look at the articles linked aboveand don't forget that once you catch a top reply, keep replying. All of my recent big weeks on Twitter have come from a series of replies that Twitter helpfully turned into a feature.

One caveat for follower growth is that tangling with ideological foes usually won't win you new fans. It is also important to update both your notifications for users and for your own repliesyou want to be first in with a strong, stand-alone comment in viral Twitter users' replies, and to tamp down the trolly responses you'll get when your own tweets go big.

I recently wrote about how newly registered voters in California are, in overwhelming numbers, deferring party registration. Astute political friends pointed out that California’s new “motor voter” registration at the DMV defaults to “No Party Preference”if a party isn’t selected and it’s no big surprise that while the Democrats are doing much better than Republicans, most people aren’t too jazzed about picking a political party.

In October, 4,725,054 Californians were Republicans, 5,419,607 NPP, and 8,557,427 were Democrats. The total lead in Democratic registrations, often cited against Republicans, hides a much more significant trend in voter attitude. In the five months between reports, the Democrats added 119,159 new voters, growth of 1.4%. NPP registrations, however, grew 8.35 times as fast and for every new Democrat, five Californians went independent — more than half a million.

Behind these stunning growth numbers is a real opportunity for the “inside / outside” Bernie Sanders campaign. The fastest-growing group of voters in California isn’t happy with the political parties and needs a new message. And with California’s semi-open primary, these NPP independent voters - many of whom are registered for mail ballots in California’s increasingly postal voting-centric system - will simply have to return a postcard requesting a partisan primary ballot. The California Democratic Party has traditionally supported this practice, and even with establishment animosity towards Sanders in place, a huge influx of Berners in recent party elections bodes well for the mixed primary and enlarging the pool of Democratic Party voters, regardless of whether they’ve registered with the party.

I’ve been surprised, however, that Sanders supporters are missing the opportunity to educate and organize these party-free voters, who historically have turned out at much lower numbers than Republican voters. Instead of an education campaign, daily I see Berners on social media urging independent voters to re-register. This strategy simple does not reflect what is happening in our state. Motor voter is bringing new voters in, and if they can’t be convinced to support Sanders and request a crossover ballot, what evidence is there that they can be convinced to re-register to support Sanders?

As I look at 2020 and California’s early primary, this education and follow-up campaign is one of the top opportunities for Sanders’ movement candidacy. Others include using Facebook engagement advertising to activate younger and infrequent voters, and, using consumer data appends to identify likely unregistered, eligible voters and then organizing registration drives.

Aside from the issue of surging NPP registration, there remains the problem of California voters registering as American Independents in confusion. This right-wing party won’t have Democratic crossover ability and groups that want to reach these voters should consider engaging, educational ads targeted at voter file- and append-based custom audiences. We must also support AB 681, a bill by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), which will increase the number of notices to voters about their registration and how to request a crossover ballot.

“We just want to make sure people understand that they have to make an affirmative step in order to vote in a presidential primary if they’re not registered as a partisan voter,” Gonzalez told the Los Angeles Times. “The different forms of communication can help if a voter misses one of them.”

What Do We Do with All These Voters (or, Problems We Want to Have!)

There are two relevant facts about the 2018 midterms that should guide the strategic choices of future campaign organizations. First, MORE PEOPLE voted. This election’s turnout, a high for midterms, is only slightly lower than 2016’s 56 percent turnout in a presidential election year. And it’s not just that more people voted. It’s also that they voted proactively, casting early ballots like gangbusters. By November 1, for example, more Texans had cast early ballots than the entire number of Texans who voted in the 2014 midterms. More than 800,000 new voters nationwide registered on National Voter Registration Day alone, a stunning number especially when we consider that Donald Trump is only president because of fewer than 80,000 voters in three states.

Second, NEW DEMOGRAPHICS voted. Nearly as many Latinos voted in the 2018 midterms as the their share in the total eligible voter population. Tons and tons of young people voted. Increasingly, these diverse voting groups are moving towards progressive candidates. The 18-to-29 year-olds who voted in record numbers did so for Democratic candidates rather than Republican ones by a 2-1 margin in 2018.  The youth surge translated into a 144 percent increase in youth early voting in Illinois. Democrats enjoyed more than a 2-1 advantage among Latinos, with 69% of voting for Democrats and 29% for Republicans.

The progressive shift is interesting on its own terms, and interesting for campaign data management services because it feels like many of these candidates were younger, with a younger support base, than in previous years, and that youth means smart campaigns will use data management, acquisition, and appending not just to get names of people to send donation requests from, but to create actual spaces for campaign activism.

Accurate Append’s demographic database allows campaigns to collect voter attributes like age, income level, and the very important category of political interests. With that information, campaigns can identify potential volunteers—not just by geographic area (which is really important; people are more likely to volunteer if events are close to home) but also by these other demographics. The database is then verifiable via Accurate Append’s mechanisms of verifying contact data and filling in gaps in contact info.

All of this can be done very quickly, with low turnaround time between the campaign team uploading files of incomplete information and Accurate Append returning the same folder, full of complete info. That quick data management thus not only frees up your time to do better volunteer management, but allows you to target better potential volunteers. In time, that success will feed on itself.

How important is that base of grassroots volunteers? Given the new demographics and higher turnout, it’s more important than ever. One of the many reasons Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was able to upset Joe Crowley, a virtual shoo-in leader of the mainstream Democratic Party, in their House district primary, was that she cultivated a DIY, “do it yourself” aesthetic in her campaign. That raw look of goodness is made possible by having a good base of volunteers, an advantage Ocasio-Cortez has pointed out more than once herself.

The result was the most successful campaign ad of 2018, and of course, a trip to the U.S. House for the youngest representative in history. And the grassroots “look” wasn’t just a look for AOC’s campaign either. When you’re outspent 18-1 and outraised 10-1 by your machine-tied opponent, you need to make your story resonate with most voters in your district. The ad was written by Ocasio-Cortez and produced by volunteers—and was also populated by volunteers. Although it’s not always glamorous to contemplate, such team efforts are sustained by data, and a good append service is vital to that process.

Beyond just the need to assemble volunteers, this huge upsurge in voter participation and registration means you’re going to need to process, correct, and complete your databases faster. All those new voters are going to need to answer surveys, for example, one of Accurate Append’s proactive strategy services. Segmentation, which the Obama campaign did amazing things with in 2012, will also be a valuable service to apply to new rolls of voter data. Segmentation allows campaigns, if they care to use it, the ability to subsequently deliver different messages depending on voters’ respective levels of support.

The bottom line is that millions of new voters will populate our clients’ communities. The only question is what to do with them, and the only alternative to getting data on them and engaging them is to not gather that data, not engage. And we all know that’s not really an alternative. Races --both primary and general-- are going to become more competitive as progressive candidates start to move against traditionally conservative or center-left districts and officials. Having accurate appended data makes it easier for your campaign to figure out the right moves in those races.

Other Campaign Media Don’t Trade Off with Email - and Won’t Replace It Anytime Soon

Two declarations I hear a lot from political activists who aren’t really familiar with the ins and outs of digital campaigning: (1) email soliciting is impersonal, dehumanizing, and alienating; and (2) email is a flash-in-the-pan campaign medium that’s on its way out.

The first assertion is kind of subjective, I guess, and very situational. I’ve seen crappy email asks. Some of them are hyperbolic (Trump will DESTROY US ALL!!!), while others definitely look like they’ve been written by a bad content generator. But a lot of the emails I see, particularly those associated with good candidates running thoughtful, deliberative campaigns, are things of beauty. They raise important questions, offer honest explanations of voters’ concerns, and sometimes even take the time to explain that policymaking is complex and needs public effort. You can do all that in an email because it’s written and, as I’ll explain below, emails can incorporate other media to help explain or draw attention to particular points.

The second assertion is probably just a reflection of tech writers’ tendency to make declarative statements about what’s in and out, the next big thing, and so on. My friend Colin Delany's recent provocatively titled post “Will Viral Videos Replace Fundraising Email?” is in that spirit. Colin points out that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other successful left Democrats are using viral videos in place of expensive advertising. Videos feel authentic and grassroots, and take advantage of social media conduits to maximize exposure.

Colin doesn’t really answer the question asked in the title of the post, though, other than to acknowledge that email is still necessary as a fundraising platform. I just think it’s a lot more than that. Email won’t be going anywhere any time soon because email is the great synthesizer of media. A well-designed email may be one of the most effective means of disseminating that amazing viral video, or a whole series of videos. It may also contain information about online and live events, or share news articles and pictures. The email’s words help readers understand the significance of the videos and other media, and encourage sharing of them.

Email is also here to stay, at least for now, because emailing provides the means to organize a political community. This is where campaigners can accomplish a lot by creating email surveys when creating constituent communities, utilizing services like email appends and lead validation enhancement, and using tools like Action Network and VoterCircle to organize actions for the communities you’re putting together.

Finally, email allows you to shape the overall argument that incorporates and synthesizes the video or other artifacts. This is a simple truth that’s easy to miss: There’s a difference between writing good emails and mediocre ones. You should find the people on your team who can write good ones, and others should learn from them.

The fact that most recipients don’t open an email and that a tiny percentage may proactively reject it doesn’t really negate any of this. People tune out during political ads on traditional media. They turn the page if they see a political ad in print. That doesn’t mean the ads aren’t effective for those who do pay attention—and in the case of emails, that effectiveness results not only in a reliable donation base, but also the formation of communities centered around, and inspired by (among other things) the words and information in the messages.

What slows down or gums up email campaigning’s potential are really functional issues, not problems intrinsic to the format. Those problems include:

(1) inaccurate information: hastily-assembled or poached email lists can be really outdated, or the lists might not have been vetted.

(2) slowness or bottlenecks in growing your lists: campaign workers may be gathering new sets of names and contact info, but they aren’t getting integrated into the email lists quickly enough to be included in the next regular send. For this, the solution can be as simple as a Google spreadsheet connected to your campaign database via Zapier. 

(3) failure to take advantage of common attribute clusters: sometimes you want to separate heavy-responders from those who have never responded; other times you want to hit particular neighborhoods to inform them of a local event, and so on.

(4) failure to be careful about sending emails to unwilling recipients: I’ve seen this happen more often than it should—a campaign casts too wide a net with its initial emails and the next thing you know, they’re dealing with a critical level of spam complaints, which can really slow down campaign logistics.

Services like Accurate Append, voter files and enrichments, and proactive strategies like surveys, can solve these problems. Accurate Append is simply indispensable in updating your files by integrating and supplementing the information from current, valid contact lists. Surveys about issues in the district have, for me, produced open rates of over 20%, and I include a prominent “leave this list” link so that people know there’s no ambiguity there. From there, you can create target lists based on demographics from voter files, turnout history, or other factors.

Emails are here to stay for now: they literally allow you to write out your campaign message, which in turn allows you to facilitate and exploit other media linked to or embedded in the emails, and then pick your own recipients. Rather than fearing or loathing them, teach your campaign teams to write good emails that don’t insult readers’ intelligence, and that take full advantage of viral videos and other dynamic media.

Accurate Append Leads with Rock-Solid Data Practice

Accurate Append is that special kind of tech company that bridges cutting-edge practices and traditional brick-and-mortar businesses. You’d go to them if you need to merge and enhance complicated contact data sets, or if you need to deliver a few thousand postcards for your automotive business. We sat down with Accurate Append’s President Chris Nichols to learn about best practices and changes in the contact data industry.

AHG: What are some of the more complicated challenges you deal with in your business?

Nichols: In the U.S., contact data for reaching consumers is highly commodified - that means specialty businesses like mine need to differentiate ourselves and offer better quality data. We’ve invested heavily in the last few years in developing algorithms that ensure our customers get the best customer matches, with the most timely information. Sometimes this means merging our proprietary data with client data and filling in the gaps with partner resources - and doing it with very large datasets. That’s a lot of moving parts, and doing it right is a big deal - not just for us, but for our clients’ bottom line.

AHG: What kinds of things are your customers looking for?

Nichols: One of our newest products for self-serve users is an API for verifying contact data - like, when someone enters an email address on your website, our API will ping back the status of that email. Is it valid? We also offer traditional email append, phone append, and address append services. Many customers just want to make sure their outbound marketing - calls, postcards - is efficient and effective. No one likes calling the wrong person or having their mailers bounce back. We’ve also done quite a lot of work with political campaigns looking to update and verify information on public voter files, where contact information can be quite old.

AHG: What are the technical skill a client must have in order to work with Accurate Append?

Nichols: From none to a whole lot! If you’re just looking to verify whether emails are valid, for example, you can email an attachment to customer service. Then there are what we call “batch” clients who regularly give us large files. This could be a political campaign looking to make sure they are differentiating between cell and landline telephones for compliance and accuracy. For batch customers, we offer FTP processing. You upload a file to your secure folder and we return the results in that same folder. It’s fast, efficient, and doesn’t require an engineering degree. Developers who want to work with our APIs will need quite a bit more skill. But we’re always striving to make it easier for developers to work with us - for example, we recently added API features written to the Open Support Data Initiative specification used by some political and advocacy customers.

AHG: How did you end up in this business?

Nichols: I learned how to code pretty early - for a while there was just huge growth in this business for folks who understood the business side and the code. In 1994, I started a company called Digital Research, which provided public records and other investigative information for attorneys, private investigators, and other licensed professionals. In 1999, I co-founded PeopleFinders.com, where I designed its original data warehousing and search systems. Today I run Accurate Append and a sailing business - you’ve got to take advantage when you live near the Puget Sound!

AHG is a longtime Accurate Append partner, focusing on social media presence and search engine optimization. In 2018, Accurate Append data hygiene supported programs that reached hundreds of thousands of voters.