Carolyn DeWitt is president of Rock the Vote. Heather Smith is a member of the Rock the Vote board of directors and an independent consultant working on questions of online advertising and civic engagement.
Whether on a subway, a sidewalk, or a living room couch, life for millennials is lived in two worlds. There is the physical world around them, but also the online world that exists just out of sight, but must remain squarely in view for political professionals looking to capture and keep their attention.
For anyone aiming to truly move the needle this election cycle, the trick is to greet the largest and most diverse generation of voters in our nation’s history in a language they understand, using technology that already feels like home. This means advocating for and facilitating digital opportunities for voter registration and reminders, and using digital engagement to urge action in the physical world of ballot boxes and election events.
The digital world is where the battle for the hearts and minds of a newly powerful generation of voters will begin. Paid ads and earned promotion through social media organizing are different but highly intertwined, and both are much more effective when done in coordination. They are also much more effective when tied to a simple call to action that young people can make – such as registering to vote – immediately and in the moment.
Technology is changing rapidly, so there is constant learning to be done on how to best use new platforms — from Twitter to Snapchat to Medium — and the respective audiences these platforms reach. This includes streamlining messaging to fit it into 140 characters, or an eye-catching image, or a sharable video.
Constant technological innovation has made it easier to target specific audiences, but also significantly harder to contemplate regulation. As a result, the rules around how each platform is used for advertising falls to individual tech giants and the growing field of platforms and social tools.
As these companies decide their policies for regulating data-tracking or content standards and restrictions, what is clear is that these decisions will impact our nation’s civic discourse in major ways. Will these companies provide public services to distribute basic information on registering and voting, for instance? Are they fact-checking claims made in candidate attack ads? And can they find ways to promote positive conversation and information on candidates through their policy decisions and engagement priorities? Our research has shown that while negative ads are often more informative, they are also more often muted online.
Through rigorous testing of our programs, Rock the Vote has learned that peer-to-peer contact and social pressure is far more effective at convincing a young voter to register and to vote than a broadcast TV ad, mail piece or automated call. We prefer to think of digital advertising and organizing of our audience through digital platforms as a way to bring peer-to-peer programs online, as opposed to a way to show a television ad over the Internet.
This means that is crucial to build a robust list of followers and keep them equipped with intuitive tools and engaging, shareable content. It also means that it will be vital to build strong partnerships with the tech platforms that young people use and trust the most, ensuring that our followers, our celebrity partners, and others can easily amplify our messages. Leveraging the echo chamber online to spur momentum toward voting will be key throughout the fall. This is why, for example, we ramped up online partnerships to urge registration and voting with celebrities like Ty Dolla $ ign and Rosario Dawson on platforms ranging from Snapchat to Facebook to Instagram during the party nominating conventions.
The truth is, technology and the ways young adults interact with it are changing much faster than our political consultants and funders can comfortably adjust to — but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t push the envelope on how political advertising is done. This means rapid response content, highly engaged online communities and followers, and creative ads that take full advantage of opportunities to organize and reach potential voters through each platform – more than just editing television ads and putting them online.
Millennials are the largest voting bloc in history, and they will be followed by even younger, more tech savvy generations. They’re waiting in the wings to either discard a Luddite political system — or to fully engage and take our democracy to the next level.
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