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Seven takeaways from seven campaigns

Seth Piper

One of the things I like most about political campaigning is the opportunity to learn and share across national boundaries. I’ve been involved with seven election campaigns in as many years for the Greens in the Nordics and the UK, having been hired to work on five of them and volunteering on two more. Learning about and helping develop the approaches of parties in different countries to electoral campaigning has given me plenty of chances to compare and contrast, and understand what works and what doesn’t.

Of the campaigns I've been directly involved with there have been highs (doubling our vote share in Oslo) and lows (the toxicity and tribalism of First-past-the-post Westminster elections). Looking back, it turns out that I’ve learned more from our failures than from our successes. I would like to share some hard-won lessons from these campaigns which could be implemented in other campaigns. I spoke about some of these takeaways at my recent session at the International Fundraising Congress, ‘What powers the Green wave?’

The stakes are high in the months leading up to the 2024 European elections, and what we do now matters.

#1: Create instant activists

No campaign can have too many activists contributing to the end goal, but we sometimes make it harder than we need to for people to get involved. In the campaigns where we lowered the bar for getting involved, there was a special kind of buzz and excitement. At the Green campaign hub in Bristol, new volunteers were welcomed and could get involved the minute they walked through the door. In Norway, we recruited ‘apptivists’ to rapidly scale up election engagement in digital channels.

Count the steps in your mobilization process from sign-up to the first activity: there are probably too many. Getting involved as a new volunteer should ideally be as easy as walking through a door or signing up online. Some parties expect volunteers to first become paid-up members, then receive communications, attend an event, and finally get invited to an activity. The feeling of enthusiasm a new supporter feels can disappear quickly, so we have everything to gain from inviting them into the action right away and giving them the rewarding feeling of having made a meaningful contribution on day one.

A photo of the Green Party protesting in Bristol
Image: Bristol Green Party

#2: Speak with a clear voice

Finding a message that resonates with potential voters is the key to a winning campaign. Developing messaging is complicated, but assessing whether or not your messaging is working is actually really easy: you hear your own campaign message repeated back to you from voters. If everyone involved in a campaign is able to repeat the same key message in all channels, it unlocks valuable synergy effects that could make all the difference on election day. The campaign slogan ‘We love road tolls’ set Oslo Greens apart from tough competition because of its clarity and because it was repeated back to us by both supporters and haters. Four years on, this phrase is often the only message people remember from that entire local election.

Even though we have so much more to say, research shows that messaging with too many elements simply doesn’t stick in the minds of most voters. Think of messaging like a song: we repeat the key message many times, like a chorus, and then we can introduce some additional messages in the verses later on.

#3: Make campaigning fun!

The voters you want to reach and talk to don’t tend to be the ones who relish the idea of meeting a party activist to be convinced. Instead, if we can be smart and creative, we can make voter contact fun and appealing and still deliver our message. One of the best ways to stand out from the crowd of parties who are all fighting to convince key voter groups is to go against the stream and do something unexpected. In Stockholm last year, activists ran sticker-polls at bus stops around the city. We asked voters what they thought monthly tickets should cost, instead of just telling them what we thought. Conversations were fun and people were naturally curious about what we were doing and how others had answered. Above all, the voter contact happened within our framing and gave us the chance to talk about one of our central election pledges to reduce ticket prices. We also had ‘high-five’ actions along busy cycle lanes, where voters could high-five candidates as they cycled past, with the implicit message that Greens are responsible for the wonderful new biking infrastructure.

The Green Party of Sweden campaigning at bus stops
Image: Green Party Sweden, Stockholm district

#4: Empower voters using mobilizing emotions

Recently I attended a talk by political scientist and professor Erica Chenoweth on the subject ‘How many people does it take to make real change?’. Research shows that nonviolent protest movements that engage over 3.5% of the population have never failed to create change. Erica talked about the power of mobilizing and demobilizing emotions, in a political context. Mobilizing emotions are outrage and hope, while demobilizing emotions are fear and despair. A key element in successful political movements is the way they are able to spread and benefit from either mobilizing emotions or demobilizing emotions among voters. We can and should make hope and outrage central in our communications and when interacting with voters. Science indicates that we have everything to gain from doing so.

I campaigned in England during the last Parliamentary elections in 2019 when Brexit was still an open question. The political context that led to the Brexit vote is a harsh reminder of the far-right playbook, where Leave campaigners knowingly spread fear with lies and half-truths, orchestrating hate, disunity, and chaos. Spreading despair among progressives is another goal, and it was effective in creating apathy among many voters that a bad outcome was inevitable. The central message we chose in a very hostile and negative political context was one of hope and coming together.

#5: Use incentives to unlock support

Crowdfunding is a form of digital engagement, and donating can often represent the first step to someone getting involved in the party and the campaign itself. Using merchandise (physical items with slogans or branding) as incentives for donating has worked well on a number of campaigns I’ve been involved with, both as a way to generate cash and as list-building. The merchandise-buyer-to-activist pipeline is real! Limited-edition items like well-designed posters, mugs, t-shirts, and bags grab attention and can break the scroll loop many potential supporters find themselves in, generating plenty of click-throughs to your campaign site or crowdfunding page. Offering incentives builds upon the concept of reciprocity, where supporters are motivated to return the favor.

Overconsumption is something we all need to be thinking about, however. Symbolic, non-material incentives like experiences can work just as well or better if you make them compelling and meaningful.

At the Norwegian Greens, we made space for the crowdfunder in our already packed digital communications schedule even during the critical phase of the campaign. The merchandise included an extension of the already-iconic ‘GREEN’ t-shirt in a whole range of limited edition colors. We made a big deal to thank all of our supporters, and larger contributors were personally thanked on the phone by party leaders, which altogether raised around €240.000.

A picture of t-shirt merchandise developed by the Green Party of Norway
Image: Green Party Norway

#6: Reach through the screen

From my experience, the greatest value that digital channels bring to an election campaign is in driving offline engagement. The very best way to approach your digital campaigning is to show the campaign in action, demonstrating to voters that you're a movement, and have ‘Get involved!’ as your primary call to action. Digital channels can then become a significant driver for your offline voter contact activities. A successful campaign purposefully generates ‘winner’ vibes around itself, where new activists join and talk about what they are doing within their network, creating a positive snowball effect.

Digital and offline channels can therefore go hand in hand, but we have moved beyond the assumption that we can simply deliver our campaign material to voters through their screens and the job is done. While we can and should present our message to voters on social media and across all digital channels, there are a lot of obstacles that can limit the effectiveness of ‘digital-first’ electoral campaigning. The days when we could assume plenty of free reach on social media are truly over. Meta has responded to the dramatic events related to how far-right populists have gamed their platforms and contributed to undermining democracy itself by indicating that they just don’t want to make space for political content at all - especially if they aren't directly generating any revenue from it. Meta has explicitly stated that political content is unwanted on Threads. A hard lesson some of the parties I have campaigned with had to learn was the high risk involved with investing heavily in digital campaigning without understanding what is truly effective at winning votes.

#7: Stay on track

I’m a strong believer in strategy being the key to success. However, in the real world, we don’t always have the opportunity to shape the strategy ourselves. I have typically been hired on a campaign when there was only half a year to go, which in many ways limits the impact you can have on the outcome. So, we often had to find ways to make a campaign work within whatever context we found ourselves in, and up against a merciless ticking clock. Assuming that the campaign has a solid strategy in place, the very best thing to do is make sure everyone keeps to what the strategy says unless there are very compelling reasons to deviate. It’s so easy to drift away from what was originally planned and agreed, and before you know it the campaign is uncoordinated and dysfunctional. Work to build a strategic culture, where clear priorities are discussed and each part of the campaign can trust the upon to stick to what has been agreed.

I heard directly from the Australian Greens that it took them ten years to get to the point where they had mastered all the types of campaigning which led to their record result in the 2022 federal election, where the party gained a balance of power. They connected with voters online and offline, knocking on 259,479 doors (during a pandemic), and counted 78,249 meaningful voter interactions.

Focus and strictly prioritize, and know that hard choices pay off. Beyond this, the very best thing to do is lay a foundation for future campaigns. Try to get to a point where the party can mobilize regularly, is campaigning year-round in digital and offline channels, and has momentum on campaign communication, fundraising, and lead generation.

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Seth Piper (he/him) has worked for Green parties across Europe in various campaign roles. Seth has been part of the Oslo-based consultancy b.bold since 2016, helping nonprofit organizations with strategic approaches to supporter growth. Seth previously worked for Médecins Sans Frontières and Greenpeace, where he built the Norwegian fundraising department from scratch starting in 2011.

a photo of Seth Piper
Image: Nicki Twang


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