By Michael Saoma and Ahmad Ali-Ahmad

The new new media: you can run an influencer program (and should)

NextGen recruited 869 influencers in battleground states to encourage their combined following of 63M+ people to vote, and vote for Democrats. The program was built from scratch in-house, the content was unscripted, and the results were weird and beautiful. Here’s how we did it, and why you can too.

The case for influencer programs:

For progressive digital organizers and advertisers this cycle, things were… challenging. Social media giants changed up the rules and limited targeting, right-wing misinformation campaigns went unchecked, and the exhaustion with political ads was palpable by summer.

While we couldn’t have predicted COVID-19, we knew years ago this election was going to reach a digital fever pitch unlike anything ever seen before. From cycles of research on what makes young people tick politically, we also knew that authenticity (both in message and messenger) was key to persuasion and mobilization. We decided in 2019 to layer our digital advertising and organizing work to create a kind of hybrid — an influencer marketing program that would recruit micro and macro-influencers to encourage their audiences to vote for Democrats.

How our program worked:

After talking with private sector influencer marketing firms, we decided to build it in-house and staff it with political organizers who eat volunteer recruitment for breakfast. We found that most private-sector tools are set up to filter for conversations that are already happening about brands or their competitors. The filters aren’t designed for campaigns, and we needed experienced organizers driving the conversations.

By partnering with influencers who represent our target audience in battleground states, we were able to introduce younger people from key geographies to our political message in unique and tailored ways. We encouraged influencers to combine their own creative ideas for content with our own call to action; the results were that models catwalked to the ballot box and nail artists painted the letters “vote” onto red, white, and blue acrylics. It was creative, welcoming, and — most of all — appealing to influencers and followers alike.

In order to find influencers who might be open to working with us, we used a mix of manual sourcing and custom search queries to pull accounts that frequently posted from or marked their location as being in a battleground state or area. We broke out influencers into micro (3–10k) mid (10–250k) and macro (250k+) tiers to keep track of which types of outreach were most effective at each audience level. We built a giant google sheet, where we tracked our communication with each influencer, drafted personalized messages, and tracked progress to posting. We had a tab that auto-populated net totals for a variety of subcategories. This all proved to be an efficient way to plan, organize, and execute without vendors. We recruited more than 1,700 influencers with a following of 83M to commit to bringing progressive politics to their channel — as of election day, 869 of those influencers generated more than 1,200 posts to a following of 63M+.

Why it works

For campaigns looking to have a big impact for a small investment, influencer marketing is a great call. Influencers have, in general, amassed their following at a rate far more gradual than full-on celebrities, leading to higher post engagement from the folks we want to persuade to take action. Take Instagram, for example: It’s one of the leading social platforms for young people — making it an essential network for any successful influencer program. Justin Timberlake has 59.5 million followers on IG with a 0.74% engagement rate. This brings his average reach to around 440k. Compare this to Emma Chamberlain, a young influencer who has 11.4 million IG followers with a 14.4% engagement rate. Emma’s average audience reach is over 1.6 million.

Additionally, many influencers have large followings in their home states — which is beneficial when targeting swing-state voters. And since our priority is to have honest conversations with young people in our battleground states, it was important to localize our message and influencer recruitment.

Measuring impact:

While more research is needed to determine the impact of this type of program, there are extremely promising signs that this is an effective tactic. The average Instagram engagement rate across all industries is 1.22%. NextGen’s average Macro Influencer engagement rate is 5.82% and our average micro-influencer engagement rate is 8.3%.

An important next step in developing progressive influencer programs is to find a way to measure the impact on voting behavior. One way to do this could be a survey-based study comparing responses between the audiences of influencers who were recruited and similar influencers who were not. Another method would be to use social APIs to match audience members of treatment and control influencers to the voter file and compare turnout rates.

Practical tips and tricks:

For organizations or causes looking to build an influencer program — here is what we wish we had known when we started:

  • When sourcing influencers, remember to cast a broad net and for GOODNESS sake please do not filter for people who are already talking about the thing you want to call attention to — the whole point is to get people off the sideline and reach audiences that wouldn’t otherwise be having the conversation.
  • Don’t make assumptions about what types of influencers will be receptive to political organizing. Regardless of how an influencer presents their content, or how apolitical it may seem, you’ll never truly know how willing they’ll be to support your mission until you reach out and speak with them. We want that fitness guru whose content is exclusively workouts to talk politics, and we want the make-up artist that only does tutorials to use our call-to-action.
  • Customize your initial DMs! It’s worth the time. Talk about why the person is uniquely situated to have an impact and why it matters. Be prepared to engage in conversation and have counterpoints ready. Whether it’s giving them a compliment on their makeup artistry or touting pride for their college, your ask will be more welcoming and disarming to influencers with a more targeted following. We found that approaching influencers in our program as one would approach friends and family in relational organizing was keenly effective in recruiting more people.
  • Finally, and importantly, NO SCRIPTS. Please do not give an influencer a script. They are inauthentic and audiences can tell. Content should be framed in whatever way works best for the influencer and their platform! If someone asks you for a script or a canned graphic, it’s always worth the time to work with the influencer to develop their own creative, in their voice, keeping your campaign’s goals and talking points in mind.

Mobilizing the #YouthVote across 11 states. Visit us at nextgenamerica.org to learn how you can join the fight.

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