How is Outreach Important to Parties?
In order for parties to remain effective and relevant to the democratic process, they need to be able to conduct robust outreach and invite two-way communication. Communication provides avenues for broad political participation and can open a dialogue between party leaders and party members, as well as with citizens in general. As technology has evolved, politicians and political parties have found new ways to communicate. That process began with newspapers and continued to grow with radio and television. Today, in the internet age, parties can reach out to more constituents than ever and spread their messages faster and farther than before.
A party can conduct outreach through community meetings, door-to-door canvassing, phone calls, email, social media and other means, to communicate its message and receive feedback from party members and constituents. Reaching out to potential new members can increase party membership, and in turn increase potential sources of human and financial resources. Further, when a party is engaged in an ongoing conversation with its members, it has the opportunity to receive constant feedback about citizen concerns and priorities, which can lead to more informed policies and messaging.
How Can Technology Help?
New digital and online technologies cannot replace a party’s in-person communications, but they can enhance, support and enable them. For example, a party might still hold rallies to facilitate direct voter connection, but it can use radio, social media, email and text messages to invite supporters to attend and to increase chances of a good turnout. Likewise, SMS messaging can help a party loyalist receive “talking points” and other information from the party, which the loyalist can then pass along to other voters in the same community. They can do this in various ways, including using social media accounts (e.g., sharing something on Facebook or retweeting a Twitter message), sending out email blasts to their personal network or forwarding emails from the party, and word of mouth.
That being said, while technology can facilitate a party’s interactions with its members and provide a more innovative way to communicate, the groups that benefit from the introduction of technology are often the same ones that were fully engaged previous to its introduction. Women and marginalized groups often face unique barriers to accessing technology and therefore, to target all of their members, parties may need to better understand what those barriers are and work to mitigate them.
There are a few cases in which technology tools can be particularly helpful: in those situations where geographical and cultural norms, and/or security, make traditional outreach difficult; and in efforts to reach young people and/or urban populations. By the same token, tech-based forms of outreach may not reach specific sectors of society due to a range of barriers, including financial, social (both visible and invisible), and infrastructural.
Political communications technologies can help a party perform vital outreach activities. The table below outlines which activities are best served by which tools.
|Mobilizing supporters||Tech tools can be used to announce when and where supporters can meet. A party does not need any personal information to share this information on many platforms and it is a free service to those who have internet access.|
|Gaining new supporters||Utilizing tech tools allows a party to contact only those willing to listen to specific messages on specific media platforms; this saves a party outreach-related time and resources.|
|Learning members’ opinions||Technology has made it easier for a party to maintain two-way communication between members and citizens. New tools can create a space for party leaders to discuss issues with citizens and hear real opinions.|
|Training staff and members||Training staff and members can be expensive, especially for party branch offices that have to bring in experts from larger cities. Digital communication tools can help connect party members without travel. For more information on these tools, see our case study about the Podemos Party in Spain. The cloud can also help a party share training material and up-to-date member lists with branch offices, without needing more than one copy.|
|Distributing party messages||Communicating a clear, unified message to constituents is often challenging to a party. Tech tools can help the party spread its message consistently and cost effectively. Targeting is an important element of distributing party messaging, to ensure those on the receiving end are interested and do not consider the message spam.|
Communications from Constituents
Besides distributing messages to party staff and members, a party must manage communications from members and constituents. In countries with widespread internet adoption, citizens can sometimes email their elected officials or contact them via social media, though managing the incoming flow of messages can be challenging.
Tracking information from members and constituents allows a party to identify and track high-priority issues and unmet needs, as well as reactions to legislation, which can improve its message and policy development. While technology does not replace the power of a face-to-face talk with a constituent, it can facilitate communications with many people at once, even in low-tech environments.
 Many politicians have participated in a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything), where the public can ask questions of public figures. Users can “upvote” preferred questions and move them up the page. The questions with the most votes appear at the top and are usually answered first. Participants have included U.S. President Obama, Jón Gnarr, former Mayor of Reykjavík, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore.