The oldest political technology is probably a list: who’s with us who’s against us, and who can we persuade. In the digital age, spreadsheets and databases expand a paper list’s capabilities, but the essential goals haven’t changed much: political lists are about knowing who to communicate with and how to reach them.
Many political organizations today rely on basic office applications like email contact lists, Excel or Access (and their open source counterparts) to manage their supporter lists. Unfortunately, having separate documents stored on different computers can create serious problems of keeping track of who’s on what list. Having a central, standard copy of a list — stored on a local network or on a cloud application like Google Docs — helps avoid duplication and lost data, though of course that document must be both backed up and protected from prying eyes.
Depending on its technological base, a party can also take advantage of software designed specifically to manage contacts on a large scale and facilitate communications en masse. Constituent Relations Management (CRM) software packages help parties keep track of members and supporters (and in some countries, voters who are not supporters). Typically, they also incorporate mass-messaging capabilities, usually using email or SMS but sometimes also including social media.
CRMs have become an essential tool for parties, campaigns and NGOs in the United States, where several such packages are available for organizations to use. CRMs are typically employed to send messages to supporters in bulk, including fundraising appeals, event invitations, requests to sign online petitions and take other online actions, and of course appeals for supporters to vote in elections.
CRM software typically compiles information about supporters as they interact with messages sent through the system. For instance, a CRM will often record which emails a particular person has opened, which links they have clicked in the messages and which online actions they’ve taken. This data can also be cross-referenced with other information like the person’s location or the demographic information (age, sex) known about them. As discussed below, parties can use this kind of data to target their communications with particular segments of their followers.
CRM systems aren’t widely available commercially in every country and language, but NDI has developed a version of the open-source CiviCRM platform called CiviParty. This tool can help parties organize contacts and events, send out surveys to supporters through SMS, reach large audiences via email blast or printed mail merge, and track supporter engagement.