- "Yes" votes
- dollars raised
- volunteers mobilized
On November 15, 2017, rainbow-clad crowds gathered in cities and towns across Australia to watch together as the results of the historic same-sex marriage survey were announced, live. At Prince Alfred Park in Sydney, spokespeople from the Marriage Equality campaign stood on a large stage and cheered and hugged when the news broke that nearly 62% of respondents had voted “Yes.” Behind that stage and the huge screen projecting the live news telecast, the Marriage Equality campaign was still underway. Twenty staffers, fondly labeled “Team Nerdforce,” sat at a table behind all the action, poised to launch one of two sets of email and social communications depending on the results. Two were armed with “No” messaging, and the rest were ready to communicate a “Yes.”
In honor of the one-year anniversary of the Marriage Equality vote, we connected with Digital Campaign Director Adam Knobel, who was part of that behind-the-scenes-team. He reflects that, “we had this strange moment where we disconnected from the outcome, did a whole bunch of work, and then, suddenly—as everyone's leaving the park—we’re like, ‘Oh my God, it was a ‘Yes.’ This is phenomenal.’"
That triumphant outcome was the result of at least thirteen years of advocacy for the Marriage Equality campaign, which started as a small volunteer-led organization in 2004 in response to the Marriage Amendment Act defining marriage as "the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others." At that point, only 38% of Australians believed in a more inclusive definition of marriage, though the budding Marriage Equality community was able to keep a consistent supporter base of around 40,000 people. Knobel joined the campaign in 2016, when it was clear that the organization would have to reframe and adjust its digital strategies with the times to prepare for the fight ahead.
Public opinion had shifted strongly in favor of marriage equality in the intervening years (increasing to 58-65%), yet Marriage Equality’s supporter base wasn’t growing in turn. The first order of business for the campaign’s new digital team was to move the database, website, email, and social operations onto a single platform, and reduce any barriers to signing up that were previously in place.
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Taking a cue from the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign in the United States, they launched a new splash page focusing on their platform and next steps, reading, “All Australians should be able to get married,” followed by a form capturing visitors’ names, email addresses, and postcodes, with a simple call-to-action of “I agree.” “We were getting people to use the site to fax their MP, write to their MP, or call their MP, to take Parliamentary action before the postal citizen vote was sprung on us,” Knobel says. “And by that point, we had built up to over 160,000 supporters through those kinds of actions.”
Once the Equality campaign faced a Marriage Law Postal Survey—an official piece of mail asking all voters one optional, yes-or-no question: “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?”—everything changed. After all, in a country with compulsory voting, how do you get people to participate in an optional poll? That public opinion seemed largely in favor of a “Yes” vote was irrelevant; the results Marriage Equality needed depended on getting as many people as possible to enroll and mail in their ballots between September and November of 2017. In order to to reach numbers high enough to win based on the average public polling on the issue, the campaign team aimed to drive an ambitious 70% voter turnout—while many political pundits contended that they would be lucky to see 50%.
The team staffed up from eight to eighty-five employees in order to mount a successful get-out-the-vote (by mail) campaign in just a few weeks. Sofia Madden, the Co-Founder of Principle Co., joined the Equality Campaign to work on digital engagement, which focused heavily on activating the youth vote.
“We knew that the target audiences we wanted to talk to were young people,” she says. “We knew that they were going to vote ‘Yes,’ that they were the ones most likely not to be on the electoral roll, and also the hardest to contact via post. [Maybe] they moved out of home and hadn’t updated their address, or they’d been moving a lot. There was also the anecdotal attitude that young people didn’t know how to use a post box, which was kind of entertaining.”
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Cue a large-scale digital campaign to make sure the widest possible youth audience first enrolled to vote, then pledged to vote in the survey, and finally, committed to vote “Yes.” With a Pledge to Vote website the campaign had set up, people could both confirm they’d be voting “Yes” and select a date and time when they would post their ballot. With that information tracked, Equality could put them on a schedule using an integration with Autopilot that would send a follow-up SMS message once the ballots had arrived in mailboxes around the country, then another on the date that each person had committed to vote, prompting people to answer whether they had voted yet and reminding them to vote again over the course of a few days if they hadn’t.
Another vital part of Marriage Equality’s progress was storytelling—specifically personal, authentic stories crowdsourced from their supporters. People circulated the campaign’s emotional videos of LGBTQ supporters calling their older relatives and asking them how they were going to vote, parents advocating on behalf of their LGBTQ children, and same-sex couples calling for recognition of their relationships in their home country. When the campaign hit an unexpected snag as surveys were mailed to citizens days ahead of schedule, it was that spontaneous storytelling that helped Marriage Equality stay on top of their game. Says Knobel, “We emailed all our active supporters and said, ‘The surveys have started to arrive for some people, earlier than we expected. Your task is to go home and check your letter box. If you've got your surveys, tick ‘Yes’. Put it in the post box, but also post a selfie of you doing that, to show people that this is the action we need to take to win.’” As a result, the hashtag #PostYourYes trended on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for the first few days thereafter, and thousands of new supporter stories became part of the campaign.
On the specific goal and impact of supporter stories on Marriage Equality, Knobel says, “What people didn't have was hope, and that's what we were trying to create through everything that we put out. We did not lean into anger, and it wasn't because we weren't angry. It was because if we acknowledged that anger, we needed to move then into hope in order to get people to action.”
When the final votes had been counted, the public response was overwhelming. Nearly 79% of people surveyed voted in this optional survey, and of those who responded, 7.8 million voted “Yes”—coming to 61.6% in favor of equality. By the end of November the Marriage Amendment act had passed in the Senate, on December 7 it passed in the House of Representatives, and it came into effect on December 9, 2017—a milestone many years in the making.