How NYC Votes boosted civic engagement for local elections

The New York Campaign Finance Board used an inquisitive, data-driven approach to inform, engage, register, and drive voters to participate in the important election for NYC mayor.

By Jane St. John


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  • GOTV calls
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  • email sign-ups
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  • text opt-ins

If you happen to have New Yorkers in your social media feeds, you may have noticed a recurring image in posts from November 7, 2017: a boldly designed “I voted” sticker inspired by the iconic New York subway map and emblazoned with the logo of NYC Votes. As an initiative of the New York City Campaign Finance Board, NYC Votes dedicates itself to voter education and engagement—for instance, mailing voter guides to all 4.5 million eligible voters, running debates for citywide officials, rallying volunteers to make GOTV phone calls, registering new voters, and advocating in the state capitol for election reforms to make it easier for New Yorkers to vote. The eye-catching sticker and accompanying social media push was one of several successful engagement strategies the organization used to inform and attract citizens they hadn’t reached before and drive a younger turnout for New York’s mayoral election.

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  • App integrations

  • Nonprofit organizations use NationBuilder app integrations to engage supporters in the US, Canada, Australia, and Europe.

A year ago, the Public Affairs team at the CFB was reaching out to its audience mostly through one-to-one communications that were being tracked in a number of places—important interactions in the field might be added to an Excel spreadsheet, while key public relations conversations might happen within Facebook, leaving team members responsible for keeping track of larger and larger data sets as their efforts grew. Heading into the 2017 election, they needed a way to centralize their database and create efficient communication channels to get the right information to to the right voters in time to make an impact.

“We felt like there was an impetus that we had to look for ways to communicate with voters in the ways they want to hear from us. What we hear from people all the time is that they are just starving for information, but that doesn’t mean they want to spend a day hunting it down. They really want it delivered to them and tailored and personalized, and they want it in their inbox, they want it on their phone. So we had voters for a long time saying, ‘we want an email program. We want text message alerts from you.’”

- Amanda Melillo, the CFB's Deputy Director of Public Affairs

After signing on at the end of 2016, they started using NationBuilder in full force in July of last year. “We did a lot of up-front work to really think through how we want to engage people, what outcomes we want to see,” Melillo says. “We spent a lot of time talking through: what are the different paths we should be creating, what does our universe look like, how do we want to engage people? Then, once we got that nailed down, we spent a lot of time thinking, ‘ok, what’s our acquisition strategy? How are we going to get people to sign up with us? Once we have them in the door, what are we going to be sending them?’ So we spent a lot of time planning, and [we’ve] really [started] to see that pay off.”

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  • Email A/B testing

  • Customers using NationBuilder to serve their constituents A/B test emails to gather valuable data and create more engaging campaigns.

Among those early “payoffs” were email open rates upwards of 45% along with healthy click-throughs and engagement with the weekly content they shared. Notably, the content that performed best wasn’t always as straightforward as they expected. Melillo says, “We have this feature called Voters of New York on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, where we post voter profiles and talk about their story and why voting is important to them. People tend to like that and connect to it in a personal way, so we’re just thinking of more creative ideas to appeal to people and get them engaged beyond the nuts and bolts information that we’re getting in their hands.” Recognizing the importance of data in decision-making, they also made the most of each outreach opportunity by rigorously testing their content and messaging, constantly questioning how they could improve their communications. This led to some informative surprises about what performed best and provided value to voters—for instance, “Know Your Vote,” a weekly blog feature aggregating news clips about under-covered races for City Council and Borough President.

Within a few months they had doubled their number of volunteers, and once they began their GOTV effort in earnest, they were able to host their most successful phone banking event ever, mobilizing as many as eighty volunteers per day to make more than 9,300 calls over the course of four days. To sum it up, Melillo says:

“Using NationBuilder, we were able to recruit new volunteers, make more GOTV phone calls than ever before, and provide individualized help to voters who wanted to know their polling location or get an absentee ballot. We were also able to email voters important resources before Election Day, and, for the first time, send text reminders to urge them to get to the polls.”

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