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What is deep canvassing, and how can campaigns and organizations use it to make real connections that lead to lasting changes in opinion?
Deep canvassing seeks to bridge divides, encourage people to examine their own beliefs, and create lasting changes in opinion. Evidence suggests it can be effective — but because it’s a newer strategy, not everyone is familiar with what it is or how it works.
We’re going to take a look at what deep canvassing is, how it’s done, and how campaigns are adapting deep canvassing strategies for phone banks.
Deep canvassing is a persuasion strategy that relies on the power of connection. Rather than just telling people what to do or how to vote, canvassers engage with voters in a one-on-one conversation. Deep canvassing creates a chance for empathy and connection.
Traditional canvassing might look like asking someone to vote for a particular candidate or telling them to get out and vote. Exchanges are usually short.
Deep canvassing, on the other hand, involves sparking a conversation that can lead to shared connections — and evidence suggests it can change minds in the long-term. While conversations are fluid, they might involve:
(For a look at deep canvassing in action, check out How Do You Change Voters’ Minds? Have a Conversation in The New York Times.)
A 2016 study published in Science magazine by David Broockman and Joshua Kalla found that “a single approximately 10-minute conversation encouraging actively taking the perspective of others can markedly reduce prejudice for at least 3 months.”
While more research is needed to measure its effects on a broader scale, the 2016 study found a significant change in opinion of about 10 points (or 10%) over a control group.
Additionally, anecdotal evidence suggests deep canvassing can help bridge divides in a way few other strategies can. Of course, not every conversation is effective. But deep canvassers report that the voters they speak with both share their own stories relating to the topic and listen to the stories that canvassers share. That kind of honest back-and-forth is lacking in most political discussions today, whether on social media or around the Thanksgiving table.
Most other forms of political persuasion are one-way pieces of communication. For example, all advertisements (TV, radio, social media, etc.) can deliver campaign messages, but they can’t listen to voters, interact with them, or learn from them.
Traditional canvassing, on the other hand, does involve two-way communication. However, exchanges are very short and message-based. Canvassers are telling voters who they should vote for, how they should feel about an issue, or that they should get out and vote. They might note the responses of the people they talk to and tailor the message accordingly, but the primary goal is to talk to as many people as possible and get the message out.
Then, we have deep canvassing, which is unique in how much listening it requires. The goal is a two-way connection that builds empathy and understanding for both parties. Even if the voter doesn’t agree with the canvasser, if the conversation flows, they’ll both learn something and have seen from the other person’s perspective.
This kind of conversation has a nuance that most Americans would agree is sorely missing from both our broader political discourse and the interpersonal interactions we have with the people around us. In this way, deep canvassing is also unique because it has a benefit even if the voter’s mind isn’t changed. Just by having a better understanding of the other side -- and a human face to pair with it -- citizens can grow compassion and build bridges.
But of course, the goal for a specific campaign is to change peoples’ minds. That’s why deep canvassing has a unique appeal.Truly changing someone’s mind is notoriously difficult, so those 2016 study results revealing that just one conversation could help reduce prejudice for months are a huge deal. They hint that big-money ad campaign blitzes might be no match for the power of authentic human connection.
Deep canvassing was originally pioneered by door-to-door campaigns that focused on real conversations and listening to people. And while this strategy has evidence behind it, it’s not always possible to go door-to-door. Door-to-door campaigns take an extraordinary amount of time and effort, especially given the training needed for volunteers, who are ideally local. COVID-19 further complicates those face-to-face conversations.
So if you can’t do face-to-face, or you want to supplement those efforts, what’s the next best thing?
Person-to-person. And for most people, that means phone to phone.
Door-to-door canvassing may meet people where they live, but most people live on their phones, too. In fact, many people are more comfortable talking over a call or text than they are with a stranger at the door. It lets them have the conversation on their own terms — especially texting, which isn’t time-sensitive like a knock at the door or a ringing phone.
Using a phone bank to call or text people can be an effective medium for deep canvassing. It allows for the same kind of back-and-forth you’d get in a face-to-face conversation, unlike other types of campaign messaging. And it allows you to build a team of canvassers from a broader geographic area, then focus their efforts wherever you most need them.
Deep canvassing over the phone needs to feel a lot more authentic than robocalls or chatbots, though. Technology just can’t replace the real human connection -- that is at the heart of why this strategy actually works.
Additionally, people pay attention to their text messages in a way they don’t with other mediums. That’s doubly true if the message comes from a real person and sounds authentic and invites a response. We’re all savvy to spam and ads these days; a genuine invitation to talk stands out.
So how do you adapt evidence-based deep canvassing strategies for the phone?
Phone banking volunteers or employees need to be trained in how to hold these conversations effectively. Most people aren’t used to having these types of conversations, especially around hot-button or sensitive issues, and without the right training, callers can default back into one-sided arguments, fail to make authentic connections, or miss opportunities to go deeper with people who seem to agree at first glance.
Callers need to be trained in how to take the conversation deeper. Examples are invaluable here, as are daily debriefing sessions where callers share their experiences and swap ideas for handling tough situations. So take the time to build up your library of training materials. Audio recordings of phone calls, transcripts of text message exchanges, and more give you tangible examples for your canvassers to work with. They also allow your team to celebrate its victories, which is incredibly motivating.
While your callers will need the flexibility to have a real conversation, scripts are invaluable for getting the ball rolling and helping take the conversation deeper.
You’ll want to put a lot of thought into how you open conversations. (Our article on how to set yourself up for a good conversation can help you think through the right script for your team.)
Additionally, each caller should think through their own experiences with the issue and what anecdotes they can share. They don’t necessarily need to have direct experience or be part of the affected group; they just need to have a story that resonates on an emotional level with the issue at hand. (After all, that’s what they’ll be asking the voter to do: build bridges of empathy based on different experiences with the same emotional undercurrent.)
For example, when the Los Angeles LGBT Center and SAVE were deep canvassing with the goal of reducing prejudice against transgender people, they shared their own experiences with discrimination asked voters to share a time when they felt judged because of a difference. (This was the subject of the 2016 study in Science.)
The callers own personal story then becomes part of their unique script. They might write out a couple of versions of their story and then tweak that text for use in individual conversations. It gives them another tool to use in these conversations.
With deep canvassing, the caller needs to be focused on conversational quality, not quantity. (That’s actually why ThruTalk charges based on text messages sent and numbers dialed; your campaign shouldn’t be penalized for having those longer, more effective conversations!) But campaigns also need to be strategic in how they deploy resources to reach more people.
Technology supporting phone bank deep canvassing needs to work seamlessly. Callers shouldn’t be sitting and waiting for calls to go through or working through repetitive, multi-step processes to bring up the conversation they need. The interface for canvassers needs to be seamless, intuitive, and fast.
Our company, GetThru, was actually founded by veterans of the Bernie 2016 campaign who recognized the potential of scaled voter contact by volunteers, as well as the challenges the technology at the time presented. Fast-forward to today: GetThru has worked with more than 1,000 organizations to help them put on successful events, get candidates elected, raise funds, and more. These include campaigns for Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and more.
Deep canvassing takes the phone methods we’ve seen be successful and takes them a step further. You’re not just getting someone out to vote or scoring a one-time donation; you’re working to change minds and hearts in the long-term.
To summarize, deep canvassing has a unique potential to create real, lasting connections between your campaign and voters. It helps build empathy and deepen your campaign’s understanding of how people think.
This method is not ideal for organizations that have a fast-approaching deadline and need to reach as many people as possible with a short, directed method. It’s not the right solution for “get out the vote” campaigns, for example.
However, it is ideal for campaigns that seek to change hearts and minds in the long-term. It helps build bridges within communities and empathy towards both people and causes. It also helps campaigns learn more about how their neighbors think, which in turn reveals points of connection.
Doing deep canvassing via phone helps reduce some of the time and effort involved in this strategy. It’s also ideal for campaigns seeking to adapt to the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made door-to-door canvassing difficult for both canvassers and voters. With the right text or call technology, volunteers or employees can focus on conversations, rather than the logistics of reaching so many people.
Are you ready to take your phone banking and text programs to a deeper level? Or do you have questions about getting started? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. We can't wait to help you get started.
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