Earlier this year, I was getting ready to lead a 30-city, cross-country advocacy tour to help people tell their stories of struggling to pay for prescription drugs.
Then coronavirus arrived on our shores and it became clear that a physical nationwide tour would be irresponsible and impossible to pull off. We’d need a different plan.
So we transformed the bus tour into a digital town hall series called Our Lives on the Line, during which we hosted state-specific Facebook Live conversations with people ranging from patient advocates who survived coronavirus to Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
We created a dynamic, interactive virtual tour where people could join us and ask questions, share their stories, and connect with one another through these town halls.
Last month, I shared in C&E some of the lessons I’ve learned about what works in digital organizing during quarantine during the first leg of this virtual tour. After an overwhelming response from our viewers, we’ve extended the tour to focus on the communities hardest hit by the pandemic, and I’m here to share more lessons we’ve learned along the way.
If you’re planning your own virtual tour this summer, here’s what I recommend:
Focus on uplifting stories about the human experience.
The first leg of our digital town hall series was geographically focused, taking advantage of targeted Facebook groups to engage key audiences in specific states.
That tactic was crucial in helping our viewers hear from state leaders and share resources relevant to their communities. In each of these town halls, the speakers and stories with the highest engagement and media coverage were from people experiencing unemployment, coronavirus survivors, and small business owners dealing with the economic fallout.
Now that we’re extending the series to focus on people and communities hardest hit by the pandemic, we want to uplift the stories of those who haven't received as much attention in the national news: disabled people, black people, Latinos, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, and the mayors of towns left without the resources to combat this virus.
Foster informal and organic conversation.
During the first leg of the town hall series, speakers delivered both prepared remarks and answered questions live — but most of the conversation stuck to a script.
In this second leg of the tour, we’ve shifted to a roundtable discussion format to foster a more informal and dynamic presentation. The conversations in the extended series have been more relatable for viewers than our earlier town halls, which were in large part designed to mimic what would have been press conferences on our bus tour.
This new format has allowed us to feature more people on screen simultaneously, and to bring more personality and human experience to these conversations.
Identify key cross-posting partners.
In this second leg of the town hall series, we've secured commitments from key cross-posting partners and massive national outlets like NowThis, which has certainly helped our town halls reach millions. But we’ve also worked to identify key partners in states and communities, which has helped us better reach our target audiences. For example, we partnered with theGrio for our recent town hall on black people and the fight against coronavirus.
Incorporate pre-recorded videos.
We’ve started to include pre-recorded videos from folks across the country, which has added more of a human element and sense of interpersonal engagement to our town halls.
We have featured videos from our team members and from viewers submitting their testimonies and questions. Think of these as “commercial breaks” for your program — an opportunity to remind people to join the movement, and to remind them of why so many others have already.
Include a texting program.
Since SMS has the highest open rate on average of any form of digital outreach communication, Health Care Voter’s SMS program has become a valuable tool for us to respond to relevant breaking news and leverage moments in the news cycle to collect stories or questions for our town halls. We have also leveraged our SMS program to attract hundreds of unique viewers to each of our town halls.
Host post-event virtual debriefs.
After each town hall, to provide an avenue for engagement for the thousands of people watching, we’ve started hosting a debrief conversation open to the public. We’ve learned that the post-town hall debrief is an effective tactic for bringing town hall attendees into an intimate forum to continue the conversation by replicating conventional in-person action debrief events in a virtual environment. These forums have already led to dozens of individuals getting involved and sharing their stories.
Follow up over email.
During the first phase of the town hall series, we targeted our emails to subscribers in each of the states we held a virtual town hall. In the second phase, we shifted our email strategy slightly to account for a community-based town hall series.
By sending an email to a more engaged audience first, then sending a reminder email to our recipients (called a 'bump' email), we multiplied the number of openers and clickers by a factor of two or more.
We also added a breaking news topper to give our subscribers a break back to the issues they care about.
Rosemary Enobakhare is the Campaign Director for Health Care Voter, a national grassroots campaign focused on protecting our right to quality, affordable health care by fighting repeal attempts and working to lower prescription drug prices.