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  • Writer's pictureDusty Weis

Lead Balloon Ep. 47 - NextGen America Slides into DMs on the Dating App Hinge, with Kristi Johnston

Get-out-the-vote organizers mix dating with politics in an innovative, eyebrow-raising new tactic.

Let's be honest: political groups don't have a great success rate when it comes to their strategic communication tactics.


Every election cycle, American voters are bombarded with mailers, emails and text messages that mostly just get trashed or deleted.


And when a Political Action Committee like NextGen America is charged with reaching out to younger voters, they face an even more substantial task in motivating the perennially under-performing youth vote to make their voices heard.


But this year, NextGen America made headlines nationwide when it leveraged a new, unconventional tactic in its get-out-the-vote efforts for a Wisconsin State Supreme Court race.


Using a small team of staff volunteers, the group reached out to young people on the dating app Hinge, urging them to register and pledge their vote on an app that's typically reserved for romance and relationship seekers.


And, with success in that race, the PAC is now looking to scale up its tactic for the nationwide presidential election next year.

So in this episode, we talk to NextGen America's National Press Secretary Kristi Johnston. She not only pioneered the idea, but led from the front by reaching out to voters on Hinge herself, and she'll share what she learned, how her tactic is different from other forms of youth outreach, and why authenticity is key.


Plus, we meet, Noah Turecek, a young man from Wisconsin who matched with Kristi on Hinge, to get his view.


Visit podcampmedia.com/survey to give some feedback about the future of the Lead Balloon Podcast!


Transcript:


Dusty Weis:

Just about one year from now, we are going to find ourselves in the final weeks, a nationwide election that's showing all the signs of being yet another knock down, drag out battle for the soul of American democracy. If you're like me, this means that you are going to get bombarded almost constantly by an endless stream of mailers, emails, and text messages seeking your vote, your donations, or even just imploring you to get registered. Let me be clear, these are important things and I hope that you do them, but is anyone really winning hearts and minds in these channels? Or, are they just cluttering up our inboxes and recycle bins. Well, a political action committee aiming to get out the youth vote has found a new channel that hasn't been leveraged for strategic communication before this, online dating apps.


Kristi Johnston:

Dating apps are an interesting space because people come to them for a variety of reasons. It really opens up a world of young people that we wouldn't be able to reach otherwise.


Dusty Weis:

Kristi Johnston is the National Press Secretary at NextGen America, and along with her team used the Hinge app to drive Get Out the Vote efforts in a couple of recent high profile elections. She says their new tactics met with enough success that they're now looking to scale them up ahead of the big 2024 race next year. How do you take something as personal as someone's love life and intermingle it with politics? Can flirtatious canvassing even work on a mass scale? How will they navigate concerns about privacy and hostility towards so-called catfishing?


Noah Turecek:

I do think there's a concern of the person reaching out to me might not necessarily be, one, a real person or two actually interested in getting to know me.


Dusty Weis:

I'm Dusty Weis from PodCamp Media. This is Lead Balloon, a podcast about important tales from the world of PR, marketing and branding told by the well-meaning communications professionals who live them. Thank you for tuning in. The other week when I was describing this show to somebody, the phrase Freakonomics for strategic communicators came tumbling out of my mouth and I went, oh dang. That's kind of it. That's the show in a nutshell. But here's the thing. I don't know if that's the show that you want. I suspect it is. The numbers would seem to indicate that, but at this point I'd love a little bit of feedback. Please leave a comment in your podcast app or visit podcampmedia.com/survey to fill out a quick questionnaire on the matter.


Of course, make sure you follow us in your favorite podcast app if you don't already. Meet your target audience where they are. It's conventional wisdom in the field of strategic communication, but in practice, it can lead to some unconventional, even weird places.


Kristi Johnston would know. She's the National Press Secretary at NextGen America. A progressive political action committee created 10 years ago that mobilizes young voters on issues like climate, reproductive freedom and healthcare. She holds that position. National Press Secretary, just five years after graduating college and joining the organization as a receptionist.


Kristi Johnston:

I was born in '96, which is the last year of millennial. It's the Gen Z-Millennial cutoff. I mean, yeah, my experience has entirely shaped how I go about my work at NextGen, getting new voters out, and also bringing these innovative tactics through my experience being a tech native like a lot of my generation. We've grown up in the digital space. A lot of us use it for our news. We use it for our social space. Being in that space has definitely led to a lot of where I get my inspiration and creative energy.


Dusty Weis:

In its goal to mobilize young voters, NextGen America faces a classically Herculean task. Driving youth turnout has always been an uphill battle. Over the last 50 years, eligible voters under the age of 30 have typically lagged five to 15 points behind the overall eligible turnout rate. MTVs Rock the Vote in the 90s.


Madonna (Singing):

Don't just sit there, let's get to it, speak your mind, there's nothing to it. VOTE!


Dusty Weis:

P Diddy's Vote or Die initiative in the mid 2000s.


P. Diddy:

Our revolution has begun. Look at this right here.


Dusty Weis:

And dozens other like them have worked to turn baby boomers, then Gen Xers, and now millennials into reliable voters. And Kristi and her colleagues at NextGen hope to do the same for Gen Z, leveraging tactics and an attitude designed to appeal to today's youth.


Kristi Johnston:

I would say there is a big misconception that young voters are apathetic or they're not tuned into what's going on. I think in the way that they're hard to reach out to, it really comes down to the politicians that are messaging them. They're not in their spaces, they're not speaking their language, they're not reaching them in the ways that an organization like NextGen is. We can call BS so clearly when we see it, especially again when politicians are not being relatable, just being kind of cringed in a lot of the ways that they go about their digital outreach. What's important is that it's a trusted messenger that young people are actually going to listen to. I think authenticity would be the big language there.


Dusty Weis:

What Kristi says it's not just how you talk to the young folks that matters. It's where you talk to them. During her tenure at NextGen, the PAC has established a presence on TikTok, partnered with influencers, and in the fall of 2020, Kristi faced a particularly onerous task in driving voter turnout in Arizona.


Kristi Johnston:

So this was at the height of Covid. Our efforts went completely virtual. We couldn't be on college campuses with clipboards or tabling or doing any of our traditional in-person outreach efforts. We had to get creative. We had no other choice at the time. I was just looking down at my bumble and being like, what better way to start reaching out to people about the election and see how they're feeling? So we started it there. We piloted it in Arizona and then just brought it back to the national program this year with the Wisconsin Supreme Court Race.


Dusty Weis:

Now, obviously this is a big step. This is something that has never been done before and in some cases even goes against the user agreement with the dating app itself. Were there any concerns from senior leadership at NextGen America when you presented this idea to them? How did you get buy-in from the top of the organization, particularly I would imagine an organization where the leadership is not as young and in tune with Gen Z as you are.


Kristi Johnston:

Yeah, it's actually the opposite. I was met with tons of enthusiasm across the board. Actually our founder, Tom Steyer, he was asking about our efforts during Covid and then told him about being on dating apps. He was like, "You're doing what?" He was like, "What are you doing?" And I was like, "We're reaching out to young people on Tinder, Bumble, Hinge." And he thought it was a really great idea, and he's actually the one that told me to bring it to the national program. At the highest level possible, we had buy-in. then also I think the first person I asked was our lawyer. And he was like, "Yeah, this sounds like you, but go for it and should be good to go."


Dusty Weis:

Wow, you've already got that strong of a professional brand. This sounds like you, I mean, if that's not a ringing endorsement, what is?


Kristi Johnston:

I have been around for a while.


Dusty Weis:

With the initial success of her dating app experiment in the Arizona 2020 election, Kristi and her team backburnered the idea for a few years until last spring when they were pulled in to work in the state Supreme Court election in Wisconsin. That is where they made a real national impact. Now, you might not normally think, "Oh, the Wisconsin State Supreme Court, the political world really hangs in the balance there." But that is where you'd be wrong friend, because in a post Roe v Wade world scoring statewide wins in Midwestern swing states is more important than ever to the strategists on both sides of the political aisle. As a state that's voted Obama Trump Biden in the three most recent presidential elections, as a state with a two-term Democratic governor and a legislature dominated by Republicans thanks in large part to one-sided political, maps as a state where Democrats stood to gain control of the Supreme Court, overturn a centuries old ban on abortion and rebalance the legislature if they could just win last April, it doesn't get any swingier than my home state of Wisconsin.


Kristi and her team doubled down on the dating app strategy to drive youth turnout in the Badger State. Of course, there's no API for using Hinge as a strategic communications tool. In fact, it's pretty much forbidden in the app's terms of service. Kristi says the small team of 20 staff volunteers she recruited took to the task with a very grassroots approach.


Kristi Johnston:

So is everyone using their own personal dating app profiles? So we started with a kickoff Zoom call two weeks before election day. We had about 20 volunteers on that call. We used Hinge specifically for this campaign because you could change your location for free. Then we changed our locations to Madison, Milwaukee, Green Bay, had our volunteers toggle their age range from 18 to 35, which is our key demographic at NextGen. Then, we use our talking system which is self-reporting on a Google form. Once we had our volunteers set up the profiles, start swiping, they would log their conversations and track their matches on a Google form that would populate into a sheet for us to track our data.


Dusty Weis:

In that way it's completely brilliant because a lot of the demographic targeting is already done for you. It's not like you have to pick through Facebook's API to, okay, we want to target librarians in Tempe, Arizona or whatever. It's just these are my preferences, show me people like this. Then I would imagine it was just a matter of swiping in the correct direction for everybody, or were you more finicky than that?


Kristi Johnston:

At the time, I was getting asked this a lot by Wisconsin Media who were very skeptical of me. I think when they started talking to me, they understood, but the amount of times I had to explain, I'm like, "No, actually I am a Packers fan. No, I'm not a catfish. I'm here to actually register voters and also maybe go on a date with them." But it wasn't a numbers game. If you can swipe right on everybody and get as many matches as you can, and that's when it comes more numerical and getting as many people as you can possibly reach. But for us, there was that dating aspect where we were swiping right on people that we would potentially go on a date with. Also, when we're looking at what is more cost effective for us, like a text and a call versus swiping on a dating app, dating apps are just, it's more time consuming. There's definitely that level to it, but was not a numbers game was something that was more personal for each volunteer.


Dusty Weis:

These were people that you were genuinely interested in having a conversation with?


Kristi Johnston:

Exactly.


Dusty Weis:

Were there any staffers who due to being in a long-term relationship with a significant other or an otherwise aversion to online dating, just couldn't participate in this? Was there anybody who's like, "I don't know what my girlfriend is going to think about this?"


Kristi Johnston:

I know I did put some people in tricky spots with their relationships a few times, but for this last time, it's not a requirement, so it's not obligated at all. In Arizona, we had a lot of people use Bumble BFF, which is a feature where you can cultivate friendships and not just dating on a dating app. I would also say too, dating apps are an interesting space because people come to them for a variety of reasons. You're not just there to potentially go on a date. It really opens up a world of young people that we wouldn't be able to reach otherwise. People who are not responding to our texts or calls, we can potentially see on a dating app.


Dusty Weis:

Anytime that you're doing political outreach, you're going to get people who react negatively to it. But did you have anybody who either just because it was of a political nature or because you were coming into their space on Hinge and they weren't expecting to be reached with a political message, who reacted negatively to it?


Kristi Johnston:

Not at all. I would say the vast majority of my interactions were positive when I was met with ones that weren't. I moved on pretty quickly and a lot of our volunteers were just focused on gaining that trust, starting those conversations around the stakes of the race and making sure that they had the tools and information that they needed to cast their ballot. When we were reaching out to them, we were sending them links to our Wisconsin vote hub where they could check their registration status, they could find their polling place, they could see what was on the ballot. Just really, really great tools and information that they needed is what we provided them. Yeah, any bad interactions would not be talked about here.


Dusty Weis:

I'm sure that they were awful. As someone who's volunteered for voter outreach in the past myself, I know that you've got to have a thick skin to do it. If you're, I guess, projecting a success rate or pie chart of positive versus negative interactions of this and let's say something more traditional like text message outreach, was this a more positive experience, generally speaking?


Kristi Johnston:

Absolutely. Again, we're talking about what young people are going to respond to, what is going to get them to engage. We know that they're pretty quickly deleting our texts. No one's picking up a phone call, but we do know this is more time consuming and it's not as cost effective for us right now. But being on a dating app, you're putting a real person behind who's reaching out to you. You're able to connect with them on a personal level before you're asking them to pledge to vote or find their polling place. You're establishing a connection before you're making that hard ask. It's incredibly successful. Just right now we're figuring out a way where we can make it more scalable exactly.


Dusty Weis:

Yeah. Well, that's something I want to ask you about here in a little bit, but I would be remiss if I didn't ask, you had mentioned the notion of connecting with someone that you're actually interested in connecting with. Were there any people on the team who wound up actually going on dates with someone that they originally reached out to as part of the voter registration efforts?


Kristi Johnston:

Yeah, so I can also give my experience.


Dusty Weis:

That's right. We are not above prying into the dating lives of our guests here on the Lead Balloon podcast, at least not when it pertains to the strategic communication story at hand, because Kristi Johnston from NextGen America found more than just potential voters in the Wisconsin Supreme Court Hinge campaign.


Kristi Johnston:

A few virtual dates and still in regular contact. That's one success story.


Dusty Weis:

And so coming up after the break-


Noah Turecek:

Is she trying to get me to vote or does he think I'm cute?


Dusty Weis:

We meet the young man who swiped right for dating and caught political activism as well. That's in a moment here on Lead Balloon.


This is Lead balloon, and I'm Dusty Weis. It was earlier this year, and there was a state Supreme Court election happening in Wisconsin that was making national headlines. With a win, the pivotal swing state could break conservative's 15 year grip on the court paving the way for everything from abortion access to fair legislative maps, and all of that political intrigue was mostly just background noise to 26 year old Noah Turecek, a data engineer living in the bustling college town and tech hub of Madison, Wisconsin. As Noah swiped through the dating app Hinge, he came across the profile of a cute young woman in a Green Bay Packer's jersey, swiped right, and started a conversation with NextGen America Press secretary Kristi Johnston in California.


Noah Turecek:

I actually reached out first and said, "Is this part of the NextGen strategy to register voters, or did she think I was cute?" She said, "Which one do you think?" I said, "I think I give off enough of a 'this guy votes' vibe to say the latter." She said, "Do you want to make it official and fledge the vote with me?" And dropped the NextGen link. But then also, to my own credit, said, "I also think you're cute." It was dual purpose.


Dusty Weis:

Hey, there you go. I got to say, Noah, strapping young lad, impressive mustache.


Noah Turecek:

Thank you very much.


Dusty Weis:

Headed into the fall season here, that's obviously a very Wisconsin look, and so my hat is off to you for that. Obviously you just kind of went with it with her, but was it kind weird or awkward for you to be approached on a dating platform for something other than just dating?


Noah Turecek:

I saw it, and that's why I'm continuing to do the interviews and stuff like that. It was refreshing for me because back when I was at UW Eau Claire, there's a bridge that separates a lot of the student housing from the school itself, and you have to cross separate bridge multiple times depending on your class schedule or what have you. But in times of elections, whether they be regional, national, that bridge would be covered with people trying to get you to not necessarily inform you about the upcoming elections, but try to get you to vote their way.


I always thought that was a bit intrusive or didn't necessarily reach us the best because everyone would put their hands up, say, I don't want your flyer. I don't want your hand out. I just want to get on with my day. And this was kind of like a way to reach voters, at least this is how I saw it, a way to reach voters in a way that integrates with how we actually live our life. It's not intrusive. I could have not replied after that and would've thought nothing of it. So yeah, my whole thing was this is non-obtrusive. It's nice to put a pretty face on politics after seeing a lot of the faces that are there now, and especially the average age of politicians these days. It's not necessarily representative. Putting a representative face on politics was fine for me.


Dusty Weis:

Well, and not only that, but what I really like about the way that Kristi and NextGen in general have approached this whole thing is it's not just a soulless, "Hey, can we get you to sign on the dotted line and make the pledge?" Thing. They're having fun with it. They're being authentic about it. She didn't just reach out to you because she wanted you to click the link. She also reached out to you because there's some genuine interest there.


Noah Turecek:

Definitely. And as we talked more or we kind of realized we had a lot more common ground than we'd originally thought outside of our plans to vote in that Supreme Court election. Then also through our conversations kind of found out that a lot of the people in the NextGen organization that were part of this strategy had actually met significant others through doing this. It was truly dual purpose.


Dusty Weis:

Of course, when a political action committee uses dating apps to track down and mobilize young voters, one can't help but raise concerns about data privacy and catfishing. Catfishing, if you're unfamiliar, is the practice of misleading people on a dating app or pretending to be something you're not. But from his perspective as a data engineer, Noah says he thinks the way that Kristi and NextGen have approached their strategy is within bounds.


Noah Turecek:

As someone who is in the realm of data, I can see that data scraping and pulling in people's personal information from all different sources has become a lot more prevalent, and I don't necessarily love that that's used and stored until the next election cycle, et cetera. Whereas this is more consent based. I'm able to generate a connection with someone who may or even may not have the same political stance as I did. She never asked what my stance was. She just asked me if I was going to vote, which I thought was a lot different than a lot of those automated robocalls and things like that, that I had been getting up until this strategy had been rolled out.


I do think there's a concern of catfishing or people assuming that the person reaching out to me using this strategy might not necessarily be, one, a real person or two actually interested in getting to know me. I kind of it off because my experience has been nothing but positive. I don't see it as her trying to catfish me or trying to bait me into anything or the strategy as a whole. She just wanted to see if I was going to vote and if I wasn't planning on it, would I. That's about as far as I read into it.


Dusty Weis:

Right. Yeah, no, certainly. I think it's really authentic the way that they're doing it. Also, I have my concerns that there comes a time in the future when a bigger national group looks at the success that NextGen America has had and says, we want to do that at a larger scale, and so we're going to automate it. Then it becomes less authentic and it becomes more intrusive, and it becomes another obnoxious tactic. Are those concerns that you share?


Noah Turecek:

I could see how that could be a possibility, but I also like how NextGen is youth-oriented. A lot of those robocall strategies and a lot of the traditional ways that people have reached potential voters in the past have been instituted and thought of by the older generations. Whereas this one, it's created by someone who has a hand in that generation, which I kind of like. As a steward of this strategy, I think Kristi has done a good job of keeping it authentic. I hope the authenticity is what continues to separate this from traditional ways of the voter mobilization.


Dusty Weis:

This probably isn't something that the Democratic National Committee or the Republican National Committee should try to implement at mass scale, I think, is what you're saying.


Noah Turecek:

Yeah, definitely. I think it would not only tank the dating apps in terms of spam and things like that, but also I'd like to believe that young voters in general can discern fact from fiction more than the other generation. If they do switch to that sort of repeatable process, we'll be able to suss it out a lot quicker. That's my optimistic take.


Dusty Weis:

I like your optimism. Seems to me like you and Kristi hit it off a little bit. Where did things go from that original Hinge connection?


Noah Turecek:

After the Hinge Connection, she was of course overwhelmed with the current election. She wanted to make sure that that was signed, sealed, delivered, and NextGen could sort of pour over the feedback that they had gotten from that. Once things had kind of calmed down a little bit, the decision was made regarding the Supreme Court Justice. We ended up having drinks, but virtually with her being over in California and me being here in Wisconsin. Outside of that, we've had a couple more calls and have stayed in communication about just politics in general, checking in on each other. It's been a genuine, authentic connection that I've garnered from this.


Dusty Weis:

Noah did register and vote. He said he had planned to even before he got in touch with Kristi, and liberal Judge Janet Protosewitz did flip control of the Wisconsin Supreme Courts delivering a crushing 11 point defeat to conservatives in an unusually high turnout spring election. That tactic of using the dating app hinge to mobilize voters grab some major headlines for Kristi Johnston and NextGen America, earning them top billing on NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, and The Guardian, just to name a few. But Kristi says meeting Noah was just as much a highlight of the campaign as the massive recognition and success that she earned.


Kristi Johnston:

Just being in Wisconsin, I feel like changed the whole landscape for everyone. I truly feel like, yeah, Wisconsin boys are just the nicest people.


Dusty Weis:

Oh yeah, can confirm. We're awesome.


Kristi Johnston:

Yeah, so the Packer's connection and the cheese side and just the fun environment that we set up to get this work done is really what helped us get these connections. Yes, I would say one success story.


Dusty Weis:

Well, I'm glad to hear that you're still in touch with Noah, but you certainly made a splash with your efforts in Wisconsin. I mean, we're talking about national headlines, TV, the radio, all of that when it comes right down to it with political action committee like yours, it's about the numbers on the paper at the end of the day. What sorts of results were you able to show them on the spreadsheet when this campaign had wrapped?


Kristi Johnston:

Overall, we sent over a million texts. We made 75,000 calls and overall contacted more than 30,800 young people for the election with our dating app program in this as well. We contacted just under a thousand people over the 14 days that we were running the program. It's a lot of people, a lot of conversations, and I really think especially how close the election came down to, I think we can confidently say that dating apps played a role in how young people turned out.


Dusty Weis:

As you've got that spreadsheet now, you're going to be going back to leadership before too much time has passed here and making plans for the 2024 election cycle, which is going to be nationwide. It's going to be a big one. Are there plans to scale up this tactic, and what sort of hurdles do you have to overcome to make that happen?


Kristi Johnston:

Right now, we're actually in the middle of scaling up for 2024. We're staffing up, we're figuring out our programs. In that, dating app organizing, we'll really take a central role. We're going to be organizing in Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Texas, Wisconsin, and Virginia. We'll still be in a good amount of states doing really strategic programming. I think looking for the right opportunities is what it's going to come down to. With the Wisconsin Supreme Court race, I think it was so successful because I had that personal attachment to Wisconsin. Then also just the stakes of the race and how we were able to speak to our matches and get them out. I will say too, this is one part of the story that wasn't really picked up by the media, but I think it was like 15 girls out of the 20 of the volunteers.


It was essentially a group of women using their dating apps to get their male matches to vote for reproductive rights, which I think is really remarkable. Yeah, like I said, as we're scaling up, it's really about looking for where we can be most effective with this program and figuring out the next step of it too. I don't want to give too much of our plans away, but we've also been reached out by elected officials and other organizations who are looking to emulate or partner with us on the strategy. The Wisconsin Supreme Court race was just the first look at what we can do with this, and I'm excited to see how it's going to grow.


This was certainly the most proud. I've been about a project at NextGen for sure, but we're looking at where we're going for 2024. What really excites me is our influencer program, in that too our athlete influencer program. The name image likeness Supreme Court ruling decided that college athletes can now use their personal name, image, and likeness to make some money for themselves. We're now employing some of them to get our messaging across to their peers about the importance of voting and the ways that they can make an impact in the electoral space.


That is something that I'm really excited about and passionate about because especially when we're looking at young men, I mean young men of color, we're just not in those spaces yet. They're listening to sports and they're on Discord and they're gaming and things like that. I think just having a more comprehensive role in the way that we're reaching out to young men, I think is going to be really essential to our overall strategy in 2024. Then also to just carrying on the campaigns that we've done, like dating app organizing and Hot Girls Vote, which we just launched for this year. All of these powered by the influencer program that we're running.


Dusty Weis:

Well, it's awesome. It's certainly an innovative approach. You made waves here, national headlines, and I think that your career is right at the beginning of its trajectory here. Certainly big things ahead for you. Kristi Johnston, she's the National Press Secretary at NextGen America. Great story to tell. Thank you so much for joining us here on Lead Balloon.


Kristi Johnston:

Thank you for having me. I had so much fun.


Dusty Weis:

Thanks to Noah Turecek as well for sharing his side of this modern political romcom. If these two are any kind of representative sample of this Gen Z crop of young people, I think the future is pretty bright. It takes a lot of guts to discuss your dating life in a public forum at that age. Personally, not that it's any of my business, but I'm Team Noah here, guys. I'm pulling for these two.


Lead Balloon is produced by PodCamp Media, where we provide branded podcast production services for businesses. Our podcast studios are located at the heart of beautiful downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but we work with brands all over North America, podcampmedia.com. I was the writer and story editor for this episode, Will Henry and Matt Kova Rubius with dialogue editing and sound engineering. Music for this episode was by Eko, Prizm, Sam Barsh, Lunareh, and Dr. Delight. Until the next time, folks, thanks for listening. I'm Dusty Weis.



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