‘Hard to say what flips the switch’: Publishers are building voter hubs to spread information, grow engagement

The presidential election is still more than a month-and-a-half away, but publishers are building their own voter registration hubs and launching informative campaigns around issues. In past, these editorial pushes have made a real impact in not only driving people to the polls — but also in driving engagement with the brand.

Complex Networks, theSkimm and Hearst have taken a slightly different approach from previous election cycles, however. They are not solely basing their content packages’ success on the number of registrations they are able to convert.

With the coronavirus still a significant threat, mail-in voting has become a more pressing — if not confusing — news story than ever before. Meanwhile, widespread social unrest and climate activism are top of mind for voters, who are looking for guidance from publishers, which, in turn, are increasingly prioritizing their voting campaign content.

In 2016, theSkimm registered 100,000 people to vote through its voting content initiative, according to vp of brand marketing Jodi Patkin. In 2020, however, “the rules have changed around voting and even figuring out if you’re eligible to vote early or absentee can be incredibly challenging,” she said.

That’s why theSkimm’s goal for Skimm’2020, which launched on August 18, is less about getting people to register, but more about giving them the tools they need to seamlessly cast a vote in November. 

TheSkimm partnered with several organizations, including Vote.org and Rock The Vote, to give its audience a one-stop hub to do everything from checking registration to requesting and absentee ballot without leaving the site.

“With so much being out of our control right now, voting shouldn’t be,” said Patkin. “How can we mobilize the widest subset of voters [millennials] and make sure that they have all what they need … to cast their ballot in an informed way and with confidence?”

The same goes for Complex, which launched its voting initiative, Pull Up & Vote, on August 19. Jocelyn Carrington, director of content operations at Complex Networks, said her team is focused first and foremost on educating its readers on the importance of casting a vote, but also on the issues and the candidates in order to make an educated vote.

In 2016, Compex had its Flex The Vote Campaign, which had a heavy emphasis on encouraging people to cast a ballot. “In this election, the issues are leading the conversation,” Carrington said, and the goal has become to deliver all of the information they need on those topics to make an informed decision come election day. 

To do this, the publisher has created deep dive articles and videos on the various issues and candidates. It also tapped its research arm, Complex Collective — which surveys 30,000 of its readers to highlight the issues are that its audience is most concerned about — and found racial equality and justice, personal finances and the economy and health care to be the most pressing issues for its readers. 

Since launching this year’s Pull Up & Vote campaign, 58% of the visitors who have interacted with the voting hub on Complex have checked to make sure they are registered, while 25% have registered to vote for the very first time, according to Jonathan Hunt, evp of marketing at Complex Networks.  

Lindsey Cormack, an assistant professor of political science at the Stevens Institute of Technology, said that as the number of publishers sharing information on how to register and how to vote increases, the more likely it is that repeat readers will take the leap and actually vote. That’s because similar to advertising, the more people are exposed to a call to action, the more likely it is for them to take said action.

But while it can be incredibly effective for publishers to continually push these voting campaigns, she said that it is hard to actually measure how any one piece of content motivates a reader to vote or register. 

“Is it TheSkimm or is it the accumulation of all of the publishers’ content?” she said. “There is no evidence that [pushing this content] backfires, but it’s hard to say that any one thing flips the switch.” 

Not all publishers are building out entire hubs. Smaller integrations and partnered landing pages are also making an impact on registering people to vote.

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Hearst’s Marie Claire title launched a voter registration button that’s embedded in its politically related articles on April 1. The button links to a registration landing page on Marie Claire’s website that’s uses the Rock The Vote’s registration platform. Since its launch, the button has driven over 3,000 people to register to vote, according to a company spokesperson.

Cormack also said that having the branding of a publication that readers are fans of and trust on a registration page resonates more with those audiences. “While it’s being powered by Vote.org or Rock The Vote, it’s in the visual language that someone going to [the publisher’s website] would expect,” versus sending those readers off to a government site or registration platform that they’re unfamiliar with, she said.

Meanwhile, Hearst’s Cosmopolitan brand has seen an increased level of engagement on its “Candidates Come To Cosmo” video series, which premiered in 2019 and featured editor-in-chief Jessica Pels interviewing the various Democratic presidential candidates during the primaries. The average view time of those video pages were a minute longer than on other political content it published.

But beyond brand lift metrics, there’s a larger benefit to consider.

“There is a non-functional advantage of doing this, too,” said Cormack. “If everyone is getting the message that this matters, there’s quite a social pressure around that and serves a greater purpose of voter awareness.” 

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