The Hillary 2016 app, which launched on iOS in July and debuts today on Android, uses techniques borrowed from mobile games and the language learning app Duolingo to enlist the help of Clinton supporters who don’t have the time–or interest–in knocking on doors.
And it may be working.
In the last two months, more than 100,000 users have downloaded the app, where they’ve completed some 750,000 activities on the app, like taking a quiz about Donald Trump’s incendiary soundbites or sharing pro-Hillary messages on social media. The campaign says half the app’s users have never before donated to the campaign, RSVPed to a campaign event, or volunteered in any official way. But, prompted by the app, thousands of them now have.
“We’ve expanded what it means to be active with the campaign with this app,” says Stephanie Cheng, lead product designer on Hillary 2016.
Of course, in the world of online gaming, 100,000 downloads is tiny. It’s tiny, too, compared to the 129.1 million people who voted in 2012, and it’s just a sliver of the more than 6 million people who follow Clinton on Facebook. But in the relatively new world of campaign apps, it’s actually quite substantial.
So far, Donald Trump’s America First app, which launched after Clinton’s in late August, has racked up 50,000 downloads, says Thomas Peters, CEO of uCampaign, the startup that built Trump’s app. He notes that the campaign plans to promote the app more in the coming weeks. Peters’ company also built Ted Cruz’s campaign app during the primaries. That app, Peters says, hit 90,000 downloads after nine months. The Clinton app has surpassed that figure in just two.
Light Years Ahead
What these numbers mean for Election Day is still unclear, since this is the first election cycle where mobile has really served as the main digital platform. The Obama campaign had an app in 2012 and took advantage of Facebook and Twitter, but even Harper Reed, Obama’s 2012 chief technology officer, says the app the Clinton team has built is “light years different.”
Both the Clinton and Trump apps use game-like features to motivate people, awarding points for varying levels of involvement. Commit to vote and get 10 points in the Hillary 2016 app. Watch Trump’s latest campaign ad and get 50 points in the America First app. From these apps, people can donate, RSVP, check in to events, read campaign news, and share content on social media. They can also see how they stack up against other supporters on a leaderboard.
But it doesn’t take a PhD in user interface design to see that the similarities end there. Cheng has been working on the Hillary 2016 app since last August with a team of 10 programmers and designers. It’s supposed to make users feel like they’re standing in the center of one of the Clinton field offices. And it does. Users can water the office plant, pet the office dog, Winnie, and move around the office floor by swiping left and right. It’s immersive, cartoon-like, and colorful, as if the cast of South Park could walk through the door at any moment.
The America First app, by contrast, looks like a minimum viable product. Peters’ team of four at uCampaign created a version for Cruz in just five weeks, and they pulled together the Trump app in just four. The app is a bare-bones stream of sans-serif text, complete with plenty of exclamation points and a smattering of all-caps. It’s like the Trump campaign itself, stripped down to the essentials.
That was intentional, says Peters. For starters, the simple design made it easier to launch on both iOS and Android simultaneously. Plus, even though users ages 18 to 29 are the app’s biggest user base, it was designed to accommodate users over 65.1 “For the demo we were going for, we wanted to do something that was age-agnostic,” he says. “We know it’s not the most beautiful thing, but it gets the job done.” Last week, Peters says users opened the app 30,000 times, and since the app launched, they have completed 673,986 actions in the app, including signing up for text alerts and watching videos.
Pet the Dog
It’s true that this election will not be won or lost on app design. That’s especially true given that apps downloads across genres are on the decline. But Cheng, who worked for DreamWorks Animation and co-founded the mobile gaming company Kooapps before joining the Clinton team, argues the Hillary 2016 app’s many flourishes and details may actually matter when it comes to motivating hesitant supporters to action.
“Game mechanics is all about stepping users up to the experience,” she says. “You want to provide something that’s so easy to do that anyone who opens the app thinks of course I’ll do that.”
Hence, Winnie the office dog. According to Cheng, users who virtually “pet” Winnie do so five times a day on average. The more people pet Winnie or, say, water the plant, the more likely they are to keep coming back, Cheng says. And the more they come back, the thinking goes, the more motivated they will be to take other actions that expand the app’s reach beyond those 100,000 users.
Neither campaign, however, will confirm just how much funding they’ve brought in through the apps.
Side by side, the two apps play right into the stereotypes of each candidate. Clinton’s app is meticulous and thorough. Trump’s looks haphazard and a little chaotic. And they appeal to entirely different demographics.
Of course, apps are just one tool in a campaign’s arsenal. They’re not meant for broadcasting to huge audiences or persuading people to vote. If you’ve downloaded the app, you’re already a pretty passionate supporter. The app is merely another way of ensuring that not a single ounce of supporters’ passion goes to waste. “These people want to get to work,” Reed says. “Maybe the only thing they have is a phone. So how do they do that?” Apps, which encourage users to donate, commit to vote, and RSVP to events, give them an outlet.
All the Happy People
That said, what both campaigns need most now is for their supporters to do more than just water virtual plants. They need those plant-waterers to go out and convince their friends to vote. That’s why Clinton’s campaign is now working on a tool that asks the app’s users to opt in to share their contact lists, Cheng says. That will allow the campaign to figure out whether, for instance, that user has loads of friends in battleground states. The app would then nudge the user to reach out to that friend. Peters says the Trump campaign is preparing to release something similar.
This will not make privacy-minded folks happy, but it’s not a new phenomenon of this cycle. Back in 2012, the Obama campaign asked users to log onto the campaign website using Facebook, which would automatically enable the Obama team to peer into supporters’ Facebook friend lists and compare them to its voter file. Then, it could suggest individual friends that Obama supporters should be pestering. But Facebook tightened its privacy settings back in 2014, cutting third-party apps off from this kind of instant intel.
Nothing can replace Facebook’s reach, but that isn’t stopping both campaigns from working to build that functionality into their respective apps themselves. But with less than 50 days until election day, and early voting beginning in October, they’d better work fast.
1Update: 10:08 am ET 9/21/16 This story has been updated to include additional metrics provided by the creators of America First.