Rock the Vote enlists Instagram influencers to get young people to the polls

August 30, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC

For Rock the Vote, the coronavirus pandemic created a massive new challenge to its quest to get young people to vote. The organization had to pivot from hosting live events and visiting college campuses. 

So Rock the Vote tried a new way to meet young people where they are: It partnered with social media influencers, better known for peddling Nike Jordans and the latest MAC makeup lines on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.

“When Rock the Vote started [in 1990], you could put a PSA on MTV or VH1 and reach 90% of young people,” said Carolyn DeWitt, president of Rock the Vote. “But over the past 30 years, the media landscape has evolved tremendously. So those who have the ability to reach young people has completely changed.”

During the spring, Rock the Vote partnered with a company called Influential, which connects brands with influencers. Initially, Rock the Vote planned to work with Influential’s network of influencers to help promote some of its live events. But after the pandemic made that unfeasible, Influential’s role became even more important, helping Rock the Vote share voting information through influencers like Kendall Kyndall, Knox Frost, Shelly Scholten, and Quentin Quarantino, who together have more than 3 million followers through their respective Instagram accounts.

Celebrities have become increasingly vocal about politics and larger world issues on their social media platforms, with people like Kylie Jenner asking her 166 million Instagram followers to stay home after the U.S. Surgeon General had done so. Meanwhile, Taylor Swift has become a regular political advocate for voting on her Instagram page.

But for social media influencers who lack celebrity outside their digital platforms, the risk is much more calculated: Can they get political without losing their brand sponsorships? For some, it’s worth the risk, and for others the opportunity aligns with the online persona they’ve created for themselves.

The influencers helped Rock the Vote more than double its number of Instagram followers to 125,000, up from 62,000 in June. Influencers were also able to help Rock the Vote attract 1.5 million viewers to a virtual event it held with a coalition of advocacy organizations. The event was cohosted by actresses Rosario Dawson and Logan Browning, and featured appearances by politicians, activists, and musical artists including Katy Perry and the Black Eyed Peas.  

“The network of influencers was critical to getting the crowd out,” DeWitt said. “This year in particular…Because organizations like ours have had to pivot, we had to be particularly targeted. Influencers are able to do that because they have very loyal followings.”

The change in strategy comes as young people increasingly get their news and political information from social media. It also comes amid a deluge of misinformation on the various platforms, with politicians including the President trying to discredit mail-in voting. Meanwhile, advocacy groups and local government agencies are desperately trying to educate people about where and how they can vote in their states at a time when the coronavirus has made in-person voting difficult.

Influential makes its money by charging companies for access to its network of more than 3 million influencers and for help with social campaigns. But this year, it opted to do something different when it partnered with Rock the Vote, for free, and with the World Health Organization, related to the pandemic.

“We want to use our capabilities to do good in the world,” said Ryan Detert, Influential’s CEO. “In an election year that has been full of social injustice and unrest, it is more important than ever that we utilize our technology and influencer network to help spread the word about the importance of voting to Gen Z and millennial audiences.”

And for two of the social media influencers who have helped Rock the Vote, getting involved this year without pay just felt like the right thing to do. Their posts have received thousands of likes and hundreds of comments. 

“I was more than happy to do something for the greater good,” said Tommy Marcus, a New York influencer whose Instagram account, Quentin Quarantino, has 366,000 followers who typically see a stream of quarantine-related memes. “I really think doing something like Rock the Vote is a push in the right direction to use this influence for good.”

Marcus initially created the Quentin Quarantino account on Instagram to bring comic relief to the new reality of being quarantined. But after being approached by Influential, he opted to help WHO and Rock the Vote reach his followers. He promoted Rock the Vote’s virtual event by posting a flyer that included all the event details and encouraged fans to get more information about voting.

Shep Ogden, Christopher Travers, and their team of people who help run Knox Frost helped promote Rock the Vote through the Instagram account of Knox Frost, a digital character that has 991,000 followers. Part of the mission of Knox Frost, who represents a 20-year-old part-human, part-robot from Atlanta, is to promote wellness and social responsibility. So when Influential offered Frost’s creators the chance to promote coronavirus-related health information from WHO, and voting information from Rock the Vote, the two seized the opportunity.

“We like to think he can have a positive impact,” said Ogden. “We can get voting talked about through memes.”

Knox Frost published a series of Instagram stories, Instagram posts, and even texted with fans to promote Rock the Vote. In one post, Knox Frost sported a Rock the Vote T-shirt. In another post, the account pushed out an image of the lineup of stars who would appear at Rock the Vote’s virtual event.

Although much of the initial influencer work for Rock the Vote was done to promote its virtual event, the organization still hopes the online celebrities will help it get the word out about voting until the election. Detert said Influential’s work is not over.

Part of that includes getting some of the brands it works with to promote Rock the Vote’s messages. Rock the Vote has already partnered with HBO, Gap, DoorDash, Hulu, and Footaction. But Detert hopes Influential can help even more brands get on board.

“We’re in it for the long haul,” he said. 

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