When Designers Get Political
While I know our design community is hungry for Figma plugins, I’m here to talk to you about a different plug-in: the social impact kind. I’ve learned first-hand what kind of impact us product designers can have when we venture beyond our product bubble. This post is about why it’s important to get plugged in beyond your design org.
Many brands are realizing that times are changing and that just staying in their lane isn’t what the future looks like. In fact, a report by Spotify for Brands showed that 68% of Gen Z’s and Millennials say brands need to play a more meaningful role in society. In other words, the future isn’t passive.
Spotify is aware of this, which is why we have a Social Impact team that runs a whole host of amazing initiatives. The team partners with half the company to get things done, but rarely has the opportunity to partner with product. In fact, we barely knew each other existed when I reached out in 2018.
I’m a UX Writer who, for my day job, works on Spotify’s artist-focused products—Spotify for Artists and SoundBetter. I didn’t set out to study abroad in the Social Impact team, but once I got there I realized how much of the company I wasn’t connected to. Product tends to stay in its tech bubble, which sometimes limits what companies can achieve.
This article discusses the work that went into our 2020 voting campaign but also tells some of the backstory of how Spotify got here, in the hope that it might encourage others to follow through on something they believe in—even if it means going beyond their job description. Essentially, it’s a lesson in fusing your day job with your passion.
How the Idea Came to Be
It was mid-2018 when I started to feel super low. (It’s funny to say this now after living through 2020. Despair, like everything, is relative). I won’t name the specific moment, but let’s just say there had been many low points, and this particular one sent me over the edge. I was questioning my job, my purpose, and my impact.
Fortunately, my despair coincided with a rooftop work happy hour hang (remember those?!) and I told a colleague how I was feeling: “I just want to do something. I just want Spotify to do something!” We were a few drinks in, commiserating about how we felt. But then we started brainstorming. Like, what if Spotify did do something? What if we got Spotify to do something? The midterm elections were only a few months away. It sounded crazy to try to convince one of the biggest brands in the world to get its users to vote in the upcoming U.S. election, but also what did we have to lose?
My colleague and I had been working on a new in-app messaging platform that enabled Spotify to send messages to our users. It was designed to communicate new features, content, or promotions, but what if we used it to send a message to our U.S. users of voting age?
We put together a quick mock-up of the idea and looked for someone at the company we could pitch it to. Thankfully, a different colleague told me that Spotify has a Social Impact team, so I cold-emailed the head of the team to introduce ourselves and mention that we had an idea. I asked if she’d be open to chatting and thankfully she responded with an enthusiastic “YES!”
This was the mockup we used to pitch our idea.
When we met and showed her our pitch, she looked at us like we told her we’d discovered a new planet just an hour away.
“You mean, we can use our platform to send social impact messages to our users all over the world?!”
“Yes. Meaning, we can also send one to every eligible user in the U.S. to encourage them to vote.”
She got it immediately.
To this day, it’s still one of my favorite meetings ever. She was excited. We were excited. Now we just had to make it happen. We knew we couldn’t just send a random voting message. It had to feel like Spotify. It had to sound like Spotify. If there’s one thing you learn doing content strategy, it’s that you stay minimal, relevant, and clear at all times. And you always keep the voice consistent. Plus, we knew music had to be part of the campaign.
We also had to stay nonpartisan with whatever we did. The focus of the campaign needed to be about encouraging voting, not arguing for or against candidates. Voter turnout in America, overall, is pretty dismal, but it’s especially bad among young people. Spotify has a pretty sizable population of young people using it, so we figured encouraging them to vote was a good way to have an impact. The focus of the campaign would be about voting, so we could remain nonpartisan.
Let’s Try This: the 2018 U.S. Midterm Election
The Social Impact team liked our pitch, but of course, we needed sign-off and input from various stakeholders throughout the company including brand and creative, editorial, government affairs, legal, comms, and many more. It took some time, but eventually, we got the sign-off from the powers that be.
A week before the 2018 midterm elections, we sent a state-targeted message to eligible Spotify users in the U.S. It was a reminder that the election was coming and it included a link to a playlist of songs uniquely popular in their state. The midterm elections were primarily about state-specific elections, so we played up that angle. It was genuinely fun to see which songs were uniquely popular in Texas, compared to Florida.
The week before the election we sent in-app messages reminding people about the election along with a playlist of songs uniquely popular in their state.
On Election Day, we sent another message as a reminder to vote, which linked to poll location info. Ultimately, a significant amount of people clicked through to find voting information.
On Election Day we sent a message to every 18+ Spotify user in the United States.
Why This Campaign was an Essential Step to Explain How We got Here in 2020
In 2018, we were in uncharted territory. Spotify had never run such a targeted voting campaign, and we’d never used our in-app messaging system for social impact content. We weren’t sure how our users would respond. So while we moved with purpose, we walked relatively lightly. We didn’t send a message about voter registration in case we got pushback, which could’ve prevented us from running the full campaign. Looking back, 2018 was our MVP—meaning we did the minimum we could do to have an impact while also getting a signal for the future. It let us test the waters, learn from the process, anticipate collaboration challenges, and ultimately prepare us for what we’re running in 2020. Without the 2018 campaign, we couldn’t have gone as big as we’re going this year.
Let’s see if This Really Works: the EU Parliament Election
Given the U.S. midterms voting campaign was relatively successful and Spotify’s Swedish roots, we replicated the formula for the 2019 European Parliament elections, with some tweaks. Rather than a playlist for each country, we created one playlist that featured songs from top artists from across Europe and rapidly gained over 60,000 followers. We sent eligible Spotify users in the EU an election reminder in their local language with the playlist the week before. And then another message on election day reminding people to vote, which linked to country-specific voting info.
Let’s go all-in: the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election
This year, Spotify is going way beyond a playlist and a reminder to vote. With a massive push from the Brand + Creative team, along with the Social Impact team, we now have a full campaign including multiple in-app messages inspired by songs; voting messages from artists; voting encouragement for artists; first-time voter prompts; election PSAs on podcasts; a dedicated site for voter registration; a dedicated site for voting; early voting info; absentee info; a toolkit for podcasters; a toolkit for artists, and making a plan to vote reminders. We also have a hub of election topics and info, and an internal ambassador program focused on educating employees and helping them get registered. If 2018 was the MVP, 2020 is the splashy public launch.
Some examples of the artist and song-triggered messages we’re running for new voters.
Takeaways From Getting in on the Action
Stepping out of my day-to-day role and helping with this campaign was eye-opening in more ways than I can count. For the sake of brevity, I’ll focus on three big learnings that I hope will encourage more of us to go beyond our day jobs and get plugged in to social impact.
One of the biggest reasons I think more product and UX people should get involved in social impact campaigns is because we’re closer to the product, and therefore closer to knowing what’s possible. We have visibility into the various tests being run, features being built, and capabilities being offered that typically aren’t socialized across the company. While ideally, everyone at the company would be aware of product possibilities, the reality is that most of us stick to our bubble and only hear about things within our business areas.
The brief for our 2020 campaign stated: “The in-app messaging integration only happened because two people on the product team—who knew the product intimately—suggested it. What are the potential opportunities that we’re missing this time?” Because we product outsiders brought a solution to the team in 2018, our 2020 campaign kickoff incorporated people from all over the company, including our newly acquired podcasting companies. The incentive this year was to leverage the tech and reach across our suite of products, rather than focusing solely on a content or marketing play.
Get out of Your Bubble
Technology might run the world, but the majority of people don’t work in tech. In the same way, we can help be a conduit for possibilities, it’s just as important for us to gain insight into how other teams across the company work. This voting campaign brought me into rooms with people I probably never would’ve met and never worked with otherwise. There were many times when it felt like being part of a whole ‘nother world. It’s humbling to see a bunch of puzzled faces when you bring up things like custom segments, navigation triggers, and build time. Product has its own jargony way of speaking, just like any other industry, and it’s important to get out of that bubble and work with people from different backgrounds and experiences. Now I can point to the work being done by other teams, and can make connections with people across the company that I never would’ve been able to without this work.
And now, here we are. Mere weeks away from Election Day. I hope our efforts help people using Spotify get the voting info they need. I hope the 18-29-year-olds show up in a way we’ve never seen before. I hope people realize how important their vote is. But ultimately, I’m thankful to have been involved. I’m thankful to have not just let an idea stay an idea. And I’m thankful to work at a company where one regular designer could help light a fire across the company that’s burning even brighter two years later.
Some shoutouts are absolutely necessary as this was a massive cross-company undertaking.
First and foremost, a huge shoutout to Casey Acierno who was my Social Impact partner from day one. None of this would have been possible without her.
Tom Manatos for being our tireless nonpartisan advocate and for helping us stay the course through the rocky waters of government.
Matei Gheorghiu for being my design partner in crime and helping me bring the idea to life.
Prapti Pandey for somehow managing ten million moving parts and keeping her wits about her.
B&C’s Ellen Pai & Rebecca Lim for creating the entire 2020 “Play Your Part” design vis.
Bridget Kyeremateng for helping us keep track of all the loose ends.
The talented B&C people who concepted and produced the “Play Your Part” campaign: Chris Monk, Jill Menor, Kate Carter, Alex Reinoso, Bruno Luglio, Shivani Parasnis, Marie Ronn, Gabija Blake, and Midori McSwain.
Senior UX Writer
Amanda works mostly at the intersection of design, writing, and strategy. She’s passionate about social justice and has a playlist for every mood.