Image supplied by Bite the Ballot: NVRD campaign projected onto Big Ben
Editor’s note: Michael Sani is a young but highly accomplished social entrepreneur who has mastered the modern social media toolkit to drive social change rather than profits. He’s also the very first guest of the Tech Matters podcast! This post is meant to complement the episode by detailing some of his innovations and providing additional resources for deeper diving. Some quotes might be from extended segments that do not show up in the episode. So, onto Mike and his story!
Written by Jim Fruchterman and Gabriele Carotti-Sha
I usually roll my eyes when someone says they are going to use gamification for social impact. But, Mike Sani has done it at scale, engaging millions to take tangible actions. He was one of the earliest innovators who understood that social media and data could be used for a lot more than discovering the latest pop trends and beefing up ad revenue. Mike has founded two social enterprises, Bite the Ballot and Play Verto, to make these insights real. He believes passionately that:
- People, especially young people, can be empowered with well-designed tools to engage them as individuals with agency, not an audience to be manipulated;
- If you are going to collect data from people at scale, you need to clearly explain what value they get back;
- Data can be used to learn and make greater social impact.
What follow are highlights and insights from interviewing Mike Sani and hearing his story.
Early success: Using social media for purpose-driven engagement
Sani co-founded the nonprofit Bite the Ballot in 2010, while he was a secondary school teacher in southeast England. He had been challenged about not voting by his school’s principal (head of school in British parlance) and, when he asked his students whether they would vote in the upcoming elections, none of those eligible said they would.
His main insight was that students didn’t understand how the issues they cared about (immigration, climate change, gay marriage) were impacted by politics. Yet, Bite the Ballot was able to drive voter registration in the UK to new heights by designing educational games and organizing events that embodied youth culture with more authenticity than a typical campaign ad ever could. Key to this was actually talking to students and young voters. By linking issues they cared about to politics, the nonprofit was able to motivate young people to register to vote and speak for themselves and with each other rather than be spoken to from the powers that be. And by sharing their experiences and discussing problems relevant to them via fun activities, suddenly the students would light up with an awareness of their own political agency.
What drove Bite the Ballot to becoming a powerhouse was the intuition that social media could be used to achieve impact at scale. Sani built on the idea of social referral, which corporate brands had learned to leverage to increase product sales. In practice, Sani told us, this meant “going to social influencers and really tapping into the things they care about: mental health advocates, climate change advocates, people that want to increase our opportunities for equal rights, whether it’s gender-based rights or race-based rights, and getting them to act as a vehicle to their audience.” The power of social referral is that “when people engage with someone they trust, and someone they trust leads the narrative and sends a call to action, people click through.”
Noticing this trend, Sani and his team were able to organize “one of the first global live streams with all the party leaders ahead of the party election,” during which politicians sat in front of social influencers who had their phones on and connected to their favorite social platform with huge numbers of followers, thus “bringing the audience directly to the debate.” This pressure led each of the party leaders “to commit to manifesto pledges that night.”
Through its digitally-driven campaigns and events, Bite the Ballot was also able to drive massive youth voter registration (more than half a million users signed up to vote in 2015 and 1.8 million the following year). Think about it: With a budget of less than a million pounds (dollars, even), Mike and his team used a clever set of tech tools to get a couple of millions of young people actually registered to vote in the real world! Not only that, but Sani and his team were able to gather valuable insights into why young voters engage or don’t engage with politics, and learned how to incorporate those insights into designing finely tuned digital experiences. All this would lead to the invention of Play Verto.
Image supplied by Bite the Ballot: With Bite the Ballot, Mike Sani helped register millions of young voters in the UK
Play Verto: From play to policy
Verto (“voter” rearranged) was the UK’s first voter advice app designed specifically for young age groups. Initially launched as a Bite the Ballot software project just prior to the 2015 general elections, the app’s purpose was to educate voters who often feel alienated or uninformed about the political system. The simple interface allows users to swipe left or right on a host of issues and form a voter profile they can then compare with people in their area. One key concept that underlies the app’s success is in the very name: playfulness.
In Sani’s words, “the playfulness of the application […] sparks a user’s curiosity to see what’s going to come next,” and is thus meant to keep players interested in topics that otherwise they might not touch with a 5-foot stick. But beyond surface-level engagement, Sani also points to something deeper: “we allow the user to go on a journey” where they’re not being told what to believe, but they’re instead able to reflect on their own opinions and compare them with others. By discovering nuance through play, there is no need to push ideas from the top; instead, ideas naturally flow from the people who are closest to specific issues.
Importantly, the app did not assume or impose a left/right ideological preference—it simply reflected people’s opinions on the issues that affect them directly and helps catalyze conversations with their peers around those issues. This is in keeping with Bite the Ballot’s ethos of non-partisanship: “When we were engaging young people in politics and citizenship, we’d never used the word politics or citizenship. We went with issues. When they became aware that they cared about a particular issue, we demonstrated to them that others cared about it. So, we generated this sense of being part of a wider community.” And this is key to fighting the apathy that potential young voters are often accused of.
Image supplied by Bite the Ballot: DeCafe event in Paris, where Verto was used both as a catalyst for conversation and debate as well as to measure the post event impact.
Players focus on their actual experience of an issue and develop a sense of agency. They become gradually more aware that they can actually make change by participating in this platform and, of course, acting outside of it (a big part of Bite the Ballot initiatives was that the end of each activity included a call to action). In the case of Verto, “[in 2019] we did an environment-based survey and ended up sending a call to action online. We had 20,000 players within a two-week period, and an 84% completion rate on Verto. It was an amazing number of people, and we were able to package that [information] up and give it to climate activists.”
The exit from Bite the Ballot
Today, Mike has shifted his focus entirely on Play Verto, effectively shutting down Bite the Ballot at the end of 2020. One might ask (as we did), why exit something that was able to achieve so much? Mike’s response, which was typically candid, touched on a few elements.
First, the goal of Bite the Ballot was not to keep on living indefinitely; it was to solve a specific problem. Solving that problem meant finding solutions that eventually would no longer need an NGO to constantly step in. For example, one successful Bite the Ballot initiative helped build voter registration directly into the university enrollment process, where the typical forms asked for the same personal information needed for voter registration. Once Bite the Ballot had led to real policy change and massive voter registration drives, Mike wondered what should be done next.
Another issue was that Mike’s role as head of a charity essentially obligated him to spend most of the year fundraising just to keep the operation afloat. While sufficient on a short-term basis, this did not give much space for innovation, nor could stable paychecks be guaranteed for his team. Instead, he chose to spin off Play Verto as a for-profit social enterprise. A powerful partnership with LEGO made this more than viable. From this union emerged a project in which kids between the ages of seven and 12 could view real word scenarios on the Verto platform and come up with solutions with the help of animated LEGO characters. Verto would then deliver those playful solutions to LEGO, who’d showcase them at events such as Earth Day or COP26 (the UN’s big climate change conference). This created a line of communication from young people (very, very young people) all the way to the “corridors of power.” All this with solid financial backing from one of the most famous brands in the world. A pretty good foundation for a new, successful social enterprise.
Readers can find many more details about Sani’s story in the podcast; however, there is one more concept that’s worth highlighting here. Over time, Play Verto moved “away from a voter advice application to more of a gamified platform for collecting insights around any topic or issue.” A key strength of Verto is that it leverages user-provided data to point to areas of “overwhelming consensus for a particular outcome […] to demonstrate demand.” The data that users provide, consensually, can then be packaged and provided to organizations that need it in order to achieve their respective social missions. In turn, this can provide what’s needed for well-informed policy change. Crucially, Verto aims to make sure that “young people also see the results.”
This aspect of Verto is essential to the way Sani thinks about empowering citizens, in particular young people who are developing their political awareness. He calls this dynamic a form of value exchange, which effectively closes the loop from play to a sense of agency.
“If you play and share with us what you think we’re going to put it forward on your behalf, you’re going to also see what everyone else thinks so you can do your bit locally. We’re really trying to implement this idea that we’ve all got a role to play. Yours could be just playing the game and sharing it with others; over time, you might develop the confidence to actually go out and get involved in some other calls to action and sign petitions or turn up to rallies or events.”
Play Verto demonstrates real change is possible via technology and ethical use of data. It carries forward an ethos where it’s people, especially the next generation of citizens, who bring their issues to the institutions that need to hear them. That is the economy that social entrepreneurs like Sani are dedicating heart and soul to build.
For more about Bite the Ballot’s origins, the Play Verto pivot, and Mike’s thoughts on data and political engagement, make sure to check out the full interview!
- Gamification: The use of game design principles to induce a certain behavior. For example: awarding players with badges after performing certain actions on a mobile app; or, unlocking new features for users engage with an online product regularly.
- Ofsted: the UK government agency which rates schools.
- Skoll, Schwab and Ashoka: the leading fellowships of successful social entrepreneurs, who are social leaders doing innovative social change efforts.
- Value exchange: an interaction in which all the parties involved receive and provide a benefit (not necessarily monetary).