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How Much to Spend Online, and Other Tips

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, January 7 2010

In a wide-ranging conference call with Micah Sifry and members of the PdF Network, Engage partners Patrick Ruffini and Mindy Finn filled in a lot of the gaps in knowledge about Bob McDonnell's successful, online-powered campaign to become governor of Virginia, as well as about the ascendancy of the netroots on the American right.

I was listening in, Tweeting as the call progressed and furiously taking notes. Here are some highlights, but you can listen for yourself when the call is added to our archives:

On expectations:

The McDonnell campaign "underestimated what it was going to take to run a successful new media strategy," Finn said. One dedicated person juggling social media, posting content to a website and reaching out to bloggers just isn't enough, she explained — when Engage came onboard, they found that the campaign was going to need to change the way they were integrating media into their field organizing strategy.

Online Strategy:

Among the key strategies Engage prepared for after they came onboard in early 2009 were:

  • Redesign McDonnell's website to have a more "grassroots" feel — including calls to action and links to social media
  • Integrate social networks into the campaign's online presence
  • Use a targeted surge of online advertising — the "Google Blast"
  • Have volunteers collect e-mails when going door to door

Ruffini said the McDonnell campaign's Ning network brought out a group of online "super volunteers" who could be used to marshal the campaign's field effort online. (Our Ning how-to podcast with co-founder Giana Bianchini is available here.)

The Ning network offered a lot of things Facebook didn't: people could volunteer and send e-mails targeted by county or group in ways that were not available to the McDonnell campaign's Facebook group, for example, Ruffini said.

What did work on Facebook was asking volunteers to update their Facebook status for McDonnell on election day, he said. Assuming an average Facebook friend list of 150 people, he reckons that that effort reached a potential audience of up to 150,000 people. Extrapolate from that and you have Facebook status updates donated to the campaign 1,000 times — probably a better metric, considering the audience may or may not have been around to see the status update and may or may not have their account configured to receive updates from the McDonnell supporter in question.

What else worked was moving on an opportunity right away. When Creigh Deeds, their opponent, appeared to make a serious misstep — at a press conference where the McDonnell campaign had somebody with a camera rolling — the McDonnell campaign was able to capitalize by putting up video and online ads.

Before any kind of TV ad went up, Finn said, the campaign could see their message demonstrating a greater reach than they expected.

Online giving also defied some common perceptions. One contributor gave $25,000 to McDonnell online, Finn said.

The expectation that online contributions are always small is a bad one to keep, according to Ruffini. He described another campaign — not the McDonnell campaign — that asked a big donor to give by check rather than online, to save on credit card processing fees. The donor ended up not giving at all, he said.

Ruffini and Finn have a separate company, iContribute, that sells software for getting, processing and tracking online contributions; they added a comment field to the contribution form, and say reading those comments yielded some good ideas.

On Raw Numbers:

  • Messaging allocation: July and August, 60 percent direct response, 40 percent branding and messaging; September to mid-November, 80 percent persuasion/messaging, 20 percent direct response; final two weeks, all persuasion/messaging.
  • Media budget: By the end of the campaign, online accounted for 8-10 percent of the media budget.

On the technology of the right, in general:

Ruffini says "the enthusiasm to go online and contribute and act is there," and you can see it in the Tea Party movement. The right has been using "the tool of the moment," Twitter, as well as other forms of social media to catch up with the left, he said.

He said the developer community leans left, that the high point of the conservative presence online has been its journalism, and that the right's establishments will start to build the kind of high-level infrastructure for online activism that the left has long possessed.

In the meantime, said Finn, "When we talk about the right catching up or even surpassing the left, we're talking about independent organizations that are doing so —" not the GOP qua GOP.