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Talking Shop With Mindy Finn, Romney's Director of eStrategy

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, March 12 2008

A month ago, Mitt Romney folded his presidential campaign, which won 11 states primaries and caucuses, 4.2 million votes and 291 delegates. He also raised $105 million, including $42 million of his own money. What follows is an interview with Mindy Finn, his Director of eStrategy. We're pleased that after a long hiatus away on the campaign scrum, this marks Mindy's return to the techPresident fold.

Q: Mitt Romney launched his campaign on January 3, 2007... What were your initial goals for the website? What sections worked best, in your view?

A: Mitt Romney started the campaign with a fame deficit compared to John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. He had a lot of ground to make up to prove his presidential-level bona fides and to introduce himself to the voting public. Thus, we had two far-reaching goals: 1) run an aggressive online strategy with an interactive, robust website from day one, and 2) maximize online video for introducing the candidate and forming a relationship between the candidate to voters, and thus, MittTV and the aggressive YouTube strategy was born.

You may recall that the Romney campaign was the first on either side to launch a full-fledged campaign site with extensive issue information, fundraising platform, "best of the web" section, and the candidate's own web video channel stock full of videos of media appearances and campaign events. He really took the media and the pundit class by surprise with the rollout of the site, then National Call Day where he raised almost $7 million in one day, and his official announcement, catapulting him to first tier status. Also, early on, as the campaign was focused on raising money and shoring up support from grasstops and conservative activists, MittTV (the campaign's proprietary online video channel) was a highly effective resource.

Q: Who came up with the idea for the Five Brothers blog? Do you think it helped reach younger voters? Can you give an example of how?

Believe it or not, Governor Romney's sons came up with the idea. They anticipated a heavy campaign schedule, where they would criss-cross the country, and were excited about reporting on their adventures, and shining a unique, personal light on their Dad for voters. I don't have evidence that the blog reached younger voters; however, several of the Romney sons focused their efforts on exciting college students and young professionals, and the blog certainly helped raise the profile of the Romney sons, converting them into powerful surrogates.

Q: Who developed the idea for Ann Romney's blog? How did she take to it? Did it reach its intended audience?

Based on responses to the first email from Ann Romney to our grassroots and donor email lists, it was clear that she was an online hit (in addition to being an offline hit). So, it was only natural that as the most powerful surrogate for the candidate, she should have a strong online presence. Mrs. Romney thought it was a wonderful idea -- another avenue to meet people on the trail and gather their support and ideas. Many of the features on Mrs. Romney's site were her own ideas and writing such as the section that focused on her MS (multiple sclerosis) story, a cause that is personal and important to her. Another example is the recipe section. It may be a sterotype, but Mrs. Romney truly loves to cook and was thrilled that she could solicit new recipes and share her own via her site.

Q: How much effort did you put into building your list? How big did it get? What did you emphasize in your email strategy? donations? participation? Can you give some examples?

I think building an email list is perhaps the most fundamental, yet least sexy, part of an online strategy. One of the challenges campaigns have is they are conditioned to think about the "now;" however, by keeping a razor-sharp focus on using every opportunity to build your email list, there are incredible long-term rewards. Look at how much money Barack Obama raised in February -- $55 million. Yes, a percentage of that came from walk-in traffic, but I presume that a near majority, if not a majority, of the online money came through email.

On the Romney campaign, we tried to balance out the competing interests of message, money (fundraising) and mobilization, with moderate success.

Q: The Create Your Own Ad contest was a bit risky, given that you were putting material out that anyone could use, and indeed some opponents of Gov. Romney did make satirical ads. Were there concerns inside the campaign at trying this? Was it a success?

There were concerns, and they were allayed. The reality is that a savvy editor could take our content and mash it up at any point anyway. I believe it was a success. It continued the story line that the Romney campaign was extremely innovative, sophisticated and committed to welcoming the best content -- whether from pros, rookies, or those in between. As a politech professional, I always look for ways to not only tap into online activists and their talents, but also to introduce online activism to new audiences. Many of those who participated in Create Your Own Ad had never produced a video before, and they continued to improve their work based on the comments received from others in the contest. It was beautiful to watch. (Cheesy, I know)

Q: How many people used the phone call from Mitt feature, and how did you track its success?

Call @ Home was successful, and that was clear when more calls were being made in less time from the callers using their cell phone/Internet connection to makes calls than those showing up at offline phone banks.

Q: Mitt wasn't that present on Facebook or other social networking sites. Was there any reason for not going after online social networks more aggressively?

You can always be more aggressive. The most popular Mitt Facebook groups were those started by supporters in the field, and they were highly valuable to the campaign, as evidenced by Governor Romney's victory at the CPAC straw poll in 2007. The rush of volunteers who helped put him over the top were mobilized via Facebook.

Q: What do think was the most successful online initiative of the campaign?

1) Sign Up America!, which involved all mediums and tactics working together to recruit 24,000 new supporters in 24 hours back in May 2007. Of course, I'm a little biased because the initiative was my baby. It's hard to imagine, but that was quite the feat back then. (This was the debut of mini-Mitt, also.)
2) The Five Brothers Blog
3) MittTV

Q: Anything you wish you could go back and do differently?

Well sure. I would have introduced more interactive elements -- contests, grassroots tools, live webcasts -- earlier in the campaign to keep our email supporters engaged and active. But this sounds too much like a regret question, and I don't believe in regret. You do the best you can with what you have to work with.

Q: Looking at the other campaigns, R and D, is there anything that you admired (or borrowed)? Any mistakes you saw that you're glad you didn't make?

Not just because it's the popular answer, I often used examples from the Barack Obama campaign to justify why certain initiatives were important for getting the most from our online strategy. I particularly like the way they effectively integrate their online and offline efforts for grassroots purposes. Integration is my favorite word when it comes to the new media frontier.

Q: If you had your way, what strategies or technologies would you have focused on more?

That's not a fruitful question. I didn't have MY way. We were a team. The most important aspect of implementing an effective strategy is hardly ever a lack of good ideas and sound tactics, it's integrating (there's that word again), that strategy and those tactics into the overall effort. You will never be able to execute your plan in a vacuum, and collaboration, even if it's frustrating and demands compromise, is critical.