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Winning in 2010: Online Fundraising and Mobilization

BY Colin Delany | Sunday, December 6 2009

Part Four of How Candidates Can Use the Internet to Win in 2010

What Dean and Kerry suggested in 2004, Barack Obama proved in 2008: an army of motivated online donor/volunteers can be a truly decisive force in politics. And with software designed to allow campaigns to tap the enthusiasm (and the wallets) of supporters both within their districts and around the country now widely available (see Chapter Two), 2010 should see an explosion of online fundraising at the state and local levels.

It helps a campaign immensely if most individual donations, even the big ones, come in online rather than as paper checks. First, money collected via credit cards is available instantly, allowing a candidate to take immediate advantage of an overnight surge of income. Plus, online donation details automatically end up in a database, simplifying accounting and reporting. By contrast, physical checks present a logistical burden, since each has to be processed individually whether it's collected at a fundraising dinner or arrives in the mail.

As the Obama campaign found, online fundraising also lets a campaign tap the vast number of politically interested people who can't donate hundreds or thousands of dollars at time but whose smaller donations can add up to a princely sum. Obama's grassroots donors tended to send relatively small amounts repeatedly, which in turn shows why a small-donor list is such a valuable resource -- it's the gift that keeps on giving, quite literally. Unlike traditional big donors who often reach their quota for a given candidate with a single check, small donors can contribute again and again, providing a financial consistency that's useful in a short campaign and priceless in a long one.

The Basics

So, how does online fundraising work? Essentially, giving to a candidate is just like buying a product online -- aspiring donors go to a website and enter a credit card number and the necessary personal information, then click the "donate" button. Once the transaction is processed, the money passes to the campaign's bank account, either immediately as a single transfer or periodically as donations add up.

Depending on the details of the Constituent Relations Management system the campaign uses and the extent of its integration with the fundraising system (see Chapter Two), donation details may automatically populate the same database used to track supporters and volunteers (otherwise, staff may have to download the data and integrate it into the CRM as a separate step). Obviously, the closer the two systems work together, the more easily a campaign can track top donors.

If You Build It, Sometimes They Will Come

Where do new online donors come from? Some will hit your website entirely on their own and without any prompting from a campaign, driven by word-of-mouth or by news in the race. After Sarah Palin's convention acceptance speech in 2008, for instance, Barack Obama's website saw a huge influx of cash even before his staff had time to send out an email solicitation -- his supporters didn't care for what the Alaska governor had to say and were eager to let it be known. Consequently, it behooves a campaign to make it as easy as possible for spontaneous donors to act, ensuring that the website's "donate" button is prominent and that the transaction itself doesn't have any speedbumps.

To maximize the chances of capitalizing on such "drive-by" support, a candidate will want to be visible in as many places online as possible, either via advertising or through campaign-created content (see Chapter Three). Online recruitment is all about being where the potential donors are, whether it's on Google, YouTube, Facebook, political blogs or local media sites.

More often, politicians won't need an umbrella to ward off an unanticipated rain of dollars: they'll have to work for for every cent they get.

Motivating Donors and Volunteers

If political support ultimate comes down to emotion -- how a potential donor or volunteer feels about a candidate or a race -- every contact people have with a campaign influences their propensity to give time or money. Every interaction matters: their experience at an in-person event or a storefront office, what they see online, the ads on their televisions, and of course any direct communications they receive via email, phone or direct mail. Successful online fundraisers realize that they are essentially managing virtual relationships with many people at once.

Like any friendship, a political relationship that heads downhill can be hard to salvage (disillusioned donors are unlikely to open their wallets again), and unless a campaign is entirely short-term and doesn't mind burning bridges, properly managing and motivating supporters over the course of a race will be paramount. List size matters, and campaigns should take every opportunity to grow their own, but list response is just as important, since a relatively small number of motivated people can outperform a much larger group whose members don't have much coordination or reason to care.

One excellent way to turn people away over time is to treat them like cash machines, something that's entirely too easy for political professionals to do (in fact, early in the Obama campaign, manager David Plouffe frequently had to mediate between a fundraising team eager to maximize short-term revenue and a new-media team with an eye on the long game).

At a basic level, not every communication from the campaign should ask for money. Instead, campaigns should think of ways to provide value to supporters in the form of news, information and giveaways, as well as of non-monetary ways they can contribute. Getting people to recruit ten friends via email, for instance, is an easy way for them to participate without having to part with a dime -- and once they've taken that action, they're more involved and committed than they were the day before.

A common approach to supporter management is to provide activists with escalating levels of engagement. Like a the rungs of a ladder, each higher engagement level requires more work and holds fewer people, but ideally it also creates more value for the campaign or cause. Over time, list managers will obviously try to move people to higher tiers, converting casual list-members into donors, donors into volunteers, and volunteers into precinct leaders. With a sophisticated CRM, campaigns can get creative in how they track supporters, noting the most reliable activists in the database and putting these "super-volunteers" to work in ways that use their skills, connections and time.

Tiers of engagement work in the other direction as well -- if you're planning a social media-style create-a-video contest, for instance, find a way to involve people who AREN'T actually doing the shooting and editing, perhaps by asking them to rate or comment on the submissions. The overall goal: keep the most casual supporters working at a basic level, while also providing more strenuous outlets for the smaller core of true activists.

Successful Email Campaigns

Regardless of what a campaign is asking supporters to do, they're likely asking it via email. As we've covered before (see Chapter Two), email remains the most effective way to stay in consistent online contact with many people at once, despite the growth of Facebook, Twitter and other social tools -- and it's the best online fundraising channel we currently have.

Of course, anyone can send an email message asking people for money, but getting the most out of a list over time takes skill, planning, good execution and testing. Let's look at some basic principles that help maximize a list's long-term performance:

  • Emails should perpetuate core messages and goals of the campaign. A key idea: the three Ms of political email are messaging, mobilization and money.
  • Emails must also do no harm -- list managers must take care not to alienate people on the list.
  • The more personal, informal and direct a message is, the better (usually). Messages may appear to come directly from the candidate, from staff, from prominent supporters or from individual campaign volunteers, depending on whose voice the campaign needs to amplify at that moment. Authenticity is key.
  • Make the ask clear and the action links easy to find.
  • Targeting helps get the most out of a list. For instance, list members might receive messages with different content based on their locale, their interests, their demographics or their past pattern of actions on behalf of the campaign. A good CRM is a targeter's friend.
  • Email may start the process, but the landing page finishes it, so make sure that each message links to a donation or action page that matches the ask in the message.
  • Use the email initiation sequence to start a relationship off on a good foot, sending new list members a pre-set series of messages after they sign up. The sequence might steadily "scale the ask," encouraging newbies to move up the ladder of engagement.
  • Besides scaling the ask over time, savvy fundraisers also tailor the ask over time, for instance soliciting different amounts based on a person's donation history -- a $10 donor might be asked to donate $20 the next time around, but someone who'd donated $150 might be safe to hit up for $200.
  • Campaigns should also vary the ask -- as discussed above, not every communication from the candidate or his surrogates should be about money. Some might deliver talking points, others strategy or context, while a few may be straightforwardly inspirational.
  • When possible, staff should map out email narrative arcs in advance, with each message forming part of the stream while also able to stand on its own. But this approach shouldn't preclude seizing on emotion and the moment, such as capitalizing quickly on an opponent's gaffe.
  • Campaigns should also consider the "value proposition of fundraising," being careful to portray donations as doing more than just providing abstract support. To that end, campaigns often make it very clear where money is going, for instance raising funds for a particular stated task such as running TV ads or supporting grassroots organizing in a defined area.
  • Even if a campaign is overwhelmingly relying on email, content integration can be key, with online video and social networking outreach in particular serving as a powerful adjunct to email fundraising. For instance, a particular message might ask people to watch a video and spread it via Facebook, with the video itself and the landing page on which it's hosted doing the heavy lifting of soliciting donations.
  • Despite the best targeting, different emails activated different people at different times. No one message has to connect with every supporter or every voter -- if you miss 'em this week, you might get 'em next week.

How Much is Too Much? (The Importance of Metrics and Testing)

How many messages can a campaign send to supporters before they click the "unsubscribe" button? To find out, email communications managers monitor statistics, since modern CRMs will track when people sign up, when they drop off, which messages they open and what kind of actions they take.

Lists turn out to have their own quirks: while one could be very open to tell-a-friend or volunteer requests but not so good at giving money, another might respond oppositely. Each mass email sent provides raw data about that campaign's specific supporters, helping to identify the kinds of appeals that work and which to avoid. Metrics and list segmentation can even assist with message development, since campaigns can try out different ideas on relatively small groups first.

Of course, as an election or other deadline approaches, managers can get away with sending many more messages than usual, since people will understand the urgency. Don't forget to follow up after the vote, particularly if your candidate plans to run again!

Viral Fundraising

Another aspect of the Obama fundraising machine that other campaigns can copy is its peer-to-peer component, the personal fundraising campaigns that individual volunteers launched through their accounts, alongside all of their other online outreach.

Supporter-driven distributed financial outreach raised a few tens of millions of dollars directly for Obama's campaign, but perhaps more important is that it helped mine individual fundraisers' social connections for new donors, who would then find themselves on the main email list and subject to the kinds of "encouragements" described above. Though perhaps less of a priority for smaller-scale campaigns, the capability to create friend-to-friend donation drives is included in many CRMs and is built in to the technology of sites like ActBlue.

Custom Social Networks

Some campaigns provide additional opportunities for volunteers by creating custom social networks along the lines of Bob McDonnell's 2009 campaign for Virginia governor featured a community based on the Ning platform, for instance, which provided an outreach and fundraising hub for activists.

A custom social network turned out to be a useful tool for Obama volunteers, particular when it let them organize themselves in places where the central campaign's infrastructure wasn't fully built out. But Obama's campaign also had an enormous supporter list to populate from the moment it launched, and other political social networks risk sputtering out if they can't reach a significant scale right away (a site is neither social nor a network if no one's using it). Most down-ballot campaigns will likely focus on reaching people in the online spaces they already frequent, not trying to get them to join a new one.

More Than Money: Mobilization Means Votes

This chapter has primarily focused on boosting donations, but supporters are worth more than just the contents of their bank accounts. Smart campaigns will try to tap their brains and time as well, and the engagement techniques described above are as applicable to mobilization as they are to fundraising. The Obama campaign relied on volunteer enthusiasm to a remarkable degree, with hundreds of thousands of people downloading "walk lists" of houses to visit in their neighborhoods and phone numbers to call. They reported the results of their outreach work through a comprehensive grassroots data collection system, in turn giving the leadership priceless data about how the campaign was playing out at a neighborhood level.

This kind of sophstication is a little out of reach for most state- or local-level campaigns, but they can still use online communications to mobilize supporters to:

  • show up for in-person events
  • volunteer at local offices
  • phone-bank, either at a campaign office or over their own cell phones
  • connect with their neighbors door-to-door
  • recruit friends via email, Facebook or MySpace
  • put up yard signs
  • view online content and spread it virally
  • create content such as blog posts, Tweets or online videos
  • and of course, vote!

The importance of that last bullet cannot be overstated for down-ballot candidates, particularly in a low-turnout off-year election. Many races in 2010 will swing on a relatively small number of votes, giving a campaign with a core of motivated supporters an advantage on election day.

Putting It All Together

That's it for the essentials of internet political campaigning! Next, let's pull it all together into a basic online communications plan.


News Briefs

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monday >

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The Expanding Reach of China's Crowdsourced Environmental Monitoring Site, Danger Maps

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It appears that Russia is on the brink of passing still more repressive Internet regulations. A new telecommunications bill that would require popular blogs—those with 3,000 or more visits a day—to join a government registry and conform to government-mandated standards is expected to pass this week. What follows is a list of the worst bits of both proposed and existing Russian Internet law. Let us know in the comments or on Twitter if we missed anything.