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Winning in 2010: Online Outreach

BY Colin Delany | Tuesday, October 6 2009

Part Three of How Candidates Can Use the Internet to Win in 2010, cross-posted from Epolitics.com

Once a campaign has the basic technology in place, it can begin to take full advantage of the internet's ability to deliver donors, volunteers and voters. With new social communities like blogs, Facebook, YouTube, MySpace and Twitter creating fresh fishing holes, much of a campaign's online outreach will take place in very public venues.

But politicians and their staffs can also reach out behind the scenes, for instance sending emails or Facebook messages to selected bloggers, Twitterers and activists, usually in the hope of creating connections that will lead to more public affirmations of support. Campaigns can target online advertising with a different kind of precision, reaching people with appeals and messages that match the content they're reading or the keywords they enter into a search engine.

The variety of outreach outlets available to online communicators can be overwhelming, so let's start with a few basic principles to help sort out the options.

Go Where The Audience Is

If you want to get the most bang for your campaign buck, go where the right people have already gathered, which in 2010 will usually mean Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and/or blogs -- it's usually much easier to tap into an existing community than to create one of your own. Online advertising, particularly search (Google) ads, is another way to reach people as they go about their business on the web by browsing content sites or actively seeking information on a search engine.

Have a Clear Connection Back

Regardless how someone encounters a campaign online, they can't act unless they have a way to follow up. Every element of the campaign's online presence should link to a recruitment form, and when possible individual "landing pages" should be tied to the source: for instance, a Google Ad about a candidate's policy on taxes should link to a page that both talks about the topic and that invites readers to join the campaign based on that particular issue.

Content Supports Outreach

It should be clear by now that an outreach campaign doesn't have much to stand on without content, since video, words and images provide the raw material that attracts notice and makes a case. Without good content (a good story, essentially), it's hard for anyone to break through the constant online clutter -- if you don't have something to say, people aren't too likely to listen.

Integration is Key

Ideally, the separate elements of an online outreach campaign reinforce each other. A candidate can use his or her email list to promote a new YouTube video or Facebook page, for instance, while blogger outreach can introduce the campaign to new audiences, some of whose members will join the list and become potential outreach hubs themselves. Online/offline integration is equally key, since much list-building takes place at real-world event, and don't forget to include the website address on yard signs, car magnets, t-shirts and every other piece of collateral material possible

Targeted and Scattershot Outreach Can Coexist Happily

Sometimes online outreach works best when it's directed like a rifle shot at a particular target, but a good shotgun still has its value. The ease of online self-publishing has created a whole new class of "network influentials," a category that includes national and state-level bloggers, prominent Twitterers, individual activists with large personal networks and the administrators of sizable email lists -- basically, anyone with a following. Sometimes a campaign can identify and target the right individual voices intentionally, but often it can be hard to predict which story will catch which person at the right moment to break through.

The best answer seems to be a combination of targeted and untargeted outreach: online communicators can use a sharpshooting approach when appropriate, connecting personally with targeted bloggers, Twitterers and journalists, while still blasting information out via mass email, YouTube, Tweets, Facebook updates and blog posts. The targeted approach will often give the best results, but at other times a random and potentially overlooked channel will actually turn out to be the most productive.

The Tools:

Online Social Networks

Facebook and MySpace have become the modern equivalent of town squares, places where people from all walks of life can mingle and connect in a public environment (roughly one-sixth of our online time in the U.S. is now spent on social networking sites). The two sites vary in popularity in different communities (for instance, Facebook tends to predominate on the coasts, while MySpace retains more of its members in the country's midsection), but many campaigns will need to create a presence on both sites and in some cases on niche social networks such as Black Planet as well.

Facebook profiles and MySpace pages are easy to create but require follow-on work to get much out of them. It helps to connect aggressively with potential "friends," perhaps starting with the candidate's own social connections and moving on to party activists, local officials, bloggers and the members of your own supporter list (include a link to your profile pages in mass emails and they'll do the work for you). Regular updates keep a campaign in front of supporters' eyes, particularly on Facebook, and asking people to repost your content to their own profiles will expose it to their extended social networks.

One rule of thumb in social networking outreach: move people onto your email list as quickly as possible, because email appeals have a much higher response rate than Facebook or MySpace messages. Not every one of your "friends" will join your list, but a campaign is likely to get more work and more donations out of the ones who do.

Blogs

If social networks are the modern town halls, blogs are more like watering holes, places where the like-minded stop by for news and gossip. Campaigns often try to reach blog readers by connecting with authors behind the scenes to pitch stories and influence coverage. Campaign staff can also participate in public through the online discussions taking place in the comments sections of most blogs, and candidates themselves can take advantage of opportunities to guest-publish on popular or relevant sites. Finally, campaigns can consider advertising on political blogs, particularly since ads on state- or local-level blogs are often a cheap way to reach a concentrated political crowd.

The first step in blogger relations is research, since time spent contacting the wrong sites is wasted. LeftyBlogs and the E Talking Heads directory can be a good place to start, as is Google -- just run a search for "political blogs" and your state or region and you'll be on your way (most bloggers actively link to others in their interest area, so finding one site can introduce you to an entire network). Campaigns can also seek out blogs that focus on a particular issue dear to the candidate's heart, whether it's immigration, gay marriage or science funding, often hoping to pick up financial support from outside their immediate districts.

Should a campaign have its own blog? Blogs can be a good way for a candidate to show a more personal side than a press release, but they can also consume an immense amount of time. Few campaigns not gifted with a natural writer on hand will be able to devote the resources to keep a blog up to date.

Twitter

Twitter is the very short equivalent of blogging, with a dash of social networking thrown in -- individual Twitter messages ("tweets") are limited to 140 characters in length, and people generally have to choose to "follow" someone's Twitter feed in order to see their updates. Some politicians have taken to Twitter like a duck to water, though the results of unfiltered Twitter-posting can be dangerous to a political reputation (plenty of room for a gaffe in 140 characters).

Used properly, a Twitter feed can be a great way to reach those network influentials discussed above, since while Twitter's audience is still relatively small compared with Facebook or MySpace, it's members are disproportionately likely to be bloggers, journalists and political activists. A Twitter following tends to grow with use, assuming a campaign participates in the ongoing conversation and has something interesting to say, making it another of those tools that usually requires time rather than money to succeed. Just as with bloggers, a campaign can contact prominent Twitterers directly, both for the initial connection and to pitch stories down the road. Another common way to get on a Twitterer's radar screen is to repost ("retweet") their content with an acknowledgement of the source, something that active users tend to track.

A note of caution: campaigns need to be particularly careful to distinguish between a candidate or officeholder's Twitter feed and one updated by staff, since Twitter as a community tends to value authenticity. If Twitterers find out that a "candidate's voice" is not actually his own, the campaign's credibility can take a hit. Campaigns can use both approaches in a single feed if it's clear who's voice is speaking at any given time, and can even turn a relatively rare candidate appearance on his or her own feed into an event to promote.

Finally, once a campaign has a Twitter feed, followers will expect to be able to follow it and interact with the author(s) -- don't start a feed only to let it die of neglect.

Online Video

Online video is a natural for most campaigns, accustomed as political professionals are to the world of television ads. Video often evokes a stronger emotional reaction than text or still images alone, making it a powerful way to tell stories or make a political point. In recent years, the proliferation of cheap cameras has combined with the advent of free online video hosting and widespread broadband access to make online video a far more effective proposition than before. But online video isn't television -- the kinds of content that succeeds can be quite different, with authenticity (that word again!) and topic typically more important than polished visuals.

While campaigns often embed YouTube-hosted clips on their own websites and social networking pages, YouTube has also become a useful outreach channel on its own -- many people now bypass Google to go directly to YouTube to look for information, making the site effectively the second-most-popular seach engine in the U.S. To maximize the chances of people finding their content, campaigns should carefully title, annotate and tag each YouTube clip when they upload it. They should also be sure to include a link back to their website in the clip description, and when possible "watermark" clips with the site's URL so that it's visible as the piece plays.

The "Macaca moment" gave online video a bad reputation in some political circles after the 2006 election, with campaign professionals horrified at the thought of their clients' every public mistake ending up as fodder for online hecklers. But YouTube actually turns out to be a good counter to embarrassing content, since a campaign can use its own videos to respond to an offending clip, or at least to push it farther down the list of search results (a tactic sometimes referred to as "flooding the zone").

Online Advertising

Another frequent tactic used to dilute the effect of an unflattering story is to purchase Google Ads linking to a counter-story and aimed at people searching for the scandal, just one example of the ability of search advertising to reach a defined audience with the right message at the right time. Google Ads can actually be targeted on several levels, not just by topic ("keyword") but also geographically. Note that advertisers only pay when someone clicks on a Google Ad, but even when they're not clicked they can have a secondary (and effectively free) branding or messaging effect on those who see them.

Campaigns frequently buy ads on their own candidate's name, their opponents' names and on issues relevant to the race, but some savvy advertisers have learned to get good results through more subtle keyword buys, including the noteworthy "large animal veterinarian" run used to good effect in Minnesota in 2008. Landing pages are a particularly important consideration for a Google Ad campaign, since people may be arriving from searches on many different keywords and will need to see content that connects with the ad they actually clicked on. Conversion is a multi-stage process!

Google Ads have already proven themselves in the political space, particularly as a recruiting tool. The Obama campaign for instance found that they yielded a three- or four-fold Return On Investment (occasionally as high as ten- or fifteen-fold) when measured in terms of donations received from a given signup. Campaigns have also used search ads as a electoral turnout tool, connecting voters with information about their polling places or last-minute volunteer opportunities.

Though partially supplanted by search ads, traditional online display ads ("banner ads") still have political uses, particularly when run on local media sites. As with Google campaigns, political advertisers generally focus on measuring a banner ad run's "click-through" rate, but banners also convey branding and messaging points whether they're clicked or not.

Other Online Communities

We've mostly talked about reaching public online communities so far, but campaigns can also try to reach conversations that are taking place a little more out-of-site. For instance, many people are on email lists and discussion groups, but it's likely to take some creativity to find and interact with them. One possible strategy is guest-posting, for instance approaching the administrators of the email newsletter of a union or trade association in your state or district with an article aimed at their readers. More often, though, you'll connect with less obvious online communities like these as a byproduct of your overall outreach -- your supporters will be your voice in the individual channels they use.

Getting People to Act on Your Behalf

As the experience of the Obama campaign showed, one of the most effective ways to spread a campaign's message online is to get someone else to do it -- every supporter is a potential outreach hub in his or her social universe. Campaigns may reach supporters through a social network or Twitter, but they usually ask for help by sending them an email with a specific request, making the CRM a surprisingly useful outreach tool. For instance, campaigns can ask supporters to:

  • Recruit new list members
  • Spread the word about a fundraising push
  • Promote a YouTube clip or blog post
  • Post content to MySpace or Facebook, turning their profile into a "virtual yard sign"
  • Link to the campaign from Twitter or their personal blogs
  • Attend real-world events (rallies, house parties) and invite their friends and family

Campaigns can make the process easy by preparing banners, badges, buttons, videos and other content that fans can post on their own pages. And as we'll discuss in much more detail in the next chapter, every action a supporter takes helps to create an emotional connection with the campaign, influencing his or her likelihood to volunteer or to donate in the future. With that, let's move on to the part of this guide that political professionals have been waiting for -- online fundraising and mobilization.

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