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Winning Online in 2010: Tools, Time and Resources

BY Colin Delany | Tuesday, September 29 2009

Part Two of How Candidates Can Use the Internet to Win in 2010. Cross-posted from Epolitics.com

Online politics may look new, but most of what a campaign does over the internet is really just a reincarnation of some classic political act. For instance, think of a website as the electronic version of a storefront office, while the process of working with bloggers is a lot like old-school print or broadcast media relations.

But compared with traditional political tools, the internet truly excels at maintaining relationships with many people at once. Channels like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and in particular email connect campaigns directly with their donors and volunteers, providing a means to distribute news, messaging points, event invitations and appeals for time and money. With planning and effort, the connection can go both ways, letting a campaign actively tap the social connections and even the creativity of its supporters.

Political professionals trained in the broadcast era often have trouble adapting to the back-and-forth nature of online communications (TV ads aren't exactly interactive), but the rewards for embracing it can be tremendous. As Barack Obama showed in 2008, campaigns that actively engage their supporters can ask an immense amount from them in return.

The Basic Tools

Despite the difference in size between a national and a local race, most campaigns will still end up with the same three basic online elements:

  • A central hub, usually a website.
  • A way to stay in touch with supporters, usually through an email-based Constituent Relations Management System but potentially including Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and text messaging.
  • Online outreach, to influence the wider public discussion and recruit new supporters and donors.

Let's look at each piece in detail, with websites and CRMs covered below and online outreach a bit later.

Website

Except in the rare case that Facebook page or MySpace profile will do, just about every campaign needs a website if they intend to use the internet at all. A campaign website's primary goal is almost always to help build a supporter database, so no visitor should leave without an opportunity to join up -- a site shouldn't miss an opportunity to turn a moment of online enthusiasm into the potential for real-world action.

When it comes to conversion, content is key -- voters, bloggers and journalists alike will be looking for substance -- though looks do matter, since a well-designed site can help make a good first impression. On its website, a campaign can present its case in the strongest possible way, telling the candidate's story through words, photos and video. Integration helps, since the website benefits when it's used to aggregate, organize and feature content from YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, blogs and the various other facets of a campaign's online presence, making it a true outreach hub.

Completing the connection, every scattered piece of the campaign's online content should refer back to the main website -- people shouldn't be able to encounter the campaign online without also finding a way to get involved. Online content is more than just a persuader, since it attracts visitors via Google and the sites such as YouTube and Facebook on which it's hosted. Of course, even the best content is useless if it's hard to find or consume, so a campaign website needs to have a straightforward navigation scheme, with information clearly labeled and broken into digestible chunks.

Once supporters have given in and surrendered their information, they're in the hands of a campaign's CRM system, which is usually a web-based tool rather than a piece of software residing on the staff's own computers.

Constituent Relations Management

A typical CRM system combines a database and a mass-email program to automate the basics of communicating with supporters over the internet. While individual platforms vary in cost and capabilities, just about any CRM is an improvement over, for example, hand-entering supporter information into Excel and mail-merging the results into Outlook. By employing standard web-based forms, CRMs ease the process of joining, leaving or interacting with a list, while on the back-end they allow list managers to send messages to some or all members at once and usually at no incremental cost (fees are typically based on features and list-size rather than usage).

Most CRMs can also break a list into chunks based on its members' location, demographics or past behavior such as donation history. While campaigns can use this list segmentation to target messages at people deemed likely to respond to them, it's also ideal for testing -- for instance, trying out different strategies on small parts of a list before rolling them out widely. The more information a campaign asks for, the more it has to work with: for the Obama campaign, the neighborhood-level information that came back up the chain from volunteers was at times more accurate than polling data.

CRMs designed for candidates typically have an integrated online fundraising system, and can also include more advanced modules that allow supporters to organize events, run personal fundraising efforts and download lists of neighbors to visit or phone numbers to call. Regardless of their level of sophistication, most CRMs use mass email as their primary weapon. though some have begun to include social networking messaging options.

Why email? Despite the hype about Twitter and Facebook, it's still the most effective tool to raise money, motivate volunteers and keep supporters engaged -- for example, roughly two-thirds of the $500 million that Barack Obama raised online came directly from someone clicking on a "donate now" button in an email message. Email reaches many people who still haven't joined the social web, for one thing, but it's also turned out in practice to have much higher response rates than other channels, often by a factor of ten or more. Email remains the "killer app" of online politics, despite constant predictions of its demise.

Not that we're talking about spam! Campaigns should use mass email only to communicate with people who have "opted-in" to their list by signing up online or at an in-person event. Except for targeted outreach messages to bloggers, journalists and activists, email messages should serve as a relationship-management tool, not as a recruiting tool (though every respectable CRM can include "tell-a-friend" links to help messages spread from person to person).

As for staying in touch with supporters via text messaging, it's been the "next big thing" in online politics for several years now -- and it still is. Most CRMs can collect cell numbers, but so far relatively few campaigns in this country have been able to put them to use, in part because of constraints built into the U.S. telecom system. Text messaging will no doubt be a good fit for certain campaigns in 2010, but it's likely to remain more of a niche application for now.

Website/CRM Vendors

Ten years ago, most online campaigns were minimal or hodge-podge affairs. The websites were usually custom creations, done by a random vendor or by someone's nephew, and that was just about all candidates had at their disposal. Some CRM systems did exist, but they were in their infancy, as was online fundraising -- the masses had yet to become comfortable giving up their credit cards to the internet.

Nowadays, many state- and local-level campaigns still piece together an online presence, perhaps combining inexpensive tools from a company like ElectionMall with a website built by their media consultants or a local firm. But candidates can also choose from an array of professional offerings tailored to their particular needs, particularly on the Democratic side, where vendors now offer integrated website/CRM/fundraising packages for just about every campaign budget, often accompanied by consulting on effective online strategy and tactics. Several hundred state-level Democratic campaigns used DLCCWeb (integrated with fundraising site ActBlue) in the 2008 cycle, for example, while others moved up the cost/hand-holding scale to systems from NGP Software or Blue State Digital.

Republican candidates don't seem to have access to quite such a wealth of choices, at least for the 2010 cycle. Consulting firms have sprung up in recent years, with newcomers like EngageDC joining stand-bys like Connell Donatelli, but the Right still seems to lack the kind of standardized technology packages now available to Democrats up and down the ballot. Their online fundraising has lagged as well, since despite its ambitions a service like SlateCard still can't match the reach of an ActBlue. Republicans are more often forced to cobble together their online presences, a process that can lead to technology that's less easy to use (and hence less effective) than an integrated system.

[The Left seems to have jumped ahead in the race for packaged, scalable campaign software over the past few years in part because of the example of the Dean and Kerry campaigns in 2004, but also as a result of the work of individual activists, including the founders of ActBlue and the prominent bloggers who've helped channel online donations to chosen candidates. Democrats also benefit from the growth of progressive nonprofit advocacy campaigns over the past decade: not only have advocacy groups experimented with just about every tool or tactic in the book, the existence of so many independent groups clamoring for effective technology has created a vibrant market. The technology behind DLCCWeb, for example, derives directly from a CRM developed for use by nonprofit organizations, and advocacy work supports plenty of Democratic campaign consultants in electoral off-years.]

This imbalance will not last! As usual, the tools don't care who uses them, and neither Democratic nor Republican campaigns have inherent advantages online, other than the ones they create for themselves. Soon enough, Republicans and Democrats will reach parity online.

Budget, Staff and Time

What kind of resources should a campaign put into online outreach? It's a common question, but unfortunately one without a firm answer -- TV ads are still the best way to reach uncommitted voters, but the internet builds connections that can be tapped again and again, making the two media hard to compare. Plus, costs aren't always costs, since an online fundraising program can pay for itself (as the Obama campaign proved), and many campaigns have found the Return On Investment from targeted Google Ads to be surprisingly high.

Rather than thinking of "online" as its own separate world, smaller campaigns should follow Obama's example and integrate the internet more broadly into their operations. For instance, media relations and blogger outreach require most of the same skills and employ many of the same tactics, so even if resources aren't available for a standalone blogger relations team, the press team could include bloggers and Twitterers in their outreach portfolio. A campaign's media consultant can produce online video clips, though they'll have to adapt to a very different world than that of campaign commercials, and field organizers can embrace Facebook and other social networks.

In some ways, more important than what resources are devoted to online outreach is when. For instance, list-building is incremental, rewarding an early start -- even without a CRM in place, a campaign should collect names and email addresses from the very beginning, since the candidate can always bring a laptop and a staffer or volunteer to real-world events. Unless it's flying under the radar for some reason, a campaign should generally establish an online presence as soon as possible, including a website and CRM, Facebook profile, YouTube channel, MySpace page and perhaps a Twitter feed. They should also reach out to prominent online voices early, building relationships with relevant bloggers and Twitterers just as they would with local officeholders, party activists and journalists.

For a small or even solo campaign, online activism needn't take up too much time. Once the website is created and the CRM configured, social media channels like Facebook take only minutes to set up. Even building a Google Ad campaign can be relatively straightforword! Since an active campaign should be creating a constant stream of content in the form of announcements, press releases, videos, photos, position papers, etc., the main time commitment is usually keeping the various channels fed and the incoming messages answered.

A rule of thumb? If you're a small campaign with a single staffer, try to spend 4-8 hours planning and executing your online-specific strategy per week, at least at the beginning, remembering that those early hours can be far more valuable than time spent a week out from the election. One critical consideration: keeping up with a campaign's internet presence needs to be someone's defined responsibility, since otherwise it tends to fall through the inevitable cracks. Obviously, as we move up the scale campaigns should devote more resources to online outreach, particularly to the process of turning passive followers into active donors and volunteers. Regardless of their size, campaigns will constantly be buffeted by outside events, but they should take care to keep the steady process of building a supporter base on track even as day-to-day events scream for attention.

Technology Isn't Strategy

Tools are important, but so far we've mostly skipped over the vast difference between having the technology and using it effectively. Successful campaigns will spend as much time planning activities and developing procedures as circumstances allow -- anyone can send a mass email, for instance, but getting the most out of an email list takes an actual strategy. As simple or sophisticated as a given tool is, what really matters is how you use it.

From here on out, we'll discuss exactly that: how candidates to put online technology to work in 2010, first for outreach and then for mobilization and fundraising.

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