Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

What Advocacy Campaigns Can Learn From the 2012 Presidential Race

BY Shayna Englin | Friday, November 16 2012

Shayna Englin is chief advocacy officer for Fission Strategy. She spoke last June at Personal Democracy Forum on "The Advocacy Gap."
BackChannel an ongoing series of guest posts from practitioners and close observers at the intersection of technology and politics that, taken in aggregate, form a running conversation about the future of campaigns and government.

The presidential campaign of 2012 holds potentially game-changing lessons for advocacy organizations, even those without billion-dollar budgets, massive data analytics, or dream teams of behavioral scientists.

Develop laser-like focus on a goal

While the quants, models, and number-crunching magic at the center of the Obama campaign’s fundraising and targeting juggernauts are rapidly gaining mythical status, the real story for advocates is the campaign’s exceptional dedication to the end game.

To oversimplify: Obama for America was trying to maximize dollars raised over a limited period of time to fund media and organizing in a set of states and among a set of voters prioritized for their prospects of delivering 270+ electoral votes.

All of the data analysis in the world isn’t helpful without such a specifically delineated path to victory and understanding of the goal. In fact, so much data can lead to analysis paralysis without a highly honed way to use it.

Electoral campaigns have the luxuries of a solid end-point, a clear-cut win or loss, and a distinct apparatus (the party committees) intended to sustain movement-building between campaigns.

Advocacy campaigns are generally run out of organizations with sometimes competing missions: build and sustain a movement while funding and running a campaign to win.

The lesson from Obama 2012 for advocacy campaigners: when both winning and building are goals, decide which is the most important one. Would you sacrifice winning if what was necessary to do so got in the way of movement building? How about vice versa? If you don't know, you can't be smart about what data to use and how to use it.

Don’t be afraid to compartmentalize a bit

Among the “technorati” I know, there are rumblings that the Obama campaign’s online communications were a little lackluster this year, focused on churn and burn rather than true engagement. From what I have seen, OFA’s online program may indeed have been more donor-as-highly-calibrated-ATM-like than it was in 2008, but OFA on-the-ground was truly spectacular.

I know an organizer in a swing state that was authorized a budget for on-site foot massages for canvassers who were out for 6 or more hours in a day for GOTV. Foot massages. It's not possible to get further from "churn and burn" than that.

So, online donors were treated as ATMs (and based on the numbers, gladly so at least for the timeframe of the campaign) and their productivity was maximized with data. Simplifying again, If a fundraising tactic didn't work to drive donations, the campaign stopped doing it. If a tactic worked, opportunities were sought out to replicate it.

On the field side, the data showed clearly that the more personal and local the connection the more productive the volunteer contacts. So we can surmise that data was used to drive funding decisions that maximized "personal and local" in organizing.

I am as big a proponent of engagement organizing and thoughtfulness around engagement ladders (and pyramids and other engagement metaphors) as anyone, but I think a lesson learned from Obama 2012 is that it’s okay to find places where deep engagement isn’t the most effective principle.

Sometimes, donors will only ever be donors and not even that forever. It’s OK to compartmentalize and use what data you have to maximize their productivity as donors. Not everyone eventually needs to be an organizer or even a bundler (possibly the fundraising equivalent of an organizer?).

Commit to data, measurement, and rational decision-making

For a very long time, the grizzled stalwart who knew those precincts like the back of his hand and/or the whiz who has a special insight into messaging, targeting, or strategy has held sway in campaigns. That era of “guru supremacy” is coming to an end.

Just as no serious online communications campaign skips testing subject lines now and then, pretty soon no serious campaign will make decisions about all sorts of things without first doing some testing and certainly without some analysis of past performance. Data rather than good hunches is increasingly going to carry the day.

Whether your campaign has an 18 month timeline or an 18 year timeline, the new age of campaign data has important implications.

Know who’s on your list, what motivates them, and what they need from you to act. The Obama campaign did that through extensive data mining, constant testing, and modeling from expansive combined data sets.

Most advocacy organizations can’t do all of that, but with surveys (in-house or through tools like the RAP Index [profiled here for Personal Democracy Plus subscribers], testing and analytics tools built into every major CRM, and a basic commitment to learning from the Obama campaign’s maestro to “measure everything” and measuring as much as you can afford to, many advocacy campaigns could do a lot more than they do.

The timeframe for acting on measurement and analysis may be long or short, but in either case data can only help.

The Obama campaign won, so we’re talking a lot about what they did right. It should be noted that the Romney campaign tried and failed to do some of the same things. In Project Orca, the Romney campaign attempted a first-of-its-kind real-time data gathering machine for GOTV. It didn’t work, but that both campaigns made major investments in data is evidence of the trend.

Take it from this guru, the future is in data driving toward decisions that deliver on goals.

Shayna Englin is chief advocacy officer for Fission Strategy. She spoke last June at Personal Democracy Forum on "The Advocacy Gap."

News Briefs

RSS Feed today >

Another Co-Opted Hashtag: #MustSeeIran

The Twitter hashtag #MustSeeIran was created to showcase Iran's architecture, landscapes, and would-be tourist destinations. It was then co-opted by activists to bring attention to human rights abuses and infringements. Now Twitter is home to two starkly different portraits of a country. GO

At NETmundial Brazil: Is "Multistakeholderism" Good for the Internet?

Today and tomorrow Brazil is hosting NETmundial, a global multi-stakeholder meeting on the future of Internet governance. GO

Brazilian President Signs Internet Bill of Rights Into Law at NetMundial

Earlier today Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff sanctioned Marco Civil, also called the Internet bill of rights, during the global Internet governance event, NetMundial, in Brazil.

GO

tuesday >

Ruck.us Reboots As a Candidate Digital Toolkit That's a Bit Too Like Democracy.com

Ruck.us launched with big ambitions and star appeal, hoping to crack the code on how to get millions of people to pool their political passions through their platform. When that ambition stalled, its founder Nathan Daschle--son of the former Senator--decided to pivot to offering political candidates an easy-to-use free web platform for organizing and fundraising. Now the new Ruck.us is out from stealth mode, entering a field already being served by competitors like NationBuilder, Salsa Labs and Democracy.com. And strangely enough, Ruck.us seems to want its early users to ask Democracy.com for help. GO

Armenian Legislators: You Can Be As Anonymous on the 'Net As You Like—Until You Can't

A proposed bill in Armenia would make it illegal for media outlets to include defamatory remarks by anonymous or fake sources, and require sites to remove libelous comments within 12 hours unless they identify the author.

GO

monday >

The Good Wife Looks for the Next Snowden and Outwits the NSA

Even as the real Edward Snowden faces questions over his motives in Russia, another side of his legacy played out for the over nine million viewers of last night's The Good Wife, which concluded its season long storyline exploring NSA surveillance. In the episode titled All Tapped Out, one young NSA worker's legal concerns lead him to becoming a whistle-blower, setting off a chain of events that allows the main character, lawyer Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), and her husband, Illinois Governor Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), to turn the tables on the NSA using its own methods. GO

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

Last week billionaire businessman Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce company Alibaba, appealed to his “500 million-strong army” of consumers to help monitor water quality in China. Inexpensive testing kits sold through his company can be used to measure pH, phosphates, ammonia, and heavy metal levels, and then the data can be uploaded via smartphone to the environmental monitoring site Danger Maps. Although the initiative will push the Chinese authorities' tolerance for civic engagement and activism, Ethan Zuckerman has high hopes for “monitorial citizenship” in China.

GO

The 13 Worst Bits of Russia's Current and Maybe Future Internet Legislation

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.

GO

Transparency and Public Shaming: Pakistan Tackles Tax Evasion

In Pakistan, where only one in 200 citizens files their income tax return, authorities published a directory of taxpayers' details for the first time. Officials explained the decision as an attempt to shame defaulters into paying up.

GO

More