On December 1st, the New Organizing Institute and the Center for American Progress hosted a discussion among four participants in campaign 2006: Benjamin Rahn from ActBlue, Megan Matson from Mainstreet Moms Organize or Bust (a grassroots group), Tom Matzzie from MoveOn and Jessica Vanden Berg, Jim Webb’s campaign manager. Shortly after the event, I wrote up Jessica Vanden Berg’s take on how the campaign spread the Macaca story, but the participants covered a lot of topics of value to anyone doing online politics. Let’s look at the discussion point-by-point, with my comments in [brackets].
As would make sense when you’re dealing with political professionals, much of the talk focused on fundraising. The consensus: online fundraising rates are going up, with the Webb campaign receiving almost half of its funds through the Internet as a good example. Fundraising pros are even switching high-dollar donors online, often walking them through the process over the phone, which both guarantees that the donation will actually be made and also cuts back on the administrative work needed to process checks. Some additional observations:
- Ben Rahn talked about a progression in online fundraising, with the Dean campaign popularizing it in 2004, most campaigns adopting it in 2006 and with 2008 being devoted to the refinement of techniques.
- Jessica Vanden Berg brought up a point I hadn’t considered before — part of the value of having a wide base of small donors is that they can give repeatedly without running up against contribution caps. Small donors can give over and over and help keep funds flowing in consistently, but if a campaign relies only on large donors, they can hit the ceiling long before election day.
- Tom Mazzie discussed the usefulness of building monthly contributor base — donors who give a set amount every month, much like members of a public television or radio station. He also talked about the motivational power of conditional giving, in which donors are only charged if a fundraising goal is met.
- Ben Rahn mentioned an ActBlue specialty: public metrics that pit supporters of one campaign against another. Competition can be a powerful driver.
- Both Ben and Tom Matzzie talked about the promise of tools that let supporters set up their own fundraising campaigns for a candidate (or issue). This peer-to-peer fundraising helps with email list growth and increases volunteer involvement. [The ChipIn widget would be a good example.]
The panel talked a good bit about the importance of email lists and how to get the most out of them.
- Tom stressed that list members want personal connection with the top of the campaign — update emails should have a personal voice, a point that Jessica seconded. [I'll attest to her success — I received Webb emails through the summer and fall of this year, and they were consistently excellent. They generally made a fundraising ask, but it was often secondary to keeping supporters informed about the campaign's progress and motivated to help work for its success. And they were not written in an institutional voice.]
- Tom also talked about the importance of never missing a chance to get an email address [a topic talked about often on e.politics]. Ben stressed, though, that people need a reason to join your list [something that's particularly true now that so many lists are competing for the same pool of activists].
- Finally, Jessica mentioned the importance of throwing “red meat” in front of supporters to keep them motivated. [You can often use stronger language in materials going directly to supporters than in ads that will be seen by a broader audience.]
Megan Matson spent much of her time talking about a MMOB specialty — getting the most out of volunteers. She discussed the importance of building up a core of year-round activists, people who can be counted on to work on issues more than just at election time. She also stressed the need to appreciate and use volunteers’ specific talents, something that can be tough if campaign staff are too overworked to be able to pay attention to what people are good at.
Megan also discussed how front-end organizing preparation can makes it easy for volunteers to participate, which in turn can help keep them involved. For instance, if you’re trying to boost local voter registration, provide volunteers with the phone numbers for their county registar’s office so that they don’t have to look it up themselves. [This kind of simple step can really make a difference — it's very easy to drive away volunteers if they feel put-upon or underappreciated.]
Don’t Believe the Hype!
What were the most-overhyped technologies of the 2006 campaign?
- Viral marketing, accoring to Ben Rahn. Not because it doesn’t work, but that it’s incredibly difficult to pull off intentionally since it’s so difficult to predict what will catch on [again, something we’ve discussed here repeatedly]. As he put it, you can’t just throw money at viral marketing and expect it to work.
- Email fundraising, according to Tom Matzzie, because the very low response rate to each ask means that you need a very large list to have much success. Nothing replaces the personal connection of a phone call!
- Tom also mentioned Flash animation, which has perhaps been overestimated because of the success of a handful of popular sites such as JibJab.
Wrapping It Up
A couple of final observations from Tom: first, campaigns must have an “authentic value proposition” — money can’t simply buy its way in online. Second, the left may be slightly ahead of Republicans now, but he pointed to direct mail as an example of how quickly the right can catch up. Dems pioneered the use of direct mail, but the Republicans have really learned how to excel at its use [microtargeting, anyone?].
All in all, a terrific event. And they even served lunch!