May 23rd, 2009
Cross-posted on techPresident
Update: Check out Henri Makembe’s related piece for a different angle on the topic.
Fascinating experience a few days ago — I got to do a presentation/discussion about online fundraising with a group of Democratic state-level staff, most in their 20s and 30s and most affiliated with state parties, state legislative caucuses and the like. The upshot: man, does it seem as though that world has changed since I worked for a member of the Texas Legislature in the early 1990s, and judging from this experience, we’re on the verge of a real explosion of online state-level U.S. politics.
In talking with these folks, it became obvious right away that the resources behind state-level organizations and candidates have expanded perhaps 10-fold since I was in that world, with a legislative campaign that might have cost $50,000 in my day now needing upwards of half a million dollars to be competitive — rising faster than the cost of health care! And since more money feeds more people, state-party organizations seem to have juiced up their staffs significantly over the same period.
Second, state-level staff seem eager to learn the lessons of Obama’s online fundraising, with the benefits of long-term list-building becoming obvious. Though many of the folks I spoke with were really just getting started in the online world, their questions focused on practical matters: mainly, how do we expand our fundraising, which almost always led to classic issues of list-building, list-maintenance and supporter-activation. Notably, plenty of their organizations are also already invested in blogger-relations and are including bloggers in their media outreach as a matter of course.
One thing that immediately became obvious were the differences between building a list for a party organization and for a candidate: candidates can follow the Obama model and rely at least in part on personality and charisma to attract followers, but it’s pretty hard to turn a state legislative caucus into a super-hero or a messiah. Campaigns also have the luxury of aiming for a definite end-date, which they can leverage to impose on their followers far more than an ongoing organization can usually risk. Party organizations are usually going to have focus much more on long-term list-development, and in that sense their position is more like that of a nonprofit or advocacy group than of a candidate.
Some great ideas for building supporter databases came up during the breakout discussions. For instance, besides the usual tactic of asking friendly organizations to promo your organization in their e-newsletters, people immediately warmed to the idea of developing and promo-ing content targeted to particular audiences (many already work with politicians who regularly contribute columns to political blogs). Example: education-funding issues are going to be big in the upcoming legislative session, so you prepare a column by your caucus chair and pitch it to the state teachers’ union newsletter, with of course a link back to your website.
Much of what we discussed, however, will be familiar to online communicators of any stripe:the need for websites to convert visitors into followers, the power of video to create a connection, the importance of delivering value of some kind to list members (“inside” information, emotional satisfaction, raw-meat partisanship), the usefulness of adapting content for many different channels, and the tendency of online outreach to be trench warfare more than blitzkrieg.
Looking ahead, these political staffers and their counterparts across the country seem likely to be taking up the Obama lessons in a big way in the coming years, at the very least because so many worked for, with or against his campaign in 2008. Should be fun to watch!