Introduction: How Campaigns Can Use the Internet to Win in 2012

April 4th, 2012

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Hell of a political year, eh? The president, 33 Senators, all 435 House members, scores of statewide officeholders and thousands of state legislators, mayors, city councilmembers, etc, all up for election. The presidential race will dominate the year, of course, and many congressional, state and local races will turn on the outcome of the battle between President Obama and the Republican nominee in the Fall.

Still, plenty of elections will buck the national trends, hinging on local issues and local personalities. Plus we’ll have the primaries, which for many offices are the only elections that matter. Fifteen years ago, the upcoming campaigns would have been dominated by TV ads to the exclusion of most other political tools, but this is 2012 and the world has changed. From Egypt to Wisconsin, the internet has become a key political battleground, and smart campaigns at all levels — presidential to dog-catcher — will be thinking about how to integrate digital tools into essentially all aspects of their operations.

Here are some of the most important ares to consider:

Fundraising

As now-President Obama’s 2008 campaign showed, an online army can be a powerful source of funds — he raised close to over half a billion dollars online, two-thirds of it directly from someone clicking the “donate” button in a campaign email. The need to build a base of repeat online donors will be a prime motivation behind many campaigns’ online work.

Recruiting

Guess what: most of us use the internet in some way, whether on a computer or a cell phone, and online tools from advertising to social media outreach can be great ways to connect with donors, volunteers and voters. Even when supporters meet the campaign in person at a rally or house party, email and social media can help you stay in touch with them and start them on the path to becoming donors and volunteers.

Mobilization

Online tools are great at helping campaigns give people things to do on their behalf. Supporters can canvass their neighbors, recruit friends on Facebook or via email, participate in “virtual phone-banks,” vote on slogans or video ads, and even speak in public on the campaign’s behalf, whether on a blog or at an event — all organized digitally.

Grassroots Organizing

Digital tools — particularly mobile ones — are likely to catch on in the world of grassroots organizing in a big way in 2012. Ipads will be everywhere, sometimes strapped on like a catcher’s mitt, and campaigns will use them and other tablets to ease the process of signing people up at live events. Mobile apps and mobile-optimized websites will provide maps, directions, videos and talking points to canvassers along with street addresses. Also, look for the first significant uses of mobile card-readers to process credit card donations on-the-spot via mobile phones — the Obama campaign is apparently planning to give them a try.

Messaging

Digital channels are vital to spreading a campaign’s messaging in a modern media environment, with Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Google and a plethora of blogs and news websites all potential propaganda outlets. Campaigns will frequently use advertising and their own and their supporters’ social media channels to target particular audiences with messages designed to appeal to them. Campaigns will also reach out directly to reporters, bloggers and online activists behind the scenes. Smart campaigns will employ an integrated mix of paid, social and pitched approaches to influence the online conversation.

Besides distributing messages, campaigns will use the ‘net to test them. Online advertising in particular lends itself to the testing of positions, slogans and taglines: a campaign can run clusters of ads on Facebook and Google, for instance, to see which resonate with voters (i.e., which yield clicks, donors and/or volunteers). Sending different variants of an email message to your list and measuring the responses is another way to test messages before going all-in.

Targeting

Top-level presidential candidates seem to get media attention every time they open their mouths, but the problem for state and local campaigns is more often to get noticed at all. In races with limited resources and little press coverage, the inherent ability to target most online outreach at low cost can help stretch a tight budget.

In a densely populated urban or suburban area, for instance, broadcast TV advertising is impractical for many campaigns because too many spots will be wasted on viewers outside district lines. Plus, in a hot political year, many local TV markets will simply be saturated! In that case, (relatively) cheap Google and Facebook ads can work alongside targeted cable TV spots to spread messages and help find supporters, donors and volunteers in a defined geographic area and even among a defined set of voters (previous Republican primary voters, women over 50, etc).

Rapid Response

Finally, campaigns will use the ‘net to push back against attacks and unfavorable coverage, using its abilty to go around traditional gatekeepers (like journalists) to reach voters and influencers directly. Fast and effective response tools include online ads (particularly Google/search ads on queries related to the story), YouTube videos, blog posts and social media messaging, and of course an old-fashioned email to supporters asking them to help.

To get started, let’s look at the essential online infrastructure most campaigns will need to build. Then, we’ll put the tools to use.

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