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What Dean and Kerry suggested in 2004, Barack Obama proved in 2008: an army of motivated online donor/volunteers can be a truly decisive force in politics. And with software designed to allow campaigns to tap the enthusiasm (and the wallets) of supporters both within their districts and around the country now widely available, 2012 should see an explosion of online fundraising at the state and local levels.
A campaign benefits immensely if most individual donations, even the big ones, come in online rather than as paper checks. First, money collected via credit cards is available instantly, allowing a candidate to take immediate advantage of an overnight surge of income. Plus, online donation details automatically end up in a database, simplifying accounting and reporting. By contrast, physical checks present a logistical burden, since each has to be processed individually whether it’s collected at a fundraising dinner or arrives in the mail.
As the Obama campaign found, online fundraising also lets a campaign tap the vast number of politically interested people who can’t donate hundreds or thousands of dollars at time but whose smaller donations can add up to a princely sum. Obama’s grassroots donors tended to send relatively small amounts repeatedly, which in turn shows why a small-donor list is such a valuable resource — it’s the gift that keeps on giving, quite literally. Unlike traditional big donors who often reach their quota for a given candidate with a single check, small donors can contribute again and again, providing a financial consistency that’s useful in a short campaign and priceless in a long one.
So, how does online fundraising work? Essentially, giving to a candidate is just like buying a product online — aspiring donors go to a website and enter a credit card number and the necessary personal information, then click the “donate” button. Once the transaction is processed, the money passes to the campaign’s bank account, either immediately as a single transfer or periodically as donations add up. Obviously, the easier this transaction is for users, the more likely they are to complete it. Don’t hide the “Donate” button on your website!
Depending on the details of the campaign’s Constituent Relations Management system and the extent of its integration with the fundraising system, donation details may automatically populate the same database used to track supporters and volunteers. Otherwise, staff may have to download the data and integrate it into the CRM as a separate step — something that would definitely suck. Obviously, the closer the two systems work together, the more easily a campaign can track top donors. Testing is absolutely key — successful fundraisers test which messages perform well over time, separating out when possible how well they resonate with particular demographic segments of their lists. Test, rinse, repeat — a digital fundraiser’s mantra.
Successful Email Fundraising Campaigns
Regardless of what a campaign is asking supporters to do, they’re likely asking it via email. As we’ve covered before, email remains the most effective way to stay in consistent online contact with many people at once, despite the growth of Facebook, Twitter and other social tools — and it’s the best online fundraising channel we currently have.
Of course, anyone can send an email message asking people for money, but getting the most out of a list over time takes skill, planning, good execution and testing. Let’s look at some basic principles that help maximize a list’s long-term performance:
- Emails should perpetuate core messages and goals of the campaign. A key idea: the three Ms of political email are messaging, mobilization and money.
- Emails must also do no harm — list managers must take care not to alienate people on the list.
- The more personal, informal and direct a message is, the better (usually). Messages may appear to come directly from the candidate, from staff, from prominent supporters or from individual campaign volunteers, depending on whose voice the campaign needs to amplify at that moment. Regardless of the apparent sender, authenticity is key.
- Make the ask clear and the action links easy to find.
- Targeting helps get the most out of a list. For instance, list members might receive messages with different content based on their locale, their interests, their demographics or their past pattern of actions on behalf of the campaign. A good CRM is a targeter’s friend.
- Email may start the process, but the landing page finishes it, so make sure that each message links to a donation or action page that matches the ask in the message.
- Use the email initiation sequence to start a relationship off on a good foot, sending new list members a pre-set series of messages after they sign up. The sequence might steadily “scale the ask,” encouraging newbies to move up the ladder of engagement.
- Besides scaling the ask, savvy fundraisers also tailor the ask over time, for instance soliciting different amounts based on a person’s donation history — a $10 donor might be asked to donate $20 the next time around, but someone who’d donated $150 might be safe to hit up for $200.
- Campaigns should also vary the ask — as discussed before, not every communication from the candidate or his surrogates should be about money. Some might deliver talking points, others strategy or context, while a few may be straightforwardly inspirational.
- When possible, staff should map out email narrative arcs in advance, with each message forming part of the stream while also able to stand on its own. But this approach shouldn’t preclude seizing on emotion and the moment, such as capitalizing quickly on an opponent’s mistake.
- Campaigns should also consider the “value proposition of fundraising,” being careful to portray donations as doing more than just providing abstract support. To that end, campaigns often make it very clear where money is going, for instance raising funds for a particular stated task such as running TV ads or supporting grassroots organizing in a defined area.
- Even if a campaign is overwhelmingly relying on email, content integration can be key, with online video and social networking outreach in particular serving as a powerful adjunct to email fundraising. For instance, a particular message might ask people to watch a video and spread it via Facebook, with the video itself and the landing page on which it’s hosted doing the heavy lifting of soliciting donations.
- Despite the best targeting, different emails activated different people at different times. No one message has to connect with every supporter or every voter — if you miss ‘em this week, you might get ‘em next week.
How Much is Too Much? (The Importance of Metrics and Testing)
How many messages can a campaign send to supporters before they click the “unsubscribe” button? To find out, email communications managers can monitor statistics, since modern CRMs will track when people sign up, when they drop off, which messages they open and what kind of actions they take.
Lists turn out to have their own quirks: while one could be very open to tell-a-friend or volunteer requests but not so good at giving money, another might respond in exactly the opposite way. Each mass email you staff sends provides raw data about that campaign’s specific supporters, helping to identify the kinds of appeals that work and which to avoid. Metrics and list segmentation can even assist with message development, since campaigns can try out different ideas on relatively small groups first.
Of course, as an election or other deadline approaches, managers can get away with sending many more messages than usual, since people will understand the urgency. Don’t forget to follow up after the vote, particularly if your candidate plans to run again!
Social Media Fundraising
Although email has proven in practice to be the most effective tool to raise money consistently, online fundraisers shouldn’t ignore Facebook and Twitter completely. It’s easy to post appeals to the campaign’s social channels at the same time that they’re sent over email, and even if the amounts raised aren’t likely to be high, a dollar is a dollar regardless of where it comes from. Campaigns are likely to find that Facebook and Twitter are more useful as engagement channels, however, keeping loyal supporters involved and therefore primed to respond when an email or direct mail appeal arrives.
An aspect of the 2008 Obama fundraising machine that other campaigns should consider copying is its peer-to-peer component, the personal fundraising campaigns that individual volunteers launched through their MyBarackObama.com accounts, alongside all of their other online outreach.
Supporter-driven distributed financial outreach raised a few tens of millions of dollars directly for Obama’s campaign, but perhaps more important is that it helped mine individual fundraisers’ social connections for new donors, who would then find themselves on the main email list and subject to the kinds of “encouragements” described above. Though likely less of a priority for smaller-scale campaigns, the capability to create friend-to-friend donation drives is included in many CRMs and is built in to the technology of sites like ActBlue.
Now that we’ve gone through the recruitment, mobilization and fundraising, let’s circle back to the technology itself and look at what a campaign needs to consider as it’s building a digital base of operations.