Colin Delany April 4, 2012

Online Outreach

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This article is from an earlier ebook and is now out of date! Please check out the NEW ebook, “How to Use the Internet to Win in 2014.”

Ebook: How to Use the Internet to Win in 2014

Once a campaign has the basic technology in place, it can begin to take full advantage of the internet’s ability to deliver donors, volunteers and voters. Much of a campaign’s online outreach will take place in the very public venues of blogs, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, but politicians and staff can also reach out behind the scenes. For instance, you can send emails or Facebook messages to selected bloggers, Twitterers and other online activists, usually in the hope of creating connections that will lead to more public affirmations of support.

The variety of outreach outlets available to online communicators can be overwhelming, so let’s start with a few basic principles to help sort out the options.


Go Where The Audience Is

If you want to get the most bang for your campaign buck, go where the right people have already gathered, which in 2012 will usually mean Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other content websites — it’s usually much easier to tap into an existing community than to create one of your own.

Have a Clear Connection Back

Regardless how someone encounters a campaign online, they can’t act unless they have a way to follow up. Every element of the campaign’s online presence should link to a recruitment form, and when possible individual “landing pages” should be tied to the source. For instance, a Google Ad about a candidate’s policy on taxes should link to a page that both talks about the topic and that invites readers to join the campaign based on that particular issue.

Content Supports Outreach

An outreach campaign doesn’t have much to stand on without content, since video, words and images provide the raw material to attract notice and make the candidate’s case. Without good content (a good story, essentially), it’s hard for anyone to break through the constant online clutter — if you don’t have something to say, people aren’t too likely to listen. Another consideration: just about any campaign can also benefit from having a body of clear, topical and targeted content on published on the web in a variety of outlets, since voters, bloggers and journalists alike will be turning to Google and other search engines for basic information about races and candidates. You want to have YOUR spin on as much of what they see as you can.

Integration is Key

Ideally, the separate elements of an online outreach campaign reinforce each other. A candidate can use his or her email list to promote a new YouTube video or Facebook app, for instance, while outreach to bloggers and prominent Twitter activists can introduce the campaign to new audiences, some of whose members will go to the campaign website, join the list and become potential outreach agents themselves. Good campaigns create a “virtuous circle” in which the different individual initiatives reinforce each other. By contrast, campaigns that let the various pieces exist in isolation will likely waste resources and miss opportunities to turn voters’ passing interest into support — and money.

Online/offline integration is equally key, since much list-building takes place at real-world eventa. Don’t forget to include the website address on yard signs, car magnets, t-shirts and every other piece of collateral material possible!

Not All Your Outreach Will Be Targeted

Sometimes online outreach works best when it’s directed like a rifle at a particular target, but a good shotgun still has its place. The ease of online self-publishing has created a whole new class of “network influentials,” a category that includes national and state-level bloggers, prominent Twitterers, individual activists with large personal networks and the administrators of sizable email lists — basically, anyone with a following. Sometimes a campaign can identify and target the right individual voices intentionally, but often it can be hard to predict which story will catch which person at the right moment to break through.

The best answer seems to be a combination of targeted and untargeted outreach: online communicators can use a sharpshooting approach when appropriate, connecting personally with chosen bloggers, Twitter enthusiasts and journalists, while still blasting information out via mass email, YouTube, Tweets, Facebook updates and blog posts. The targeted approach will often give the best results, but at other times a random and potentially overlooked channel can actually turn out to be the most productive.

If You Build It, Sometimes They Will Come

Some online supporters won’t need your outreach; they’ll hit your website, Facebook Page or Twitter feed entirely on their own and without any prompting from a campaign, driven by word-of-mouth or by news in the race. After Sarah Palin’s convention acceptance speech in 2008, for instance, Barack Obama’s website saw a huge influx of cash even before his staff had time to send out an email solicitation — people who liked him didn’t care for what the Alaska governor had to say and were eager to let it be known. Consequently, it behooves a campaign to make it as easy as possible for spontaneous donors and volunteers to act, ensuring that the website’s “donate” and “sign up” buttons are prominent and that the transaction itself doesn’t have any speedbumps.

To maximize the chances of capitalizing on such “drive-by” support, as we mentioned above, a candidate will want to be visible in as many places online as possible, either via advertising or through campaign-created content. Once again, online recruitment is all about being where the potential donors are, whether it’s on Google, YouTube, Facebook, political blogs or local media sites.

More often, though, politicians won’t need an umbrella to ward off an unanticipated rain of support: they’ll have to work for for every volunteer and every cent they get.

Putting the Tools to Work

Facebook and Other Online Social Networks

Facebook has become the modern equivalent of a town square, a place where people from all walks of life can mingle and connect in a public environment. MySpace may still have political potential in some parts of the country, but Facebook has essentially blown it out of the water in the past few years, though besides Facebook, many campaigns may want to explore on niche social networks such as Black Planet as well.

Facebook pages are easy for campaigns to create, but they do require follow-on work to reach their full potential. It helps to connect aggressively with potential “friends,” perhaps starting with the candidate’s own social connections and moving on to party activists, local officials, bloggers and the members of your own supporter list (include a link to your profile pages in mass emails and people will do some of the work for you). Regular updates keep a campaign in front of supporters’ eyes, and asking people to repost your content to their own profiles will expose it to their own extended social networks.

But besides just posting links to videos and other content, campaigns are now learning to engage their social media supporters, for instance by asking questions on the Page and by participating in discussions taking place in the comments on posts. Facebook is a powerful tool to keep the campaign in front of its most committed supporters, catching their eyes day-to-day with fresh content and fresh discussion, something that works best if you’re willing to go back-and-forth with people. That way, when your email asking for time or money arrives, it’s not dropping in out of the blue — you’ve primed supporters to be ready to help.

To highlight content or brand particular initiatives, campaigns can create Facebook “tabs” that effectively function as sub-pages within their main page. Commonly, tabs might feature different issues and potential actions for people to take, and many of the CRM vendors now offer the ability to incorporate action alerts and signups into tabs. And just like individual profiles, pages also include “walls”, where most of the engagement described above actually occurs. When followers leave comments on a page’s wall and get involved in conversations amongst themselves and with campaign staff, we’re talking about a truly interactive medium.

Conversation’s great, but broadcast-style content distribution on Facebook still matters, particularly since your supporters can amplify your work by sharing it with others. Facebook has become a crucial path for videos and other pieces of creative work to spread virally. So even if you can’t always interact with people, at least post your content!

One rule of thumb in social networking outreach: move people onto your email list as quickly as possible, because email appeals have a much higher response rate than Facebook posts or MySpace messages. Not every one of your “friends” will join your list, but a campaign is likely to get more work and more donations out of the ones who do. Still, campaigns will frequently find that their most-committed supporters “hang out” on the campaign’s Facebook page whether or not they’re also on the email list. As we’ve said before, don’t think of email and Facebook as an either/or proposition — ideally, they play well together.

Twitter

The explosion of Twitter marks one of the biggest changes in the digital political landscape in the last four years — Barack Obama had all of 100,000 followers by Election Day ’08, a number that’s well above 20 million today. Though the two sites are often lumped together in the popular mind, Twitter isn’t quite a mass medium in the same way Facebook has become — it’s more of a channel to reach those “network influentials” we discussed above, since it’s particularly popular with bloggers, journalists and activists.

Functionally, Twitter is the very short equivalent of blogging, with a dash of social networking thrown in: individual Twitter messages (“tweets”) are limited to 140 characters in length, and people generally have to choose to “follow” someone’s Twitter feed in order to see their updates. As with Facebook, essentially anyone or any organization can create a Twitter feed, but in some sense Twitter lacks the reciprocal nature of a true social network — plenty of feeds have thousands of followers but follow far fewer people in return themselves (do you think that Lady Gaga really pays attention to what you say?).

One important consideration — Twitter’s a useful tool for campaigns, but its real political power may lie in what campaigns CAN’T do on it, which is to dominate the conversation. Twitter is truly a democratic medium (with a small “d”), and content and opinions spread on Twitter very often find their way onto blogs and cable news and into newspapers. Twitter helps create the sea of information in which modern campaigns swim, and whether or not they’re active on Twitter themselves, microblogging is likely to shape the political communications environment in which campaigns operate.

What to Tweet?

A common perception of Twitter is that it’s an inherently trivial medium — it’s often spoken of as a way to tell the world what you had for breakfast. But in practice, normal people who fill Twitter’s “airwaves” with self-indulgent drivel generally don’t pick up much of a following (for celebrities, that’s unfortunately NOT so true). In fact, perhaps the most common single use of Twitter is to spread links to blog posts, videos, news articles and other pieces of in-depth content, making the 140-character limit less of an issue.

In general, as in so many other parts of the online advocacy space, readers aren’t likely to pay much attention to you unless you have some kind of value to offer them. People who tweet too much trivia too often can find their followers dropping off in droves, so be sure to pay attention to the KIND of information you distribute. Not every tweet needs to be a haiku-like gem of wisdom, but it rarely hurts to think for at least a minute or two about your ultimate communications goals before messaging the world. How often people Tweet varies immensely — I have friends who’ve sent out 10 or 20 times more messages over time than I have, for instance. It really depends on what you have to say and the kind of following your campaign has.

Building a Following

Once you’ve established an initial base of content on Twitter, let’s start building that following. Unfortunately, short of being mentioned in the Twitter feed of someone famous, finding an audience typically takes time. Start by following the people you want to follow you — your staff, political activists, local bloggers, journalists, etc., since at least some of them will follow you back right away. Once they do so, you have the opportunity to reach them — and potentially, their own audiences through them.

Engaging the Community and Connecting with Prominent Voices

The most effective way to build your following over time is to actively engage the Twitter community, a process that can take several forms. The most straightforward is to use an “@reply,” in which you reference another Twitterer in your own post (i.e., “@epolitics why don’t you just shut up about this crap”). You can use @replies to hold a back-and-forth conversation with someone, plus they’re a good way to get the attention of someone with whom you’d like to connect (Twitter.com and other Twitter-management tools typically make it very easy to see who’s @replied you).

@replies also play a role in “retweeting,” which is the forwarding of someone else’s posts to your own followers. Retweets are one of the signature characteristics of the ongoing Twitter conversation, since they let people provide value to their readers without having to write new content themselves. Plus, retweeting someone more prominent than you can be a good way to come to his or her attention, particularly if you use the old-school “RT @reply” method rather than Twitter’s newer built-in retweet function (RT’ing a tweet as an @reply also lets you add a comment, another valuable feature).

Besides RT’s, the other common bit of Twitter shorthand you’ll commonly encounter is a “hashtag,” a word or abbreviation preceded by the “#” sign. Twitterers use hashtags to refer to a topic that’s being discussed by several people at once, for instance an issue, event or public figure, and people often use Twitter’s search function to follow the extended discussion around a particular tag. This tendency makes hashtags a valuable way to gain exposure to new followers and to find yourself retweeted, assuming of course that you have something interesting to say. Some websites attempt to keep track of common hashtags, but the easiest way to find the terms in general use is to use a Twitter search to note the terms actively employed in the discussion around an issue.

Engaging the Twitter community is obviously time-consuming, since you have to pay attention to what many different people are saying — you can’t participate in the conversation unless you’re actually listening. Besides hashtags, dedicated Twitter-management tools like Hootsuite and TweetDeck let you break the feeds you’re following down into various groups by their characteristics, for instance based on topics they cover, and they also tend to speed up the process of posting content vs going through Twitter.com itself. A good tool will typically allow you to pre-schedule Tweets for publishing, something that’s particularly handy if you have content that needs to go out over the weekend.

Besides public conversations, you can also “Direct Message” someone behind the scenes if you are following each other reciprocally, and I’ve known people who’ve been able to connect with a blogger or reporter via DM whom they’d never been able to reach via email.

Advanced Tactics

Twitter has given rise to an impressive array of different tactics and practices in its short time on Earth. “Live-Tweeting” an event involves covering it comprehensively as it happens, and social media-friendly conferences and seminars typically promote the use of certain hashtags to facilitate the process. Activists or groups can also pre-arrange TweetChats, which are public discussions at a particular time and around a particular hashtag. Many people pay attention to the hashtags that are “trending” on Twitter, i.e., becoming widely discussed, and the goal of a TweetChat or live-tweeting is often to either encourage a topic to trend or to ride the wave of a subject that’s moving up the popularity ladder. Finally, a Twitter interview can be an interesting way to run a one-on-one public conversation, though it practice it can feel like competitive poetry or a freestyle rap showdown — i.e., a public balancing act on a very narrow wire.

Twitter and Cell Phones

A common question about Twitter: why the 140-character limit? The answer is cell phones — Twitter is designed to be used like SMS text messages, making it one of the few online tools that’s commonly and easily used on handheld devices. Some organizers have taken advantage of this fact to use Twitter to help communicate with and ultimately rally communities in which cell phones are more common than access to the traditional internet. Others have used the Twitter/phone connection for on-the-spot coverage of rallies and other events, particularly as a means to distribute photos and videos shot with their phones. Finally, some campaigns in 2012 are using “protected” Twitter feeds — ones that can only be followed by people “approved” by the feed owner — to organize field staff and volunteers on the fly.

Advertising on Twitter

Twitter’s still new as an advertising platform, particularly compared with Google and Facebook, but political campaigns can use “promoted tweets” to put themselves in front of potential followers. This tactic can be relatively expensive, however, and many campaigns may find other channels to be more cost-effective.

More Ways to Stumble

A note of caution: electoral campaigns in particular need to be careful to distinguish between a candidate or officeholder’s Twitter feed and one updated by staff, since Twitter as a community tends to value authenticity. If Twitterers find out that a “candidate’s voice” is not actually his own, the campaign’s credibility can take a hit. Campaigns can use both approaches in a single feed if it’s clear whose voice is speaking at any given time, and can even turn a relatively rare candidate appearance on his or her own feed into an event to promote. Another consideration for electoral campaigns: some politicians have taken to Twitter like a duck to water, but the results of unfiltered Twitter-posting can be dangerous to a political reputation (plenty of room for a stupid mistake in 140 characters).

One final thing to remember: once a campaign has a Twitter feed, people will expect to be able to follow it and interact with the author(s). Don’t start a feed only to let it die of neglect.

Blogs

If social networks are the modern town halls, blogs are more like watering holes, places where the like-minded stop by for news and gossip. Campaigns often try to reach blog readers by connecting with authors behind the scenes to pitch stories and influence coverage. Note that since many (most?) bloggers have also now joined Twitter, it’s also a good venue in which to try to catch their attention.

Campaign staff can also participate in the online discussions taking place in the comments sections of most blogs, and candidates themselves can take advantage of opportunities to guest-publish or answer questions on popular or relevant sites. Finally, campaigns can consider advertising on political blogs, particularly since ads on state- or local-level blogs are often a cheap way to reach a concentrated political crowd (plus, bloggers tend to notice who’s advertising on their sites…).

Blog outreach may be more of a priority for a local candidate than a national one, since state and regional political blogs (and Twitter) provide convenient gathering places for local political activists, somewhere you can reach them without necessarily having to spend money. Like many other forms of social media outreach, blogger relations is usually cheap financially but expensive in time, a good fit for scrappy campaigns with more enthusiasm than cash.

The first step in blogger relations is research, since time spent contacting the wrong sites is wasted. Google is a great place to start — just run a search for “political blogs” and your state or region and you’ll be on your way (most bloggers actively link to others in their interest area, so finding one site can introduce you to an entire network). Campaigns can also seek out blogs that focus on a particular issue dear to the candidate’s heart, whether it’s immigration, gay marriage or science funding, hoping to pick up financial or other support from outside their immediate districts.

Should a campaign have its own blog? A blog can be a good way for a candidate to show a more personal side than a press release, but they can also consume an immense amount of time. Few campaigns not gifted with a natural writer on hand will be able to devote the resources to keep a blog up to date.

Online Advertising

Like Twitter, online advertising options have expanded exponentially over the past few years. Likewise their targetability — some vendors can even match voter databases with commercial databases to hit ONLY past voters in a given Congressional district, just one example of the ability of search advertising to reach a defined audience with the right message at the right time. Google Ads, for instance, can actually be targeted on several levels, not just by topic (“keyword”) but also geographically. (For more on digital ad targeting, see this recent Campaigns & Elections column exploring the options.)

Online advertising can be remarkably effective at volunteer/donor recruitment, so much so that many online organizers argue that recruiting ads should start running as soon as a candidate announces, so that no potential support is wasted. Besides recruiting, campaign can use digital ads to persuade voters and spread messaging. And as election day closes in, most campaigns will switch the emphasis of their online advertising to driving voter turnout.

One final consideration: how do you pay for ads? Sometimes online advertising is like television or radio, where you’re paying for a particular number of impressions (typically measured in CPM, or cost-per-thousand). With Google and Facebook ads, however, you only pay when someone clicks.

Online Advertising Channels

Display Ads

Display ads are the descendents of the banner ads that sprang up everywhere during the first dot-com boom, but the family has now expanded to include sophisticated video pieces, Flash animations, database interactions and “floating” pop-overs. Display ads remain popular for both recruiting and message-distribution, but they can present one difficulty: they often have to be tailored to the particular requirements of a given website or publisher, particularly if they include higher-end features.

Also depending on the publisher, display ads can be targeted at particular site users, particularly on sites like web portals and social networks as well as newspapers and others that collect financial, demographic and usage data on their readers. An advertiser on Washington Post web properties, for instance, can aim ads at employees of particular companies, showing them only to readers coming from the selected .com domain(s). Of course, advertisers can target by interest as well as by demographics, running ads only on special-interest sites or on special-interest sections of mass-audience and news sites.

Contextual (Google) Ads

Our second common online advertising channel deploys text ads on web pages based on the content of those pages. Google Ads are the classic example, with ads being served to a search results page based on what the person searched for. Google also sells text ads on thousands of sites across the web (including Epolitics.com), also targeted based on the content of their individual pages, and similar ad networks have sprung up as well.

Contextual ads have proven to be very effective for both commercial and political advertisers, with easy and obvious targeting based on a variety of factors including keyword and reader location. Most also feature easy testing of alternative ad message/keyword combinations and the ability to change ads and ad runs mid-stream. In practice, Google Ads have turned out to have an excellent Return On Investment when used to build fundraising lists.

To get the most out of contextual ads, testing and tracking are vital. Since ads on a particular page are arranged and emphasized based on the amount each advertiser has “bid” to purchase those keywords, a campaign may be able to reach more people for the same amount of money by advertising on more-specific queries. For instance, advertising on the word “outdoors” is likely to be expensive, since lots of different retailers, outfitters and advocacy groups will be competing for it. Advertising on “alternative fuel biodiesel,” on the other hand, may be much cheaper, and its superior targeting may also yield better results per-ad-viewed. Smart advertisers will test many different keyword/ad combinations to find the best and most cost-effective results.

Two other considerations about Google and other contextually targeted ad systems: first, if you target well, they’ll reach people at the moment when they’re potentially interested in your issues, since they’re either searching for it or they’re on a page that’s somehow related. Second, Google ads have a secondary branding effect, since they put your message in front of web searchers and readers regardless of whether they actually click on them. Some research has even shown that it’s beneficial to have a Google Ad show up on a page that also has your site in the organic Google search results — if a page contains both your ad and your link in the Google search results, more people click on your link, as if the ad somehow delivered extra visibility or credibility.

Facebook Ads

Facebook has significantly expanded its place on the online advertising playing field over the past couple of years, in part because ads on the social network can be easily targeted at people based on the interests and demographic characteristics they’ve listed in their Facebook profiles (“men aged 25-34 who like football” would be an targetable group, for instance). Unfortunately for our purposes, Facebook constantly changes its features and offerings, making it difficult to write about definitively! Websites like Mashable, AllFacebook and InsideFacebook track these changes closely, making them essential resources for people running social ad campaigns.

Though the specifics may change by the time you read this, we CAN talk about some basics. First, Facebook ads are easy to buy — anyone with a Facebook profile and a credit card can set up a campaign. Second, the creative elements are equally simple, with a small image and a few words of text, along with a “Like” button and a link to the appropriate landing page (ads can point to a Facebook page or to an outside website). Finally, up to this point at least, Facebook ads have been relatively cost-effective, with the price-per-click sometimes as low as a few tens of cents. Note that the cost is highly variable, and that at least for now, Facebook’s price structure rewards success: the higher the rate at which a particular ad run is clicked, the lower the cost moves over time. As a result, Facebook effectively rewards experimentation, and as with Google ads, Facebook advertisers frequently test many different combinations of creative elements and targeting to find the final versions on which to concentrate resources.

For inspiration, see this excellent case study of how Facebook Ads helped defeat a Florida ballot initiative in 2011. Also note that Facebook now offers “sponsored stories” and other options as alternatives to the ads described above, though they remain the most common form of advertising on the site.

Video Ads

One interesting trend for 2012 and beyond is the steady growth of opportunities to place advertising on web videos. Many YouTube clips now have a text ad overlay or are preceded by a video ad, for example, and another opportunity lies in “pre-roll” ads on the internet versions of tv shows. Sites like Hulu.com, for instance, stream thousands of programs to people across the country, and campaigns have begun placing web versions of their tv commercials at the beginning of web clips on the sites. Other opportunities exist on sites for networks or individual shows (on episodes hosted on the Daily Show’s website, for instance), and it’s likely that pre-roll video will only increase in popularity. For one thing, it’s close enough to traditional television advertising that media consultants can adapt their content to it quickly!

Blog Ads

As we discussed above, campaigns can buy advertising on blogs, either through the Blogads.com site or through other blog advertising networks. These ads are naturally targeted based on each blog’s particular niche, and ads on specialized sites such as local or regional political blogs frequently reach very influential audiences at a low relative cost. Note that very large sites like HuffingtonPost sell advertising directly, just like WashingtonPost.com and NYTimes.com.

Mobile Advertising

One new development in the 2010 election cycle was the first significant use of mobile advertising, particularly ads on the cell phone-optimized versions on websites and search engines. Because of the GPS features built into modern “smart” phones, mobile ads can be geo-targeted as well as aimed at people based on their search queries. Congressmember Michelle Bachmann reportedly bought ads aimed at people at the 2010 Minnesota State Fair, for instance, and other candidates attempted to reach people finding their polling places or even researching candidates while standing in line to vote. Mobile advertising is still very much a niche application, though that situation may change if cell phones start to dominate Americans’ internet usage as they do in some other countries.

Advertising and Message-Testing

Pollsters beware: Facebook and Google ads give campaigns the ability to test messaging without focus groups or phone-banks — while recruiting supporters in the process. For instance, a campaign might test several different messaging options around a single set of interests (as revealed by keywords), with the rates at which the different messages are clicked revealing which ones resonate and which don’t. If no one clicks on a certain headline, that’s a good sign that it’s not working!

Likewise, a campaign can define a demographic on Facebook (women over 40 who like Oprah) and target several different ads at them and see which ones they click. Which text is most effective? Which images draw the eyeballs and resulting clicks? The best part: if no one clicks on a Google or Facebook ad, you don’t pay anything.

Outreach through Other Online Communities

We’ve mostly talked about reaching public online communities so far, but campaigns can also try to reach people through internet conversations taking place a little more out-of-sight. For instance, many people participate in email lists and discussion groups, but it’s likely to take some creativity to find and interact with them. One possible strategy is guest-posting, for instance approaching the administrators of the email newsletter of a union or trade association in your state or district with an article aimed at their readers. More often, though, you’ll connect with less obvious online communities like these as a byproduct of your overall outreach — your supporters will be your voice in the individual channels they use.

All right, enough about how to recruit people. In the next two chapters, we’ll talk about putting them to work.

cpd

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