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“Amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics” — it’s an old military adage, but it has some truth in the world of digital politics as well. The tools are only as good as the human systems that make them work!
As we’ve seen, a modern online campaign can get intricate fast. At the very least, most campaigns will need to create a website, administer a supporter list via CRM, create a Facebook Page and Twitter account, run digital ads, post videos to YouTube, connect with bloggers and other online activists, and create the infrastructure to raise money online. Those are just the tools — to put them to work, the campaign will need an email strategy, a recruitment strategy, a social media strategy, a grassroots strategy (often including a mobile component), an advertising strategy, a fundraising strategy, and last but never least, a turnout operation to actually get people to vote. And that’s pretty much the minimum, at least for a Congressional or statewide race. Whew!
Staff vs Consultants
So who should do the work, campaign staff or consultants? I don’t know very many experienced digital campaigners who would argue that a campaign should outsource its entire online operation — unless those experienced campaigners’ are consultants and their own bread and butter happens to depend on them saying so. The internet has become such a central part of how we communicate with each other in 2012 that it’s pretty much essential to have the online staff fully integrated into a campaign. In fact, talented friends of mine in the field argue that a campaign’s FIRST hire should be a digital director, supplemented as needed by a big-donor fundraiser — because what the digital team does is effectively the backbone for the rest of the campaign.
Similarly, it doesn’t make sense for a modern campaign to launch without a basic digital foundation in place, starting with a website, CRM and search advertising. Why announce without a way to leverage that initial burst of attention? Why hold even the very first events without a way to sign people up and keep track of them? Why let voters, bloggers, journalists and activists hear your candidate’s name without a way to find him or her online? A missed connection equals a missed vote — or a missed donation.
But where should the digital staff “live” inside a campaign? If you could ask the 2008 Obama operation, the most successful internet political machine to date, they’d say that the online team should be at the leadership table and equal with field, fundraising, communications, IT, etc — it should be a entity of its own, not stuck under the tech director and hidden in a basement somewhere. At the same time, digital staff should also be integrated with the rest of the campaign, working closely with their peers on other teams. Separate, but integrated!
For an example of why, I once heard an online advertising consultant for a top-level 2008 Republican presidential campaign talk about how he could see trends in the political environment days in advance by looking at how different Google ad variants performed. But because he was functionally off in a silo and not interacting regularly with the rest of the staff, they could rarely take advantage of the trends he saw.
Of course we’re talking about campaigns of a certain size — someone running for mayor in a small town likely won’t have staff at all, just family and volunteers. But serious Congressional candidates and many people running at the state and local level will need to hire dedicated digital people if they’re going to take full advantage of the opportunities the internet offers.
But it DOES often make sense to outsource tasks that require particular technical skills or particular knowledge. Mobile strategies are a good example, since relatively few people in the business know much about the complexities of campaigning via cell phone. Digital advertising is often another, since Google and Facebook ad campaigns benefit from extensive experimentation with keywords and demographics, something that’s difficult to do well if you’re learning on the fly. But campaigns shouldn’t treat even the best consultants as “black boxes” into which to pour money in exchange for results. Instead, they should work closely with their outside experts to get the most benefit from every dollar they spend.
Ten years ago, most online campaigns were minimal or hodge-podge affairs. The websites were usually custom creations, done by a random vendor or by someone’s nephew, and CRM systems were in their infancy. As was online fundraising — the masses had yet to become comfortable giving up their credit cards to the internet demons.
Nowadays, many state- and local-level campaigns still piece together an online presence, perhaps combining an email system like MailChimp with a website built by their media consultants or a local firm. But candidates can also choose from an array of tailored professional offerings, since most online consulting firms offer their clients websites, CRMs and similar technologies as a package.
Besides proprietary technologies specific to particular consultants, campaigns can also take advantage of standardized and widely used systems. In 2008, hundreds of state-level Democratic campaigns used DLCCWeb, a website/CRM package integrated with fundraising site ActBlue, and hundreds more will do so in 2012. Campaigns on both sides can turn to NationBuilder, a relatively new integrated website/CRM package that also includes robust tracking of social media interactions.
A word to the wise: it very rarely makes sense to have custom technology developed to perform standard tasks, unless your name is Barack Obama. Newt Gingrich’s $800,000 website/CRM combo? He could have bought the same capabilities off the shelf for next to nothing and likely paid a few thousand dollars for configuration and customization. Oopsie!
A big question: how much should campaigns spend online? In past cycles, most campaigns spent relatively little, perhaps a percent or two of their overall budget. Even the Obama campaign’s 2008 online spending was a tiny fraction of what he invested in TV ads. This situation is finally changing — by 2010, many campaigns were starting to allocate 10% of their total spending to online channels, particularly advertising. Already in 2012, the Obama reelection campaign is spending more than that, though the percentage is likely to decrease once the Fall television frenzy begins.
But hard numbers will vary depending on the specifics of a race. TV ads are usually still the best way to reach uncommitted voters (though not always — what if you’re running in a small district buried in a big media market?), but the internet builds connections that can be tapped again and again, making the two hard to compare. Plus, costs aren’t always costs, since an online fundraising program can pay for itself (as the Obama campaign proved), and many campaigns have found the Return On Investment from targeted Google Ads to be surprisingly high.
Rather than thinking of “online” as its own separate world, smaller campaigns should follow Obama’s example and integrate the internet more broadly into their operations. For instance, traditional media relations and blogger relations require most of the same skills and employ many of the same tactics, so even if resources aren’t available for a standalone blog team, the press folks could include bloggers and Twitterers in their outreach portfolio. On other fronts, campaign’s media consultant can produce online video clips, though they’ll have to adapt to a very different world than that of campaign commercials, and field organizers can embrace Facebook and other social networks as well as cell phones and individual text messages.
In some ways, more important than the resources devoted to online outreach is when they’re employed, since list-building and much of the rest of online outreach are incremental and hence reward an early start. For instance, even if campaign has yet to pick a full-fledged CRM, it should still collect names and email addresses whenever possible. The candidate can always bring a laptop/iPad and a staffer or volunteer to real-world events!
For a small or even solo campaign, aggressive online activism may not take up too much time. Once the website is created and the CRM configured, social media channels like Facebook take only minutes to set up, and even buying Google Ads can be relatively straightforward if you’re not trying many keyword/content combos. Since an active campaign should be creating a constant stream of content in the form of announcements, press releases, videos, photos, position papers, etc., the main time commitment (beyond direct outreach to online influentials) is usually keeping the various channels fed, egos massaged and incoming messages answered. Of course, we’re talking about the bare minimum — real engagement will take time.
If you’re a small campaign with a single staffer, try to spend at least 8 hours planning and executing your online-specific strategy per week, particularly at the beginning, remembering that those early hours can be far more valuable than time spent right before the election.
In any case, keeping up with a campaign’s internet presence needs to be someone’s defined responsibility, since otherwise it tends to fall through the inevitable cracks. Obviously, as we move up the scale campaigns should devote more resources to online outreach, particularly to the process of turning passive followers into active donors and volunteers. Regardless of their size, campaigns will constantly be buffeted by outside events, but they should take care to keep the steady process of building a supporter base on track even as day-to-day events scream for attention.
Putting It All Together
That’s it for the essentials of internet political campaigning — not bad at all. Next, let’s pull it all together into a basic online communications plan.