A Chat with Isaac Salazar, New Media Director of the Maryland Democratic Party

The latest from new e.pol contributor Henri Makembe, who brings us a great perspective on internet politics from Isaac Salazar, a bona fide online political pro. Also see Henri’s well-received piece on the Martha Coakley campaign and his more recent article on Five Talents Campaign Managers Should Look For in a New Media Director. Plus, don’t forget to plan your own contribution — Henri’s work has shown the value of getting some fresh blood in around here, and we’re hungry for more.

A Chat with Isaac Salazar, New Media Director of the Maryland Democratic Party

Henri Makembe

IBI2010.org screenshot

Following the Politics Online conference, I had the opportunity to chat to with Isaac Salazar, New Media Director MD Democratic Party (@mddems). As one would expect, our conversation centered around new media. Isaac offered some insights into the state of new media in political organization at the state and local level. Unlike many in our field, he has a tempered view of of the role of the new media in the upcoming gubernatorial in Maryland (and 2010 cycle in general). In the end he recognizes that people, not technology, win elections. As he later told me, "my goal of is to get in touch with the voters".

HM: How did you get started in politics?

IS: Back in high school I was a page for the Maryland General Assembly. That experience sparked my interest. I later I got an internship working with the state legislature during college. At the time, then State Senator Chris Van Hollen was running for Congress and I was looking for a job after graduation. I decided to jump in and help during his primary campaign and the rest is history.

HM: Given your background, how did you transition to new media?

IS: In fall 2008, a lot of folks were taking note of how the Obama campaign was successfully using "web2.0" to reach their supporters. At the time, I was working for a national non-profit housing organization on affordable housing policy. We were grappling with how best to elevate affordable housing legislation and advocacy after already passing historic national housing legislation in the wake of the foreclosure crisis.

I thought that we could benefit from identifying and organizing our affordable housing grassroots supporters online for advocacy campaigns. This quickly evolved into creating a social media presence for the entire organization to promote our work, for fundraising and advocacy as well. I worked with several colleagues that had an interest in social media from various department including communications, marketing, fundraising and public policy. We developed a strategy to get buy-in from the Executives and then to implement the presence once it was approved. This involved creating objectives, goals, targets, demonstrating value, etc. The President of the organization was very open to the proposal from the beginning and we began implementing it. We developed a social media policy, formed social media team from various departments and started experimenting.

HM: How did the opportunity to become New Media director for MD Dem party come about?

IS: I was forwarded the job opening from a friend. I knew the chair of the party from a previous campaign so I reached out to them and here I am half a year later.

HM: What was the new media infrastructure when you arrived?

IS: To be honest, it was a mess. The website was in desperate need of a makeover. The CMS we were using was antequated and clunky. There were a few social media accounts that were either dormant or not very engaging. It wasn’t very easy to subscribe to our e-mails. We were using a vendor named Orchid. It was very difficult to navigate and customize on your own. You could put in ticket requests for new designs but it wasn’t as easy for the user to install new templates, etc. We weren’t using a commercial e-mail vendor…as far as I understand it was a system that was created solely for the MD Democratic Party.

HM: What are some of the changes that you’ve made since getting there? Why did you make them?

IS: As I mentioned, I took an inventory of what existed and did an analysis of what needed to be done. From there I picked some of the "low-hanging fruit." I activated our Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media channels.

I then worked with a vendor to redesign our website and started a blog. I also shopped around for vendors for a new CRM. I then set-out to craft a new media strategy. From there I started to build communities on different social media channels.

We made some of these changes because they were no-brainers. If we wanted to reach our goals of registering new voters, raising more money and reaching out to more voters, we need to modernize our systems.

HM: Are those changes paying off? If so, how?

IS: Definitely. Well, for starters, we actually have a website that doesn’t have dead links and loads properly. We have a method of obtaining e-mail addresses and other information on our website that dumps directly into our new CRM. We have a method of obtaining online contributions that is integrated into the same database as our e-mails. We have social media channels that drive traffic to a new website to obtain e-mail addresses and online contributions.

HM: Can you walk us through a day in your role?

IS: My day starts with reading through as many Maryland political blogs and news clips as I can. This usually informs whatever blog post I may be writing that day or week. I’m usually editing e-mail blasts that are scheduled to go out or drafting them for the next week.

I always have a two computer screens running. The one that’s not on my laptop is running Tweetdeck so I’m on Twitter all day. I usually have about 3 browsers open at a time (Chrome, Firefox and IE (only to test new content on the website). I also always have Facebook open just to kind of get a sense of the conversation online at any given time. I equate it to having cable news on all day.

I try to work on long term projects after normal working hours since the website, e-mail, Twitter and Facebook can pretty much consume most of my day.

HM: What is next is for New Media in the MD Dem party?

IS: We’re working on a lot of exciting things at the Maryland Democratic Party. We’re starting to build a social network for Maryland Democrats on Ning and pretty soon we’ll be launching our text campaign. We’re also exploring the development of some smart phone apps and trying to figure out how to best utilize new geolocation tools but we’re not giving anything away.

HM: How do you see new media playing the upcoming gubernatorial race?

I think new media is going to play a significant role, especially compared to the last gubernatorial election. Anyone with a smartphone has instant publishing and broadcasting capabilities today. That means the candidates messages will be amplified in real time. This obviously cuts both ways. While we’ll be able to mobilize our supporters quickly with different methods, you’ll also potentially have gaffes spread a lot quicker in real time.

HM: Are you in communication with Governor’s campaign new media team? If so, what type information are you sharing? if not, why not?

IS: I am in communication with them pretty regularly. We tend to bounce ideas of of each other a lot. Talk analytics in terms of e-mail responses, etc. We’re always looking for new ways to engage supporters and testing what works best with our respective audiences.

HM: How is the party helping other local candidates with new media?

IS: I’ve been wanting to have a series of webinars for local candidates on the basics. Similar to your 10 things every website should have presentation (AUTHOR’s Note: shameless plug – Read the blog post and listen to audio here. EDITOR’S Note: you have learned the dark arts of self-promotion well, young Jedi.). We’re working a little more closely with our county central committees to bring them up to speed with a good website, e-mail blast and contribution tools. However, I do want to make have a series of trainings for candidates so that they can know things like the difference between aFacebook profile, page and group.

HM: How do you recommend that candidates at different levels approach technology/online politics?

IS: That’s a tough question. I hate to repeat a phrase that we use in social media circles a lot but, "it depends." It should be a top priority for any campaign because it CAN help you a reach voters where otherwise you might not be able to afford the reach using traditional media channels.

I think any candidate’s top priority, regardless of level, has to be a good website. It should be the hub of any online presence because it’s the first impression voters will have of you online. If you want to be credible candidate, your site has to look professional. The good news is that there are any number of great, affordable options for the non-tech minded so there shouldn’t be any excuse for a good website. E-mail, for now, is still king, so you also need to have a good CRM. Again, there are any number of good commercial and political tools out there. The same goes for collecting donations online.

From there candidates can start exploring Facebook pages, Twitter, etc. At the end of the day, regardless of which tool they use, candidates need to approach the online world the same way they approach door-knocking. Voters want authenticity. Once they realize that, they’ll realize that there are real people online that are looking for a connection.

HM: What tools does do you think will be making a difference in 2010 cycle?

IS: I think this was touched upon briefly at the Politics Online Conference this week. Despite the vast number of people who have subscribed to campaign e-mails in the last cycle there are still millions of potential e-mails that campaigns can obtain. I think mobile campaigns will begin to mature and will become a must have. I’d love it if we could use geo-location to figure out who has voted but I don’t think we’re quite there yet.

HM: When are you ready to move on, what do you hope to have accomplished?

IS: I hope I will have left an infrastructure in place that can easily be upgraded. Data is extremely important. I’m doing my best to track our progress and analyze what works best so that the next person that takes over can build on what we’ve done. Ultimately, I hope I can build a solid community of Maryland Democrats online who are engaged and energized to continue electing Democrat in Maryland for years to come.

Isaac, best of luck with your goals modernizing the MD Dems. I, for one, will certainly keep my eye out on all the work you are doing.

Thanks Henri! — cpd

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Henri Makembe
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1 comment
  • Henri – Thanks for the article here on social media. Isaac briefly mentions strategy – 2 further areas of interest would be 1) what types of strategies can we employ as candidates or oganizations (maybe a discussion of strategic objectives) and 2) what type of goals should we be setting for social media (is it how many people are visiting the site? or how many people are providing email addresses or what??)