Tools and Tactics: The Basics

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Using the internet for politics may seem relatively new to some of us, but most online campaigning is a reincarnation of some classic political act in digital form. For instance, you can think of a website as the electronic version of a storefront office, while the process of working with bloggers is a lot like old-school print or broadcast media relations.

But compared with traditional political tools, the internet truly excels at maintaining relationships with many people at once. Channels like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and email connect campaigns directly with their donors and volunteers, providing easy paths to distribute news, talking points, event invitations and appeals for time and money. With planning and effort, the connection can go both ways, letting a campaign actively tap the social connections and even the creativity of its supporters.

Political professionals trained in the broadcast era can have trouble wrapping their heads around the back-and-forth nature of online communications (TV ads aren’t exactly interactive), but the rewards for embracing it can be tremendous. As Barack Obama showed in 2008, campaigns that actively engage their supporters can ask an immense amount from them in return.

The Big Picture

Before we dive into the nuts and bolts, let’s talk Big Picture for a minute. Political campaigns (unless you’re Ron Paul) exist to do one thing: win on election day. To win, campaigns to get 50% of the vote, plus one vote. Sure, a big margin is great, but elections are a zero-sum game — someone wins, someone loses, and except in very rare circumstances, there ain’t no middle ground.

To win in 2012, campaigns need to fulfill three basic functions, all of which can be done at least in part online:

  • Recruiting — forming a connection with volunteers, donors and potential voters.
  • Mobilization — getting them to do something, whether to give money, phone-bank, canvass or simply turn out and vote.
  • Messaging — getting the campaign’s political themes out to the right audiences, whether a broad audience (all voters in a district) or a narrow one (journalists, bloggers, Latinos over 40, women under 30, union members, Tea Partiers, etc.).

Everything a campaign does — everything — has a cost, even if that cost is a few minutes of a staff member or volunteer’s time. Successful campaigns will be ruthless when it comes to resources like time and money — i.e., they won’t waste them unless it’s unavoidable. So when someone says, “hey, we should be on FourSquare,” the first question a campaign manager should ask is whether or not being on FourSquare helps in any significant way with recruiting, mobilization or messaging — and ultimately, whether it’ll help the candidate win. The next question? Is being on FourSquare the most efficient and/or effective way to further that goal. If not, a campaign should question whether it’s worth the time and money.

This calculus applies to every tool and tactic we’ll discuss in this book. If it ain’t worth it, don’t do it.

Basic Structure of an Online Campaign

We’ve talked about essential tasks, now let’s talk about essential tools. Most campaigns will end up with three basic online elements:

  • A central hub, usually a website.
  • A way to stay in touch with supporters, usually involving an email-based Constituent Relations Management system but also including Facebook, Twitter and text messaging.
  • Online outreach, to influence the wider public discussion and to recruit new supporters and donors. Outreach can include a wide array of possible channels discussed in the chapters to come, including online advertising, digital video, Facebook, direct pitching to bloggers and other activists behind the scenes, Twitter and more.

Most technologies a campaign employs will fit into one of those three areas. If they don’t, see the big questions at the start of this chapter — is it worth the investment?

The Essential Tools

Next, let’s examine the basic online infrastructure most campaigns will need to build. In subsequent chapters, we’ll zoom in on the ways campaigns can put them to use. In the penultimate chapter, we’ll look at the logistics behind an online campaign, particularly when it comes to vendors, consultants and staffing. But first, the tools.


Except in the rare case that Facebook page will do, just about every campaign needs a website if it intends to use the internet at all. Besides serving as the campaign’s public front, a campaign site’s primary goal is to help build a supporter database — remember goal #1 above, recruiting. This means that no visitor to the site should leave without an opportunity to join up and turn an instant of enthusiasm into the potential for real-world action on the candidate’s behalf.

A site’s looks matter, since a well-designed layout can help make a good first impression, but most voters, bloggers and journalists alike will ultimately come to a candidate’s site for substance. When it comes to the process of converting visitors into activists, content is key, as we’ll discuss again and again in the chapters to come.

Overall, a website lets a campaign present its case in the strongest possible way, telling the candidate’s story through words, photos and video. Integrating the site with other aspects of the campaign’s online outreach is important, since the site will be stronger when it’s used to aggregate, organize and feature content from YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, blogs and the various other facets of a campaign’s online presence. Think of it as a hub around which the rest of a campaign’s outreach orbits! And, good content also serves as “Google bait,” helping a campaign’s website and other online channels rank highly in search engines.

Of course, even the best content is useless if it’s hard to find or consume, so a campaign website needs to have a straightforward navigation scheme, with information clearly labeled and broken into digestible chunks. Don’t forget those (now ubiquitous) social media “share” buttons! Make it easy for readers to share your content for you.

Completing the connection, every scattered piece of the campaign’s online content should refer back to the main website — people shouldn’t be able to encounter the campaign online (whether through Google, YouTube, a blog post or an online ad) without also finding a way to get involved. Online content doesn’t just persuade, it recruits.


Besides the main “hub” website, campaigns can use employ “microsites,” smaller sites designed to reach a particular audience, support a particular program or reinforce a particular campaign audience. One tactic: campaigns often use microsites to launch attacks on their opponents, employing a microsite partly to focus the message and partly to insulate the main site from backlash against the attack. For some recent examples, see this Campaigns & Elections piece on the role of microsites earlier in the 2012 presidential race.

Constituent Relations Management

Once supporters have signed up to help the campaign, they’re in the hands of a campaign’s CRM system, usually a web-based tool rather than software residing on the staff’s own computers.

A typical CRM system combines a database and a mass-messaging program to automate the basics of communicating with supporters over the internet. While individual platforms vary in cost and capabilities, just about any CRM is an improvement over, for example, hand-entering supporter information into Excel and mail-merging the results into Outlook. By employing standard web-based forms, CRMs ease the process of joining, leaving or interacting with a list, while on the back end they allow list managers to send messages to some or all members at once and usually at no incremental cost (fees are typically based on features and list size rather than usage).

Most CRMs can also break a list into chunks based on members’ location, demographics or past behavior (such as donation history), a capability that lets list managers target messages at people deemed likely to respond. This kind of segmentation is also ideal for testing, for instance to try out different strategies on small parts of a list before rolling them out widely. The more information a campaign requests, the more it has to work with: for the Obama campaign, the neighborhood-level data that came up the chain from volunteers was at times more accurate than polling.

CRMs designed for candidates typically incorporate an integrated online fundraising system, and can also include more advanced modules that allow supporters to organize events, run personal fundraising efforts and download lists of neighbors to visit or phone numbers to call. But regardless of their additional options, most CRMs still use mass email as their primary weapon, though some now integrate social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter.

Why the emphasis on email? Despite the hype about Twitter and Facebook in politics, email is still the most effective tool to raise money, motivate volunteers and keep supporters engaged — for example, roughly two-thirds of the $500 million that Barack Obama raised online came directly from someone clicking on a “donate now” button in an email message. Email reaches many people who still haven’t joined the social web, for one thing, but it also turns out in practice to have a much higher response rate than other channels, sometimes by a factor of ten or more (in part because you can open an email any time, but you pretty much have to be ON Facebook or Twitter when someone posts an update in order to see it). Email remains the “killer app” of online politics — particularly online fundraising — despite constant predictions of its demise.

Not that we’re talking about spam! Campaigns should use mass email only to communicate with people who have “opted-in” to their list by signing up online or at an in-person event. Except for targeted outreach messages to bloggers, journalists and activists, email messages should serve as a relationship-management tool, not as a recruiting tool (though every respectable CRM includes “tell-a-friend” links to help messages spread from person to person).

But despite email’s relatively high response rate, smart campaigns will integrate it into their overall communications with supporters — it’s not Facebook vs. email, but Facebook AND email AND Twitter AND the other channels supporters want to use. In fact, many campaigns (and advocacy organizations) are finding that their Facebook and Twitter followers also subscribe to their email lists. In practice, the social channels become places to engage with supporters consistently and over the long term, with individual emails serving spurring action at critical moments.

Social Media

Which brings us to Facebook, Twitter and the rest of the social media universe, a much more back-and-forth environment than email (or TV ads, for that matter). We’ll talk more about how to USE social channels in chapters to come, but first, does a campaign absolutely need to worry about social media? It’s hard to imagine too many races in which social media WOULDN’T play a part, to be honest — with half of the U.S. population on Facebook and most journalists, bloggers and political activists on Twitter, campaigns would be foolish to ignore the social internet.

For a start, most campaigns will need a Facebook Page, regardless of whether the candidate has a personal Facebook profile — Facebook Pages are intended for institutions rather than individuals, and they have features designed to help feed information to a fan base or a following. Note that the new Facebook Timelime layout for Pages places a premium on visual content. Most campaigns will also need a dedicated Twitter feed, and it may also make sense for individual staffers to have campaign-affiliated fields of their own, particularly if they’re trying using Twitter to influence journalists, bloggers and others involved in the ongoing public discussion.

A crucial thing to remember about social media is the “social” part! Unlike television ads, these are interactive channels, meaning that campaigns can’t simply dominate the conversation — they’ll need to listen to what others are saying. And in most cases, they’ll benefit from doing so, since social media monitoring is an excellent way to test which messages are resonating (and which aren’t) and to pick up early warning of speedbumps ahead. At the very least, campaigns will need Google Alerts to listen to when the candidate’s name is mentioned online, and many vendors offer much more sophisticated products that can analyze the many thousands of online conversations that a high-profile campaign can generate.

Online Video

Online video is a natural for most campaigns, accustomed as political professionals are to the world of television ads. In recent years, the proliferation of cheap cameras has combined with the advent of free online video hosting and widespread broadband access to make online video a far more effective proposition than before, both for attack and for defense. Video often evokes a stronger emotional reaction than text or still images alone, making it a powerful way to tell stories or make a political point, but online video isn’t television — the kinds of content that succeeds can be quite different, with authenticity and topic typically more important than polished visuals.

While campaigns often embed YouTube-hosted clips on their own websites and social networking pages, the YouTube website has also become a useful outreach channel on its own — many people now bypass Google to go directly to YouTube to look for information, making it effectively the second-most-popular search engine in the U.S. To maximize the chances of people finding their content, campaigns should carefully title, annotate and tag each YouTube clip when they upload it. They should also be sure to include a link back to their website in the clip description, and when possible “watermark” clips with the site’s URL so that it’s visible as the piece plays.

Online video can be a key way to leverage activity in the real world, creating an online/offline integration that can be quite powerful. For instance, video of a campaign rally or event — particularly if it includes one-on-one discussions with supporters, volunteers, staff or the candidate — can help people who weren’t able to attend deepen their emotional connection to the campaign. Similarly, video can help spur action, as when the video clip features a direct fundraising appeal from the candidate or from an average donor explaining why he or she decided to give. And, larger campaigns (whose staff may be spread over a state or the whole country rather than concentrated in a single district) frequently turn to video to help train volunteers or present messaging points to canvassers and phone-bankers.

The “Macaca moment” gave online video a bad reputation in some political circles after the 2006 election, with campaign professionals horrified at the thought of their clients’ every public mistake ending up as fodder for online hecklers. But YouTube actually turns out to be a good counter to embarrassing content, since a campaign can use its own videos to respond to an offending clip, or at least to push it farther down the list of search results (a tactic sometimes referred to as “flooding the zone”).

Mobile Technology

Cell phones are likely to be a key part of the future of digital politics, and later on we’ll discuss them extensively in the context of Twitter, advertising and field organizing. Smart phones in particular are likely to play a particularly big role in grassroots work in 2012.

As for staying in touch with supporters via text messages, most CRMs can collect cell numbers but so far relatively few campaigns in this country have put them to use, in part because of constraints built into the U.S. telecom system. Probably the most common use of text messaging in 2012 will be for pre-election and election-day Get-Out-The-Vote efforts, though some will also use them as a two-way tool by soliciting information from supporters through polls and such. If you’re really ambitious, you’ll use them to announce your vice presidential pick! If your campaign does decide to employ a text program, one good way to build your list is at live events, if you’ve set up the capability for people send you a short text message to sign up at that moment.

Also note that cell phones have particular high penetration and usage rates in some communities that aren’t as likely to be on the traditional internet, making them potentially an ideal tool for reaching groups like urban black and hispanic voters.

Mobile now means more than cell phones, though — iPads and other tablet computers are proliferating on campaigns (sometimes of the strap-on variety), particularly to help sign supporters up at live events. Also, we’re seeing the first signs of mobile fundraising, again particularly at events to process donations on the fly.

Other Tools

Some campaign somewhere will no doubt try just about any online tool you can think of in this political season, from FourSquare to Pinterest to those funky QR codes. But the ones above are most likely to prove essential, and anyone considering a shiny new toy should seriously look at the questions with which we started this chapter — i.e., is it worth it?

Other Tasks

Wait, what about fundraising? Or advertising? Or field organizing? These are key programs/projects for political campaigns, absolutely — but they’re more questions of procedures and tactics than of technology and infrastructure. We’ll cover them and more in the chapters to come.

Technology Isn’t Strategy

To think about it another way, tools are important, but only fools ignore the vast difference between having the technology and using it effectively. Successful campaigns spend as much time planning their activities and developing procedures as circumstances allow — they know that while anyone can send a mass email, getting the most out of an email list takes an actual strategy. As simple or sophisticated as a given tool is, what really matters is how you use it.

Next up: let’s look at online outreach, followed by mobilization and fundraising.


Written by
Colin Delany
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