A Quick & Dirty Guide to Digital GOTV

Where we vote

Election Day’s a week away, but you still have time to create a basic plan to employ mobile and digital tools to get out your vote.

Quick & Dirty Strategy

Let’s start with whom NOT to contact. Don’t spend time and advertising dollars to reach your volunteers, your social media followers and people on your email list for GOTV, since they’re already primed to turn out. You’ll ask them to help turn their FRIENDS out, but that’s different. Likewise, DON’T boost turnout among people likely to vote for your opponent.

The sweet spot is loyal but low-propensity voters: people likely to vote for you if they show up but who might need (in the words of NGP VAN’s Amanda Coulombe in a recent webinar) “a little push” to actually make it to the polls. For Democratic campaigns in 2018, that may mean:

  • Young voters
  • Reliable older voters (and others) who may need help getting to the polls
  • Lower-income minority voters who may work jobs that make it hard to turn out
  • Other consistent Democrats with inconsistent voting histories

Your own GOTV targets will depend on the specifics of your area or district, of course. Note that digital GOTV should always mesh with the rest of your turnout strategy — it should complement your field and other outreach.

Getting Digital

Digital tools may not have taken the place of traditional field organizing, but have definitely made it more efficient. By getting volunteers to the right houses and calling the right phones without the friction of pen and paper, online voter-data systems and canvassing apps have revolutionized the process of contacting voters directly. For today, though, we’ll focus instead on pure-digital GOTV — reaching voters online and through their mobile phones.

Your Supporters are Your Ambassadors

Though you shouldn’t need to target them for actual GOTV, your supporters can be powerful GOTV channels in themselves. Political scientists have found for decades that Americans tend to make voting decisions based on what we hear from people we trust, and your GOTV push should encourage your supporters be the person they’re listening to. Ask your followers explicitly via text, email and social media to reach out to friends and family to bring them to the polls. Likewise, encourage them to spread the word on social media, arming them with content that speaks both to them and to the people you need them to mobilize. Pro tip: if you really want people to share a Facebook post, send them an email or a text with a one-click share link.

Mobile Apps

Moving into mobile GOTV, campaigns can employ “friend-to-friend” systems like VoterCircle, which matches a priority voter list with volunteers’ individual phone contacts. Also on the mobile side, peer-to-peer texting apps get around the restrictions on blast-texting by routing the messages through volunteers’ own phones — a single volunteer can send dozens (or hundreds) of texts in an hour. Finally, various apps let volunteers join “distributed” phone banks from their couches, canvassing voters across the country via cell. Even a week out from the election, vendors would be very happy to talk with you about setting up one of these systems for your own campaign.

Digital Advertising

Until recently, campaigns had few options to spend last-minute donations. TV deadlines had likely passed, print wouldn’t have time to reach its targets, and robocalls were a common weapon of last resort. Now, campaigns have a much better outlet: targeted digital advertising.

GOTV ads can persuade, telling your campaign’s story in ways that connect with the specific audiences you’re trying to reach. They can also inform, by highlighting the date of the election (important for low-propensity voters!), linking to ridesharing information or sending people to a polling-place lookup. In either case, the goal is simple: get the right people to vote.

Social Media Ads

Facebook ads are easy for campaigns of any size to set up. Start with the content: most Facebook ads are normal Page posts (images, videos, stories), either published on your campaign Facebook Page or set up separately via Facebook’s advertising interface. Content can be anything you would normally publish on your page, including photos, videos (bonus points for casual candidate videos from the road), memes, news clips or links to features on your website. Pro tip: the more a piece of content resonates with an audience (as measured by Likes, Shares, Comments and clicks), the less you’ll pay to reach it.

To make a post into an ad, you spend money to “boost” (promote) it to a Facebook audience you select. Individual posts can be boosted for as little as $5 per day or for functionally as much as you want. You can target them at your own followers see your posts or to followers’ friends and family, but more importantly for GOTV, you can promote posts to people based on their location, demographics and many other data filters. You can’t target Facebook ads based on a voter file or (except to a limited extent) on the campaign’s own data, but they make up for lack of specificity with the ability to deliver plenty of ad impressions for relatively few dollars. Plus, they give you insight into which messages are resonating with which audiences.

Voter-File-Targeted Ads

Many political firms now sell (or more often resell) digital display ads designed to be directed at slices of the electorate. These banners and video clips follow a person, not the site he or she is looking at — they appear as ads on content websites and mobile apps of all sorts. When targeted via voter file and data models, they can deliver a variety of messages in different formats tailored for the intended recipients. Because of their connection to a voter file, a campaign can also target them based on a person’s voting history. As more people drop cable and switch off broadcast, digital video ads provide a route to GOTV targets ignoring phone calls and consuming their TV online.

Many campaigns will work through their media buyers to purchase voter-file-targeted ads in bulk, but self-serve platforms let campaign staff create them on their own. Any Democratic campaign with $500 can set up a data-targeted banner ad campaign via DemocraticAds.com, for example. Ad content would mirror the rest of the campaign’s GOTV messaging, tweaked for the specific audiences in question (working mothers aged 30-45 vs college students, for example). By synchronizing field and digital data models, a campaign can reach the same voters online that field organizers are trying to contact via volunteers — an entirely different universe than the targets of your persuasion ads.

Of course, no ad-targeting mechanism is perfect, but with the right mix of digital and real-world outreach, a campaign can maximize its chances of turning out the voters it needs without stirring up those who might favor the other side. By working friend-to-friend and peer-to-peer apps into your volunteer program, data-targeting your canvassing, putting your email list and Facebook followers to work, targeting priority voters with banners and videos and using Facebook ads to reach anyone you missed, you can’t too far wrong. Bam! Election won?

For more on using any of the tools and tactics above, check out How to Use the Internet to Change the World – and Win Elections. Or drop me a note.


Written by
Colin Delany
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