This Election Cycle, The DCCC Showed Why We Pay to Build Email Lists


2016 did not go the way Democrats hoped — and not just because Trump won. Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on congressional races, the balance of power in the House shifted only slightly toward the Dems, and Republicans could take full advantage of unified control of the U.S. government for the first time since 2006.

Shaken but not stunned, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee started building for 2018 right away. Taking advantage of the energy coalescing in the Trump Resistance, the committee’s digital team launched an email acquisition campaign that paid off, literally. In a discussion at Rootscamp two weeks ago, D-trip digital director Julia Ager explained the committee spent $2.6 million to grow its grassroots donor list in the five months after Trump won the presidency. Those new supporters have given $11.5 to date, a Return On Investment of about 4.5 to one. That’s a ratio almost certain to improve, since many in that cohort will keep donating, particularly now that they’ve seen the difference it can make (see: Speaker Pelosi).

I didn’t have a chance to ask Julia about acquisition channels at Rootscamp, but big buys like this one typically go through a variety of channels, at least until the buyer has a chance to see which ones pay off best. Generally on the list:

  • Facebook advertising, particularly lead-generation ads
  • Display advertising, such as banner ads or video ads
  • Paid petitions and appeals to defined activist communities such as Care2, Democrats.com and LeftAction (StandUnited on the Right)

Savvy buyers will track the cost to acquire new activists for each channel, then compare the results with donations over a set period of time to determine the ROI to inform future campaigns. Note that paid acquisition via advertising is nothing new for campaigns: as far back as 2008, the Obama campaign saw “ridiculously high” returns on search ads. In 2018, campaigns can tap into many more sources than Obama’s team could, most of which they can data-target with high precision.

Besides list-building, the DCCC invested in capacity by bringing digital advertising expertise in-house. They could now launch large-scale ad campaigns and test strategies on their own, rather than relying entirely on consultants. For instance, the committee ran approximately $100,000 worth of GOTV ads in the 2017 Georgia special election (the Jon Ossof race), teaching them lessons that they applied in districts across the country in 2018.

The DCCC’s experience shows why we pay money to build lists: if you do it right, and you have messages that move people, you can make your original investment back many times over. Look for more lessons from Rootscamp coming soon.

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