This midterm election year has seen fundraising totals surge for candidates up and down the ballot. House candidates, particularly on the Democratic side, have reported enormous totals relative to past cycles, and the uptick shows little sign of slowing as campaigns sprint toward Election Day.
So how can individual campaigns take advantage of the fundraising environment as the calendar turns to fall? At a recent panel discussion hosted by C&E, digital fundraising strategists assessed what’s working in 2018 and offered some advice for campaigns looking to fortify their programs for the stretch run.
Take the time to understand what works for your list.
This may sound obvious, but in a year like 2018 it’s easy for it to get lost. The number of seats in play this cycle combined with the political environment has resulted in lots of national messaging from candidate campaigns. For Democrats, much of the focus is the fight to take back the House and take on Trump and administration policies. For Republicans, it’s the importance of keeping control of Congress and pushing for action on issues like immigration, which energize the party’s base.
But campaigns should guard against just defaulting to a national message in their fundraising or email programs, strategists warn. While special elections, and even some headline House contests, can run on national messaging and pull in millions of fundraising dollars as a result, most campaign email lists aren’t going to respond the same way.
“It matters who is on your list and how you’re growing that list,” said Tess Troha-Thompson of the Democratic firm New Blue Interactive. “The default can’t just be national messaging, because if your list isn’t national, it’s just not going to work.”
As much as some candidates and staffers like to think their race is make for break for their party, the reality is many ’18 races aren’t high-intensity, national contests. So make sure you’re investing in testing to better understand the themes and issues that drive action from supporters on your email list.
“Target, test, see what gets open rates up, and put the contribute button on the bottom so it’s part of it, but it’s not the only purpose of the email,” Troha-Thompson advised.
And remember, it’s never too late to test, particularly once more people start to tune in as Election Day nears.
Take a critical look at the balance in your email program.
How many of the emails your campaign is sending are results-oriented fundraising appeals? How many of them feature an urgent ask for small-dollar donors? How many emails are more content focused, aimed at engaging supporters on your list?
Part of getting this right is setting goals from the start and making sure there are clear lines of communication between the staffers and strategists helming your program.
“We have a big discussion up front,” said Troha-Thompson. “What’s the purpose of the email program? Are we fundraisers or are we communicators?”
Ian Hines, who heads the Republican firm Hines Digital, suggested “2-to-1” as a general rule of thumb for the ideal ratio of engagement emails to emails featuring a hard ask.
While there was general agreement that the healthiest lists prioritize building relationships, it ultimately comes down to a given client’s needs.
“I think people in our line of work have finally gotten the stomach to say ‘if it works, it works,’” said Hines. “As opposed to saying, ‘I feel a little uncomfortable sending an email like this.’”
Give supporters a clear reason to give.
One thing that's obvious this midterm year is that there’s plenty of energy to go around. That also means more campaigns and political organizations are competing for donors’ dollars.
A small-dollar donor program, stressed Troha-Thompson, is about more than just asking supporters for a small-dollar gift. It’s about giving people a clear reason to give.
“You can’t just say, ‘Give us $5 to fight back,’” she said. “In order to make it work, it has to be really clear what the transaction is and why it matters right at this moment.”
An ask crafted around a specific need allows small-dollar donors to visualize the impact their donation can have, and that’s particularly powerful in an election year that features large numbers of activists on both sides of the aisle who want to feel like they’re a part of something.
In the end, strategists at the C&E event stressed, there’s no single formula for success when it comes to small dollar, and they universally recommended a holistic approach that values a robust major dollar program in addition to a solid small dollar one.
“There are some clients that just take off: they have that passion that can invigorate people and get people excited,” said Carter Kidd, COO of Campaign Solutions. “But even they still need major donors.”