Campaigns are constantly bombarded by digital consultants throwing around impressive stats and industry buzz-phrases like “the emergence of digital” and “mobile-shift” and “passive viewing” and on and on, ad nauseam.
I know this because I’m one of them.
Behind the pitches are effective tools. But rarely does a candidate actually make the effort to understand how digital translates to earned votes.
Trey Hollingsworth, winner of the GOP primary to succeed Senate nominee Todd Young in Indiana’s 9th district, is that notable exception.
So just how did a 32-year-old successful businessman, who had never run for public office, win the five-way Republican primary May 3 by more than 10,000 votes? He knocked on roughly one-in-10 GOP primary voters’ doors and blanketed their screens, Facebook pages and smartphones with advertising.
From building his Facebook presence exclusively using matched voter files and likely-voter data, utilizing the RNC’s GOP Data Center synced with the campaign’s ground ops, to segmenting audiences by demographic and geo-location for pre-roll delivery, the campaign refused to paint in broad strokes.
As a businessman, Hollingsworth inherently values return on investment and maximizing every dollar spent – particularly given that he was investing some $1.5 million of his own money into the campaign.
A robust digital effort was the perfect fit for a receptive rookie candidate. Every strategic decision came back to one thing: are we reaching the some 110,000 voters who will turnout on Election Day? The narrowly focused targeting also helped our client overcome the attack of being a political “carpetbagger,” whose opponents tried to label "Tennessee Trey” because of his roots in the Volunteer State.
To achieve this, Hollingsworth embraced innovative tactics to mirror traditional media efforts and tailor them for digital consumption and engagement. For every conventional campaign effort – from the mail plan and television ads, to making phone calls and knocking on doors – Hollingsworth adapted a targeted digital complement to maximize the impact and consistency of messaging for specific voters across multiple platforms.
As a result, many voters saw a TV ad about term limits one week, spoke with Hollingsworth on their doorstep a few days later as he personally delivered a term limits pledge, and soon after were served a pre-roll video or Facebook newsfeed ad asking them to sign his term limits pledge — a critical factor in enabling the voter to move from informed to involved.
In the closing weeks, Hollingsworth’s internal polling revealed an impressive strength among a key bloc of high-propensity Republican voters — the same voters we had consistently courted and built a solid digital foundation around since his campaign launched in October.
That allowed us an opportunity to use digital as a pivot point to aggressively and relatively cheaply expand our audience to less-frequent and newly registered voters, many of whom were showing up to cast ballots in the higher profile presidential race. As a reference point, Young ran unopposed in 2012 and received just under 60,000 votes.
Armed with precise polling information and turnout modeling, the campaign made a strategic decision to reach this expanded electorate through digital ads, which doubled down on his message of being a successful businessman, and political outsider who would shake up establishment politics-as-usual.
Maximizing the strength of compelling video to inform and persuade, the campaign sustained a nearly two-to-one spending ratio on pre-roll over display ads in the closing months — with hand-crafted audience segments using a combination of the raw voter file, i360 interest and propensity tags, and other in-platform data points.
This strategy of targeted, tailored voter communication is nothing new, but embracing the effectiveness of digital to achieve that goal is what most Republican campaigns have been lacking for some time.
And that’s what other campaigns should take away from Hollingsworth’s success. If candidates and consultants embrace a well-coordinated digital campaign, they can add a degree of certainty in an uncertain election cycle.
Smart candidates take an active role in learning how to shape the digital space. They embrace the opportunity to offer an authentic personal perspective on social media, and they aren’t afraid to directly engage with voters. And, most importantly, smart candidates step out of their comfort zone of “traditional campaigning” to employ digital tactics as a part of their overall strategy.
At the end of the day, Hollingsworth did exactly that. His digital efforts became a powerful complement to the campaign’s stellar traditional media and grassroots operations.
Andrew Gordon is director of campaigns at Go BIG Media, implementing digital strategies for candidates. He has worked a myriad of congressional and legislative races across the country.