The following is an excerpt from “How to Use the Internet to Change the World – and Win Elections” by C&E contributor Colin Delany. Download the 2019 edition at Epolitics.com/winning or in the Amazon.com Kindle store.
"Amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics" — it's an old military adage, but it applies to the world of digital politics as well. The tools are only as good as the human systems that put them to work!
As we've seen, a modern online campaign gets intricate fast. At the very least, most campaigns will need to create a website, administer a supporter list via CRM, create a Facebook Page and Twitter account, run digital ads, post videos to YouTube and Facebook, connect with bloggers and other online activists, and create the infrastructure to raise money online.
Those are just the tools — to put them to work, the campaign will need an email strategy, a recruitment strategy, a social media strategy, a grassroots strategy (likely including a mobile component), an advertising strategy, a fundraising strategy, a cybersecurity strategy and last but never least, a turnout operation to actually get people to the polls. And that's pretty much the minimum, at least for a congressional or statewide race. Whew!
Staff vs. Consultants
So who should do the work, campaign staff or consultants? I don't know too many experienced digital campaigners who would argue that a campaign should outsource its entire online operation if it has a choice — unless the people saying it are consultants and their own bread and butter depends on it. The internet has become such a central part of how we communicate with each other that it's pretty much essential to have the online staff fully integrated into a campaign.
Remote consultants simply can't have the same feel for local conditions as someone embedded in the campaign. Someone working out of an office in DC isn't interacting day to day with actual people who'll cast real ballots in your district, and he or she isn't seeing the candidate up close. This factor matters particularly for social media since people can smell insincerity a mile away on Facebook — whenever possible, keep the day-to-day content-posting close to home. [For a very different take on the role of consultants, BTW, see this 2015 article by Josh Koster.]
In fact, talented friends of mine in the field argue that a campaign's FIRST hire should be a digital director, supplemented as needed by a big-donor fundraiser — because what the digital team does is effectively the backbone for the rest of the campaign. Of course, if you're a small campaign, your digital team, strategy team, field team and media team may all be the same person!
It DOES often make sense to outsource tasks that require particular technical skills or specialized knowledge. Digital advertising is a good example since even Google and Facebook ad campaigns benefit from extensive experimentation with keywords and demographics, something that's difficult to do well if you're learning on the fly. Campaign websites are another area that consultants usually handle, though perhaps less so as more campaigns use integrated systems that provide both mass email and a pre-built basic site.
I've also heard good arguments for the idea that campaigns should hire consultants to help with the campaign's core online strategies, from social media to fundraising, even if their own staff may be operating these channels day to day. For one thing, consultants are typically working with many different clients, giving them a broader perspective. They can apply lessons from each one to all the others. Also, a consulting shop will usually have staff specializing in different aspects of online campaigning — a video expert, email fundraising experts, etc.
But campaigns shouldn't treat even the best consultants as "black boxes": don't just pour in cash and hope for results. Instead, work closely with your outside experts to get the most out of every dollar you spend.
Where does a digital team fit?
Where should the digital staff "live" inside a campaign? If you could ask the Obama operation, the most successful internet political machine to date, they'd say that the online team should be at the leadership table and equal with field, fundraising, communications, IT, etc. It should be an entity of its own, not stuck under the tech director and hidden in a basement somewhere. At the same time, digital staff should also be integrated with the rest of the campaign, working closely with their peers on other teams. Separate, but integrated!
For an example of why I once heard an online advertising consultant for a top-level 2008 Republican presidential campaign talk about how he could see trends in the political environment days in advance by looking at how different Google ad variants performed. But because he was functionally off in a silo and not interacting regularly with the rest of the staff, they could rarely take advantage of the trends he saw.
Trump 2016 took digital integration even farther than Obama: campaign digital director Brad Parscale functionally ran Trump's entire outreach strategy in the last couple of months of the race, including TV advertising. Not surprisingly, Trump put a bigger percentage of his budget into digital than any top-level campaign we've seen to date. Should the president run again in 2020, Parscale has already been tapped to be overall campaign manager.
By 2019, Democratic campaigns and organizations were following Trump's lead. SuperPAC Priorities USA placed a digital staffer in charge of ALL paid media, including television, and presidential campaigns were similarly elevating digital and data experts to high positions. One advantage of drawing from the digital pool? A more diverse universe of talent to tap: internet- and field-focused teams tend to look more like America (at least on the left) than the largely white and male universe of media buyers and pollsters.
Of course, we're talking about campaigns of a certain size — someone running for mayor in a small town may not have staff at all, just family and volunteers. But serious congressional candidates and many people running at the state and local level should do their best to hire dedicated digital talent if they're going to take full advantage of the opportunities the internet offers.
Regardless of who does the actual work, it doesn't make sense for a modern campaign to launch without a basic digital foundation in place, starting with a website, CRM and search advertising. Why announce without a way to leverage that initial burst of attention? Why hold even the very first events without a way to sign people up and keep track of them? Why let voters, bloggers, journalists and activists hear your candidate's name without a way to find him or her online? A missed connection equals a missed vote — or a missed donation.
A dozen years ago, as we discussed in the earlier chapter on essential technology, most online campaigns were minimal or hodgepodge affairs. The websites were usually custom creations, done by a random vendor or by someone's nephew, and CRM systems were in their infancy. As was online fundraising — the masses had yet to become comfortable giving up their credit cards to the internet demons.
Nowadays, many state- and local-level campaigns still piece together an online presence, perhaps combining an email system like MailChimp with a website built by their media consultants or a local firm. But candidates can also choose from an array of tailored professional offerings since most online consulting firms offer their clients websites, CRMs and similar technologies as a package. For more, see the chapter on Tools and Technology, which goes into detail about choosing vendors.
A word to the wise: it very rarely makes sense to have custom technology developed to perform standard tasks, unless your name is Barack Obama. Newt Gingrich's $800,000 website/CRM combo from 2012? He could have bought the same capabilities off the shelf for next to nothing, and likely paid a few thousand dollars for configuration and customization. So much for running on a message of fiscal prudence.
Be sure to talk with your digital consultants about cybersecurity! With "phishing" attacks against 2018 candidates commonplace, no campaign can take the prospect of being hacked or attacked lightly. If your consultant doesn't treat the prospect seriously, find one who will.
A big question: how much should campaigns spend online? In past cycles, most campaigns spent relatively little, perhaps a percent or two of their overall budget. Even the Obama campaign's 2008 online spending was a tiny fraction of what he invested in TV ads. This situation is finally changing — by 2010, many campaigns were starting to allocate 10 percent of their total spending to online channels, particularly advertising. In 2016, a comparable number was 15-25 percent, again with the biggest chunk going to pay for ads. Something that should scare Democrats: Republicans VASTLY outspent their opponents when it came to digital advertising in 2016. Will that trend hold in 2020?
Still, even most digital Republicans (Trump excepted) lag behind corporate marketers! Many commercial brands now put 30-50 percent of the promotional budgets into social media, digital advertising and other online channels. When will campaigns catch up?
In your case, hard numbers will vary depending on the specifics of your race. TV ads are usually still the best way to reach uncommitted voters (though not always — what if you're running in a small district buried in a big media market?), but the internet builds connections that can be tapped again and again, making the two hard to compare. Plus, costs aren't always costs, since an online fundraising program can pay for itself (as the Obama campaign proved), and many campaigns have found the Return On Investment from targeted online advertising to be surprisingly high.
Rather than thinking of "online" as its own separate world, smaller campaigns should follow Obama's and Trump’s examples and integrate the internet more broadly into their operations. For instance, traditional media relations and blogger relations require most of the same skills and employ many of the same tactics. So even if resources aren't available for a standalone blog team, the press folks could include bloggers and Twitterers in their outreach portfolio. On other fronts, campaign's media consultant can produce online video clips, though they'll have to adapt to a very different world than that of campaign commercials. Likewise, field organizers can embrace Facebook, Twitter and individual text messages.
As media habits change, political marketers should think less about spending on particular channels and more about the voters they're trying to reach. How do THEY consume media? In your area, what percentage have "cut the cord" and watch all their "television" online?
How many are on cable or satellite and ignore traditional broadcast channels? How many voters are ACTUALLY watching the local evening news? The more you understand how your particular slice of the electorate consumes information, the better you'll be able to allocate your advertising and other dollars between TV and digital channels.
In some ways, more important than the resources devoted to online outreach is WHEN they're employed, since list-building and much of the rest of online outreach are incremental and reward an early start. For instance, even if the campaign has yet to pick a full-fledged CRM, it should still collect names and email addresses whenever possible. The candidate can always bring a laptop/iPad and a staffer or volunteer to real-world events!
For a small or even solo campaign, aggressive online activism may not take up too much time. Once the website is created and the CRM configured, social media channels like Facebook take only minutes to set up, and even buying Google Ads can be relatively straightforward if you're not trying many keyword/content combos. Paid Facebook promotion usually just takes the push of a button (and a credit card – cha-ching!).
Since an active campaign should be creating a constant stream of content in the form of announcements, press releases, videos, photos, position papers, etc., the main time commitment (beyond direct outreach to online influentials) is usually keeping the various channels fed, egos massaged and incoming messages answered. Of course, we're talking about the bare minimum — real engagement will take time.
If you're a small campaign with a single staffer, try to spend at least eight hours planning and executing your online-specific strategy per week, particularly at the beginning, remembering that those early hours can be far more valuable than time spent right before the election.
In any case, keeping up with a campaign's internet presence needs to be someone's defined responsibility, since otherwise, it tends to fall through the inevitable cracks. Obviously, as we move up the scale campaigns should devote more resources to online outreach, particularly to the process of turning passive followers into active donors and volunteers. Still, in 2016 it was rare for even a statewide campaign to have more than one or two dedicated digital staffers, though that situation is likely to change in the years to come.
Stay on Target
Regardless of their size, campaigns will constantly be buffeted by outside events. But even as you dodge the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, take care to keep the steady process of building a supporter base on track, no matter how many day-to-day crises scream for attention.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning website Epolitics.com, author of the new 2019 edition of “How to Use the Internet to Change the World – and Win Elections,” a twenty-two-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at email@example.com.