Our Shoptalkers: Austin James, digital director for CMDI, a Republican finance services platform; Brian Ross Adams, an online branding and social media marketing consultant; Catherine Geanuracos, CEO of New Economy Campaigns; and Ron Robinson, digital director for the National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee.
C&E: Was the Left’s four-cycle digital evolution shaped more by its organizations or campaigns?
Geanuracos: I worked for MoveOn.org in 2004-2006 and it was super data driven in terms of its commitment to testing and analytics. We randomized voters and ran real voter experiments — academic-level experiments. We learned so much so fast. It was one of the most entrepreneurial organizations I ever worked for.
Adams: National organizations like MoveOn help develop these sophisticated digital tools, but the Republicans are very sophisticated about using those tools on local, down-ballot races. They’re picking up county judge and state assembly seats across the country. One of the things that the Democrats aren’t as good at is, there’s all this knowledge about data analysis and data, but when you go to these state assembly races, and judge races or supervisor races in L.A. County, they don’t use any of it because the profit motive is behind the mail consultants who aren’t as interested in using the data to target voters.
James: To this day people respect, and in a lot of ways are jealous of what was accomplished [at MoveOn]. Because there is a desire to organize for social change on the Left there was an early adoption of technology and I think that’s what changed everything. The ideology of the Democratic institutions is, ‘We want progressive change and the only way to do that is that you have a one-to-many movement,’ and you have to go have government reflect their ideology.
Whereas on the Right, the mentality is much more, ‘Do it on your own; bootstrap it.’ It’s a one-to-one communication. You go start your own thing and work toward your own success. There isn’t a necessity to change government to move legislation. On the Right, often times we’re fighting against more legislation.
Robinson: Look at the rough time the Tea Party movement has had trying to organize and speak with one voice. A lot of grassroots conservatives are attracted to the idea of a movement but they get two steps up that ladder and they hesitate. You start seeing a lot of splintering. That’s made it tough for conservatives to organize and speak with one voice.
C&E: Has the Democrats’ digital edge plateaued?
Geanuracos: At the national level, there’s been a whole other revolution of higher-level analytics that’s less applicable to local races because you need scale; you need millions of voters for that kind of analysis to work. I know for sure the Clinton campaign is going to take that to an even higher level in 2016. The challenge on the local side is that some of these tactics just don’t scale.
James: I think it’s all coming down ballot, but there isn’t the talent, there isn’t the data and there isn’t the financial incentive.
C&E: What’s the bleeding edge for campaign tech?
Ross: Now that Facebook is integrated with the voter file [through custom audiences], you have the most powerful messaging technology ever developed. You can deliver your message over and over again. Once that gets integrated with your GOTV, you’ll have extreme upset races because the only thing that matters is who gets out and votes.
Geanuracos: You’re getting the ability to do some of that micro targeting on small races through Facebook with the voter file, but it has to be connected with a more sophisticated polling and understanding [of the electorate] than most local candidates can manage. If you know that half of American women between 40-60 think X, then you can start to message directly to them, but hardly anyone has the wherewithal to segment their small voter list to that level. That’s why MoveOn was so great: we had this volunteer labor to do this.
C&E: How did Ben Carson’s draft PAC raise some $14 million?
Robinson: Good data and a willingness to know when digital doesn’t work. We do a lot of direct mail. That still pays off because our audience responds to direct mail and we do a lot of it.
Geanuracos: Your audience will last longer in direct mail, but it’s older, it’s whiter. Where are you going to be in 15 years if you haven’t touched that younger audience? I feel like there’s a generation of consultants who are still tied to traditional methods, and it’s still a little while before that’s done. It’s more missed opportunity.
Ross: I’m a big believer in using every tool. I’m not going to say, ‘I’m only going to use digital. I’m only going to use mail.’ If you have these things available and you have the budget, use as much of them as you can. It all comes down to money. On these local races that I work on, the digital budget is probably 5-10 percent. People should start allocating 30-40 percent to the digital side. The latest stats show that people check their phones 160 times a day.
Robinson: We deliberately condition ourselves. If we keep hitting the Twitter button, but we don’t get any more money, we stop hitting the Twitter button. If we keep hitting the direct mail button and we keep getting lots of money, we keep hitting the direct mail button.
Geanuracos: How much longer is that going to last?
Robinson: Oh, I think we’re almost to the end of that product life cycle.
C&E: Is that a case of consultants tied to old methods or candidates wanting to stick with what works?
Ross: It’s also coming from the candidates because we have no young candidates running for office. But I find some of the candidates are more in tune with what’s happening communications wise than some of the consultants. The candidates want to be on Facebook, they want to be on Instagram so they’re driving our efforts in that direction.
Robinson: There’s a fairly large push on the Republican side, too. They want to be on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter, but they don’t know why. You see the QR codes on the campaign brochures and then you scan them to see where they go and it’s like, ‘oh my god.’ They go nowhere. Have you heard of Layer? Right now we have a mini-test operation going in Michigan where you take this app on your phone and you scan, say, a book cover and the entire book cover is your QR code and then the app has some buttons.
James: It’s shiny-object syndrome. The same person who wrote you a direct mail check is the same person who’s going to come out and vote for you in these primary states. That person doesn’t know what Layer is, can’t spell it or find it.
Robinson: I agree. How many people are going to download layer just so they can scan your thing? They’re not going to do it. We’ve did it at two Republican conventions here in California, yeah we moved the needle a tiny bit, but…
James: My biggest complaint about the Republicans’ approach to digital is: When a Democrat wants to announce that they’re running for higher office, they typically find someone who’s good with databases, someone who’s good with community management and somebody who’s really good with list management. The Republicans go and hire a digital communications firm. Most digital firms on the Right are specialized in communications, they understand the different mediums. That doesn’t mean you’re an application developer, that doesn’t mean you know how to create models. I think we really shoot ourselves in the foot.
Robinson: Your campaign will be fragmented in other ways too because the people who are doing the printed material think they don’t need to talk to the digital side. We just printed a million books. They’re unloading pallets of them at Ben Carson headquarters around the country, and nobody who designed the books — which is a totally different shop from the digital side — stopped and thought we should put the web address on the cover. I set up a short domain name and we printed stickers locally.
Ross: I think that’s such a huge communication chasm. As a social media person, I know which pitches are turning on my audience because I get [metrics] on a daily basis. Rarely does a mail consultant ask me, ‘Which of our pitches is working?’ I know for a fact which pitches work.
James: There are two problems. One, cross communication. Talking to your field staff, understanding what language works, applying it on banner ads. Seeing what creative works; standing it up for mail drops. Digital is always complaining about more money and a bigger seat at the table. Here’s the problem: as a campaign manager, I’m looking at nuts and bolts to get to 50-plus-1. Tell me how Instagram gets me there? You get me 100 more Facebook likes, how many more emails is that? How many more donations is that?
C&E: What metrics are you looking at?
Geanuracos: The metric that I use and this for all my clients, whether they’re political or brand, is whether your digital operation is a net revenue driver. You should make money for the campaign from your digital operation. All of your communications, engagements, growing your lists, you should make money while you do it.
Ross: We should ask those questions to mail consultants, but they don’t want to do a [Return on Investment] on their mail. They can’t say dropping 16 mail pieces will have this ROI.
James: They do a fairly good job of telling you what you got after the fact.
Geanuracos: And why isn’t TV advertising or any other advertising held to that same standard? Are you making money on your TV ad buy? Oh, no you’re not.
James: But if you pre- and post-poll over a statewide TV commercial, those numbers are the bottom line. The core of this is conversion based.
Ross: That’s a false choice. There’s also brand awareness. Every other industry that’s using communication like this in the world knows that social media is important. Google, Marriott, Nike, and Hersey are all investing in digital because they know people are addicted to their phones. There are actually walk, run and text lanes at some colleges. That’s how in tune we are to being on our phones. The ROI is there, we can prove it, just in terms of increasing your brand awareness as a candidate.
James: Here’s the conundrum: I don’t know that a strong social media campaign would work at the Senate level in Oklahoma.
Robinson: It doesn’t work nationwide.
Ross: How do you know that?
Robinson: We get too many emails back saying, ‘I don’t do Twitter and Facebook.’
Ross: That argument doesn’t hold water with me: 80 percent of people are on social media.
Robinson: On the Republican side, we can’t make the numbers look that big. Remember Joe Sugarman? He would take out whole-page ads in Playboy and Penthouse; he pioneered the ‘call the 800-number, place an order with your credit card’ ads. Our marketing has succeeded in the same way. We send out long emails and we get long emails back from the people who read them. We’ve raised almost $18 million so far and a very large portion of our donations have come from people who reply back to the 63-paragraph email with a 38-paragraph email.
Q&E: Is there a platform that you think your clients should be on that they’re not already?
Ross: I’m dreading the day when I’m asked to create Snapchat accounts for candidates. I don’t know the strategic value at all, but I do know that in two years it’s probably going to happen.
Robinson: We’ve turned NationBuilder into a very productive platform, that’s how I have the metrics I have about the email writers. We’re doing the smart stuff to develop our Twitter audience, but right now at this point in the primary, the main thing we’re looking at is how many email un-subscribes are we getting? If we get five un-subscribes in one day, how do we make sure we get five new email addresses? We make offers like, ‘hey, fill out our endorse page and we’ll mail you a bumper sticker.’
Geanuracos: Oh my god, we tried that in 2004. It’s a great strategy. You guys are 10 years behind us.
Robinson: The reason why we are operating 10 years behind you guys is that our audience is 10 years behind your audience.
Geanuracos: If you understand your audience, then you need to be on whatever platform your audience is using. It takes a lot of effort.
James: There are a lot of young digital guys on the Right who say, ‘you’ve got to get on Meerkat.’ But as a platform, it’s time sensitive, you have to be on Twitter to use it. It makes absolutely zero sense. But because it’s the newest thing, you’re now the cool digital guy because you get it. Social media is great if you get data to target. I get skeptical of the Meerkats.
Ross: We know that all of these platforms aren’t perfectly situated for ROI, but we know we have to compete on them for our clients because they want them. They don’t have strategic value that we know of, but they may have in two years.
Robinson: If you reward initiative surprising things can happen. We’ve had trouble getting to 6,000 followers on our national Twitter account. But I have this young guy who said I can do some stuff for you on Instagram. I was kind of skeptical, but I gave the guy an acting title. I didn’t give him any money. He runs with it and he’s got us 12,000 followers spread out over 50 state Instagram accounts. He did it with Carson, Iowa, Carson, Nev., Carson, S.C., as opposed to one big nationwide account. Now, that’s not a big, total number, but it’s a helluva lot more than our Twitter — in three weeks of work.
C&E: So digital talent is still coming from outside the campaign world?
Ross: Obama didn’t use digital strategists. He used a lot of people from Silicon Valley. I’m more interested in what the people in Silicon Beach [in Santa Monica] are doing than what people are doing in downtown [Los Angeles]. That’s why I sometimes think it’s a false choice to work only for one party. I’m a Democrat, I’m for social justice, but I’d love to hire a Republican for a campaign because technology doesn’t recognize ideology.
James: Technology implemented well is just winning. The campaign of the future will understand how to grow through software and technology.
C&E: Make a prediction for 2016.
Ross: Hillary’s going to continue to dominate social media, but there’ll be more news written about Donald Trump than any other candidate.
Geanuracos: Word of mouth across social by women is going to be more powerful than anything that’s out there. I think women’s dominance on social media in terms of determining our message is a perfect for Hillary’s campaign.
James: Hillary’s brand is seamless. It’s everywhere. I’ve signed up for all these emails and she’s already segmented. The campaign that does the best will use all their platforms to do one thing: build an email list.
Robinson: A successful campaign will identify where you can expand your audience through the productive channels that will get voters to the polls.