If you're running for office in 2018, every minute between now and Election Day is precious. Most campaigns still have at least a few months before the primaries, though, depending on the state you're running in. On the digital side, what can campaigns focus on now that will pay off by the time voters go to the polls?
Build Your Lists
A campaign's first digital priority should be creating a solid foundation, with a website up and running, an email system configured and social media channels ready for action. But once they've handled the basics, campaigns shouldn't waste any time building an email list, volunteer list, donor pool and social media following.
The time months before an election is particularly important for recruiting, because lists usually grow incrementally. Some campaigns will benefit from sudden influxes of support, often because of a burst of media coverage, but they're hard to count on. Most candidates (particularly down ballot) will have to work hard for every signup. Where do they come from?
- Friends, family and professional connections. Campaigns should start with the candidate's own personal connections, since these people should be among the most eager to help.
- Campaign website. A good campaign site puts email signup, donate, volunteer and social media buttons front and center. Don't make a potential supporter search for the signup form.
- Campaign events. Staff or volunteers should gather email addresses every time the candidate talks with voters, whether one-on-one or at meetings and rallies. For small campaigns, that task could fall directly on the candidate.
- Canvassing. Many canvassing apps allow for on-the-spot email signups, but any volunteer with a smart phone can sign people up via the campaign website directly.
- Advertising. As discussed in more detail below, digital advertising can introduce a candidate to voters in bulk, and some fraction of them will choose to follow the campaign via email or social media. Facebook "lead generation" ads are a more recent tool — they allow campaigns to gather email addresses directly via a promoted ad.
One common option savvy campaigns will avoid: buying an email list. Picking up supporters by the spreadsheet may seem like a good idea, but remember that the people on that list didn’t sign up to follow your campaign.
Emailing a purchased list often leads to low open rates and high spam-complaint rates, both of which can hurt a campaign's ability to reach people who did choose to follow it. A cautionary tale: when Marco Rubio purchased Chris Christie's list in 2016, I have heard that Rubio's open rates went down immediately, a factor that big email providers like Gmail and Yahoo take into account when deciding whether messages are spam.
If you do end up with a list from another campaign, rather than emailing it directly, consider using it as a Facebook Custom Audience and targeting its members with promoted posts about your own race. That way, the victims can make a conscious decision about whether to support you. If they do so, they're far more likely to donate than someone whom you've emailed out of the blue.
Run Early Digital Ads
Even if your primary isn't until late summer, you can still benefit from early digital advertising. Hoping to build name recognition along with a list, campaigns will typically run a mix of:
- Search ads on the candidate's name and on the names of high-profile opponents, linking to landing pages on the campaign website.
- Facebook ads geotargeted at your district. Campaigns can target these based on demographic information and people's interests, making them a great way to test messaging at the same time that you build your social media audience or email list. Particularly for low-information down-ballot races, Facebook ads can help build name recognition that could be key to victory in a tight election.
- Voter-file-targeted content ads, either web banner ads or video ads that appear in front of specific voters on many different websites automatically. Campaigns can use these to reach defined segments of their electorate with messages tailored for their interests, making them a useful tool for message-testing and recruiting alike. Targeting regular primary voters is another way down-ballot candidates can build name recognition with people most likely to vote.
As Election Day nears, campaigns will naturally switch their advertising mix to focus on persuasion and GOTV, but the supporter base and voter awareness built early may pay off more than a last-minute ad frenzy.
A related question: as ad-blocking software is becomes more common, will it cut into the effectiveness of digital campaign banners? Most likely not much for now, since so far a relatively small percentage of web users bother to turn them on. And of course, they can't block promoted Facebook posts, Google ads or pre-roll video, since those are effectively native content on those platforms.
Finally, campaigns should build their digital capacity while they still have time. For many campaigns, that means hiring the right consulting firm. But the more that staff and key volunteers can do digitally themselves, the better — they're closer to the candidate and the voters, and they're likely to have a better feel for the kinds of content that are resonating.
Campaigns can build their digital capacity by hiring experienced staff, of course, but they're frequently hard to come by. Down-ballot campaigns will most likely end up sending staff to trainings and taking advantage of resources like the Indivisible guide and other internet politics how-to’s.
If your state party has its act together, it should offer trainings for candidates and staff, as do some outside organizations. On the left, for example, occasional C&E contributor Beth Becker trains hundreds of digital Democrats every year, and Wellstone Action has taken over at least part of the role of the now-defunct New Organizing Institute.
Early online organizing and recruiting aren’t magic — they don’t guarantee victory by any means. But investing now in getting people on your list, putting your name out over digital channels and building your ability to sustain your online campaign is likely to pay dividends every day until the one that counts: Election Day.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning Epolitics.com, a twenty-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at email@example.com