We hear plenty about top-of-the-ballot campaigns (competitive House, Senate, and presidential races) raising and spending millions on their digital programs. And while there’s nothing sexier to report on than raising and spending big dollars, it’s not exactly a relatable strategy for the tens of thousands of down-ballot races across the country.
Unlike top-ticket races, down-ballot campaigns have a few additional challenges:
- Name recognition: Down-ballot candidates rarely get the media coverage of federal races.
- Budget: Between spending/raise caps and lower overall interest, down-ballot campaigns tend to face greater budget challenges than their top-ticket counterparts.
- Issues: From potholes to public transportation, down-ballot races tend to focus on local issues that don’t bring a wave of online hype, limiting the pool of interested supporters.
This year, our firm helped secure a victory for a New York City Council candidate who entered the race without institutional support. As a millennial with a background in the tech industry, this candidate didn’t have the decades of relationships that come with a long history of community organizing. But on primary day, she beat out a crowded field of more than a dozen candidates and was elected to be the first Asian American, first woman, and first immigrant council member for her district.
Here’s the game plan we used to get our candidate to stand out in the crowd with an all-in digital budget of just $25,000:
Know your audience.
Before you spend a single ad dollar, one of the most important elements of your campaign will be understanding your voter data and how well you know your audience. Where do your voters spend their time online? How old are they? What do they care about? A
65-year-old voter who still has the newspaper delivered to their front door will behave significantly differently online than a Gen Z voter who’s excited to vote for the first time. Through organic social media efforts, our candidate came to the table knowing exactly who her key demographics were — and what platforms they engage with the most.
Build name recognition.
One of the first challenges of running a campaign of any size is ensuring your voters and potential supporters know who you are and what seat you’re running for. And if your campaign isn’t getting front-page news coverage, that job falls to your campaign. This district was incredibly diverse, and as such, it was important that we put a face to our candidate’s name and leaned heavily into shared backgrounds between our voters and our candidate.
Once your audience knows who you are and what election you’re running for, your next task is to connect with them. What issues do they care about? What type of content will make you the most relatable? Over the course of the pandemic, we saw a spike in engagement with user-generated, content-esque creative. As a result, we found paid Instagram stories particularly effective when trying to connect with her audience.
After you’ve done the hard work of introducing yourself and convincing voters you’re the right choice, the final step is ensuring that voters actually get to the polls. In addition to the typical “make a plan to vote” ads, we also ran search ads for those looking for election information online. These ads directed people to official polling resources while reminding them that our candidate was the right choice for that district. This search effort served two purposes: First, it provided a resource to high-value users (ones who were specifically looking for voting resources). And second, it branded our candidate as an authority figure servicing the public by directing them to official resources.
Finally, know your competition.
Over the course of her election, our team was constantly monitoring the Facebook and Google efforts of her competitors. We tracked their spends, creative, messaging, and audiences. As a result, heading into Election Day, we were confident that our creative, targeting, and budget allocations were a notch above.
Cheryl Hori is the founder of Pacific Campaign House, a progressive digital campaign firm.