We’re deep into candidate announcement season for the 2022 elections. I’ve watched dozens of launch videos already this year and made a few myself. In light of some reputational and financial harm done to quality candidates, I think it’s time to have a serious conversation about the form.
First and foremost, I think it’s important to ground any conversation about strategy in reality. The reality of most campaigns (essentially anything short of a major city mayor, governor’s race or a top-targeted federal race) is that they’re long slogs of fundraising and coalition building that lead to a short burst of building name ID, voter conversion, and turnout.
The most common mistake I’ve seen campaigns make with announcement videos has been creating a video in an attempt to avoid the long slog. There’s an expectation that the hard work of call time can be avoided with a video that drives donations. Or that the long process of building trust in a community can be short circuited if neighbors have seen you on Facebook. We have conversations in which there’s an idea that candidates can skip to the fun part of campaigns — being recognized, having their name in the news, and people offering them things instead of having to ask — if they make a great video.
Let me say this in as few words as I can: There’s no such thing as a viral video. The ad that you saw on Rachel Maddow was placed there by a press contact who knows people at Rachel Maddow. The big name social media personality who shared a video was specifically asked and recruited to share that video weeks in advance by someone who could text them. If 15 people in your Facebook feed shared a video, it’s because the campaign paid for 12 of them to be shown the ad. These epic launches are the result of plans, resources, and relationships.
In the absence of those resources, relationships, and trust among the communities the video is targeting, you’re likely spending north of $20,000 of early money on a press release.
The less common, but much more costly mistake, has been candidates going cheap on a subpar ad and doing considerable harm to their campaign in the process. Stakeholders look at these videos and make decisions about whether or not a team has the judgement and the capacity to win their races.
And in either case, that’s early money you can’t get back if your video doesn’t pay for itself in the first week.
The barriers to making content are lower than ever, but this is still politics. To quote Max Weber, it’s the strong and slow boring of hard boards. There are no shortcuts in a relationship business. But there can be efficient machines to gather existing goodwill and turn it into the resources that matter to your campaign: time, money, and people.
When properly deployed, the announcement video can still make hard things easier. It gives you something to show a donor that may make them more likely to give. It gives you a tool to jump start social conversation around your race. You’ve bought yourself an asset that can be an organizing tool and may soften some appearances at county party meetings.
Like every other part of a campaign, an announcement video needs to start with a goal. You can boost name ID, drive press, provide sharable content to build a social following, or use it to monetize your email list.
Then you need a strategy for distribution. Ask your institutional friends if they could share a video, and what they like to see in content they share before you commit to a script. Use the process of making the video as an opportunity to seek input and be inclusive. Not all shares are created equal. We’ve had clients get 20k views in the first day, tons of media exposure, and raise less than $1,000. We’ve had videos that only went out in email raise $50,000. Not all views are created equal.
It’s worth noting that donor acquisition has costs. If a video raises $500,000 it’s because they spent $250,000 to promote it. The prevailing theory is that those donors can be re-solicited, therefore driving up the profit margin. But that assumes a re-solicit program, retargeting capacity, and a host of other factors that need to be in place before hand — all of which have their own costs. And not all programs are great programs. I’ve seen a few programs fail to break even. Most turn very modest profits.
There’s a growing tendency for these videos to stretch over the two-minute mark. Let me strongly discourage this practice for two reasons. First, the algorithms that power social media frequently punish content longer than 2:00. Second, there’s very little ad inventory for videos that long. Your likelihood of recouping your costs goes down significantly if people can’t see your video. I am a believer in the one-minute intro. It’s likely to be better story telling that doesn’t suffer from creative drift. There’s plenty of available 60-second inventory. The process of refining your ideas also tends to make campaigns stronger down the stretch.
Launch videos can be fantastic tools, and they’re a great early project for a campaign. You have to gather all the materials for a biography, make concrete logistical plans, budget together, write together, and go through the process of a shoot and an edit. With any luck, you’ll come out of the process with a better idea of your story, your motivations, and how you need to improve as a team.
But beware of the impulse to make a video because everyone else has made a video. Like all decisions in a campaign, this needs to be carefully considered in context of your goals, your audience, and your resources. And if your media consultant tells you that you need to rent a crane truck, an airfield, or a shark, feel free to fire them and call me.
Matthew “Mudcat” Arnold is a principal at Ampersand Strategies.