Anne Lewis is CEO of Anne Lewis Strategies, a Democratic fundraising firm with clients in both the political and nonprofit world.
C&E: How did you get into digital marketing?Lewis: It’s at the intersection of policy, politics and communications and I realized that I had a background in all three of those things. I worked for candidates. I worked on the Hill. I was in the Clinton Administration for six or seven years, so when the Internet exploded it was just the logical place to put it all together. This is actually my first private sector job—ever.
C&E: When did you come to that realization?Lewis: After working with the DSCC in the rather abysmal 2004 cycle, I joined up with my partner Maura Walsh and hung out my own shingle. And little by little we’ve gone out and built ourselves a company.
C&E: Were you nervous about self-naming your firm?Lewis: Completely embarrassed would be a better description of it. I was having dinner with a couple of friends and trying to come up with an interesting, clever name that didn’t sound like everyone else’s interesting, clever name. And one of these guys looked at me and said, “Why wouldn’t you just call it Anne Lewis Strategies?” And everyone else said, “You should do that.” We are going to change it.
C&E: Why change the name?Lewis: Because I can’t stand it. And it’s not an accurate reflection of who we are at this point. There are 25 of us. We have some of the leading experts in email delivery. We have leading analysts, award-winning writers.
C&E: Any ideas for a new name?Lewis: I don’t think I’m going to preview it.
C&E: Do you think there’s a reason why more women don’t start their own firms?Lewis: I’m not sure why, but I’m really glad that I’m one of them. I’ve had a lot of experience and so I can put myself out there and not feel like it’s terribly risky. And by owning my own company, I can bring young people in and mentor them. I have a lot of young women who work for me and I feel like they are family, and part of my job is to make sure they have opportunities.
C&E: Is there a bias against women in the industry?Lewis: I don’t think that there’s a bias against women. I just think it’s unusual [for women to lead consulting firms] for all the reasons why it’s unusual to see women at the top of any industry. It’s no different.
C&E: Does the industry need more female-owned firms?Lewis: I don’t think it matters. I think what’s good for the work that we do is to just have a pretty good range of firms out there competing and always trying to get better.
C&E: So you don’t feel like there’s a shortage of women at the top?Lewis: I don’t think so. You have to remember, when I was a chief of staff in the Senate—this is a long time ago—there were about four women chiefs of staff and two women senators. There are 20 women in the Senate right now. From my perspective, we’ve come a long way already. Sometimes when I go in to meet with a potential client, if it’s a woman, we’ll both say, “Look at us, we actually accomplished something. This is great.”
C&E: Are you mostly focused on fundraising for your clients?Lewis: Many of our clients are orientated toward fundraising. All of our clients are into activism, communication, and social media. The political candidates tend to have more personality and move more quickly. Things move really fast in politics. What we like to say is we have the opportunity to innovate for our campaign clients and then we’re able to take those innovations and then apply them in the nonprofit world where they wouldn’t necessarily be quite as willing to take a risk.
C&E: Can you give us an example?Lewis: In the 2010 and 2012 cycles, we had some clients who tested out the idea of using digital advertising to acquire email addresses and then turn those people into donors. So could it make sense to spend money to acquire people and then raise money from them and have a positive ROI. What we saw is over the course of those four years we got really got at figuring out how to target those ads and really good at turning those people into donors. In the non-profit world, you’d have to think really hard about making that kind of investment. But we’ve seen that it works so we can go to our non-profit clients and say, “This is actually a good way for you to grow your email lists so that you can add to your bottom line.” They’re more comfortable dipping their toe in that water knowing that we’ve had the experience.
C&E: Do you need to have nonprofit and political clients to make payroll?Lewis: We like to do both types of work because they’re different and we find that there’s kind of a synergy. In the world of non-profits there’s much greater emphasis placed on maintaining a relationship with your online constituency. That’s a lesson campaigns can take: You really have to talk to people. You have to make it real. You can’t just ask them for money all the time. You have to give them something in exchange. We find they mutually reinforce each other.
C&E: Do you need to have a big personality to raise money online?Lewis: A big personality is easier, but it is not necessarily required. At this point, almost anybody can succeed in raising money online if they do it intelligently. There are a lot of pitfalls to avoid, such as over investing in a way that you’re not going to be able to raise your money back. There are also lots of ways to bring in email addresses that aren’t really terribly sensible so you end up with a lot of email addresses of people who aren’t going to give you money, that’s a pitfall. But personality means different things to different people. We always think about what makes [a candidate] succeed offline, how does that translate online? For some clients they like to share family photos online, some clients it’s just that they speak with a voice of moral outrage about the things they don’t like going on. We have one client who has a virtual book club.
C&E: They use a book club to raise money?Lewis: They don’t use that to raise money but they use that to keep people interested. Everybody reads the books and they sign into a Google hangout and they talk about the book.
C&E: But wasn’t that the lesson from President Obama’s campaigns – big personality equals big money?Lewis: The lesson from the Obama campaign is you can send a ton of fundraising emails and raise more money, but you also need the expertise to figure out how to maintain enough interest and response so that your emails will keep getting delivered. I like to say it’s simple, but it is not easy.
C&E: Is Send Time Optimization the way to go with your email campaign?Lewis: We see huge lift in the number of opens when we use that kind of technology. It’s significantly more expensive. If you have a mature and meaningful program it’s an excellent investment. If you have a small program that’s just starting out, you should find your cheapest technology and go with that until you can justify the bigger expense.
C&E: Is the McCutcheon Supreme Court ruling an industry game changer?Lewis: I don’t think it changes the way we will do business. I think it changes the importance of the business that we do. The changes in the industry that are affecting people a lot are the changes in the way ISPs [Internet service providers] look at email and their willingness to deliver it. Lots of people are getting into trouble when they’re trying to do email fundraising because nobody is responding and so the ISP is saying, “I’m going to put that in the spam folder.” Then their results go down even further, they get less response and it becomes a very vicious downward cycle.
C&E: What about sites like PayPal, Square, are those changing the fundraising industry?Lewis: We now assume that people are going to be giving in a variety of ways. It used to be that a huge percentage of people who came to an online contribution form didn’t actually make a contribution. But we’ve been able to move that number up because the technology has gotten better; it’s more user-friendly. People are more comfortable with it.
C&E: Is mobile the future of fundraising?Lewis: The future is here in that sense: 10-20 percent of the donations are coming in by phone. I think that could easily be 30 percent. I don’t think that it correlates to age because smartphone technology is so ubiquitous in the donor population.
C&E: What’s the hallmark of the most successful email campaigns?Lewis: A sentiment that taps right into the moment.