Video is now the engine driving web traffic, says Democratic strategist Laura Olin of Precision Strategies. Campaigns need to get on board.
C&E: So video is what will drive page views going into 2016?
Olin: Facebook for the last year and a half has really been pushing native video uploaded directly to the platform over photos or linked posts in its algorithm. Videos have a huge advantage in term of who’s going to see it. They just get more reach. The video of the president taking selfies with the selfie stick got at least 20 million views. It’s the way to reach so many more eyeballs than you otherwise could. So are emerging platforms like Snapchat, which has a younger demographic that campaigns really need to reach. Campaigns need to be figuring out who they’re trying to reach, where they are and which format is best.
Campaigns also need to be creating content just for social. BuzzFeed has an entire unit of people now who are creating stuff just for their Tumblr, just for their Vine account, on the premise that in five years BuzzFeed’s website is going to be pretty irrelevant because people aren’t going to be consuming content directly on platforms. You need to figure out how to speak to people and spread messages and get people to take action directly on those platforms without having to go through the intermediary of a website.
C&E: Is the campaign homepage still the most critical part or is it going to become more important to be communicating that information on social?
Olin: The homepage still is, especially for older generations. People still do Google searches. They still want to know where a candidate is on an issue, but as people spend more of their time on their phones and social networks, website traffic isn’t going to be as relevant. The media is going to be a different story in 2016. People should be looking to the future.
C&E: Could 2016 be the first mobile-driven campaign cycle?
Olin: In November of 2011 we built the first mobile campaign website. Now, 50 percent of YouTube traffic is through mobile. Any campaign that doesn’t design for mobile first is going to be losing out on eyeballs and users, support and donations.
C&E: What about fundraising?
Olin: Email is still going to be the main driver. We had some success in 2012 with raising money online with social, but compared to email it was still a drop in the bucket. The big challenge for campaigns is figuring out how to — especially with the younger demographics — get them to pay attention, donate and invest in campaigns that way. It’s going to be a really interesting.
C&E: How do you get someone to donate on social?
Olin: A lot of it is just about balance and picking your moments. There’s a photographer [Brandon Stanton] who has built up an online empire for himself called Humans of New York. He’s a great example. Over a period of two years, he’s built up this amazing fan base not just on Facebook, but on Tumblr and Instagram and he occasionally does these amazing fundraisers for an underprivileged school in New York. I think he raised $2 million off his latest one. Obviously all campaigns can’t do that, but it’s just the example of giving people something interesting they can share, and building a relationship with someone and picking a moment that it really matters when you ask. The culture around email is really different because people are used to multiple asks, but on social it’s a different story. It’s a balance between giving people stuff that they want and then picking your moment to get them to invest in something.
C&E: How hard it is for a digital team to capture a candidate’s personality?
Olin: With [President Obama] we had an easier time of it because he had such a strong personal voice. He’s written two really beautiful books that express that voice really well so I feel like we had a really strong base to start from. In the early days there was a lot of trying to strike a balance between doing stuff that would work well for the Internet but was still true to the president and to the dignity of the office. We were very cognizant that we weren’t just working for a candidate, we working also working for the president of the United States so there’s a level of dignity that you always have to keep in mind. But it can be hard to translate traditional political speech to the more informal online copy writing that people tend to respond to.
C&E: What can other candidates learn from the Obama campaign about developing their own online voices?
Olin: It’s about getting a sense of how the candidate talks about his or her values and the way that he or she talks about his life or his orientation to the world and just copying that as much as possible. The people who are the best at all of this are, ideally, the candidates you’re working for. It’s just paying attention to them. Writing stuff for the president for two-three years, the best source of inspiration and content was always looking back at previous remarks that he’d made, some off the cuff, because he’s the best articulator of why we’re doing all of this stuff. His speech at Obama HQ after the election summed up in five minutes why any of us had been there the previous 19 months, which blows my mind.
C&E: Do the results of the 2014 midterms suggest the GOP’s digital efforts have surpassed the Democrats?
Olin: I definitely wouldn’t say that they’ve surpassed us. I haven’t seen any evidence of that. I’m not sure about catching up either. The very early stuff that we’ve seen from candidates like Jeb Bush has not been overly impressive. He put all of those emails from his time as governor on the Internet as a bid for transparency but then released people’s personal information along with it. Even stuff as simple as his PAC’s website, which asks for people’s Instagram handles. It looks like a smart thing to do, but I can’t imagine an actual project that they’re going to do with people’s Instagram names unless they’re going to contact people individually.
C&E: What went wrong for Democrats in 2014?
Olin: It was just a bad year for us. Off-cycles always are for the party in power in the White House. I wouldn’t read too much into what that meant for the larger model of digital organizing or engagement just from that cycle. If you look at the totals of outside money spent in the 2014 races it was just staggering. I’m guessing that had something to do with it, too.
C&E: So the lesson is digital can’t overcome a difficult national environment?
Olin: Another big factor here is staff resources. We were really lucky to work with the DSCC to actually get dedicated digital organizers on the ground in a lot of battleground states. But most of the races had, at most, a two-person shop — even on gubernatorial or Senate races. Presidentials are always a different story. In 2012, we had 300 people around the country. In 2016, I’m sure the primary races will have really big shops. That’s when you can do the really awesome, innovative, leveling up kinds of things because you have the numbers and the resources to devote to it.
C&E: What tech trends are you seeing on the horizon for the next cycle?
Olin: Email is still going to be the most important fundraising tool in 2016. It’s still going to be the biggest driver of volunteer hours. I don’t think anyone can discount that and be taken seriously. The stuff that will change is basically content-marketing strategy. In 2012, we were still able to count on people visiting our homepage just because it was there. Now, I think all campaigns need to learn from the very successful Internet publications that rely on networks of distributed content. BuzzFeed, Vox, Business Insider—their websites are pretty much irrelevant in terms of driving views. They rely on Facebook and other social networks to actually get eyeballs on stuff. Winning campaigns in 2016 are going to have to figure out how to create content that will live on social networks or play very well on social networks as distributed content rather than just putting up a microsite and having people come to it.
The third thing is data and targeting. We obviously made a lot of strides there last cycle but I think 2016 is going to be the leveling up of all that. I think the holy grail that we didn’t actually reach in 2012 will be making sure we can track people’s behavior across email and social and every other interaction that we have with them so we can give them as good of an experience as possible. And also help them up the preverbal ladder of engagement. If you click on a tweet, how can we get you from there to three months later actually going into your local field office and donating your time?
C&E: Are you seeing much experimentation these days?
Olin: Some nonprofits are carrying on the 2012 quick-donate innovation and allowing people to give through their phones, which increasingly is how people interact with the world and the Internet. That’s going to be a big field of experimentation.
C&E: What digital tools should campaigns look to incorporate this cycle?
Olin: The stuff that works is the stuff that tends to always work, which is authentic candidates, authentic messages, talking to people in way that they feel they’re being respected and their values are being addressed. The tools and technology are a little less important than just giving people the best experience that they can have and making them feel like their participation means something.
C&E: How’d you get started in the industry?
Olin: I grew up in Virginia, right outside D.C. I’ve always been interested in politics and it’s been a trend for kids who grew up around there to get into politics. After school, I thought I was going to be a lawyer. Then went to grad school and discovered the Internet was a thing I could have a job in. I worked for a few advocacy organizations like Center for American Progress and People for the American Way before joining Blue State Digital in early 2009 and was in the digital strategy space from there.
C&E: Did you study computer science?
Olin: I was always a political science student; I majored in that at the University of Virginia. I got a master’s degree at the London School of Economics in political communications. From early on, I was always a person addicted to the Internet. I was really into AOL forum boards and having discussions with strangers on the Internet. I was a huge reader of blogs in the 2002-03 days. I was huge consumer of Internet culture and writing, but it hadn’t occurred to me that it was possible to do something that would be a marriage of those two deals. I read Joe Trippi’s book, ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” That just awakened me to the fact that online communications in politics is an incredibly powerful thing.