Sixteen months ago, calling Mothership Strategies a startup seemed like an overstatement. Our company had one client, three employees, and only the shirts on our backs to show for it. Today, we’ve got a staff of 30, enough work to keep us up all night, and all the trappings of a company several years our senior.
As impressive, and humbling, as this growth has been, along the way we’ve had to expose a hard truth in politics and advocacy: these are industries in need of disrupting.
This may cut against the grain given that, every four years, the presidential campaigns morph into what are by most accounts the biggest startups on Earth. The New York Times has already dubbed Hillary Clinton’s campaign the “ultimate” startup. And there is no shortage of articles, like this one from Fast Company, drawing a line between President Obama’s campaign apparatus and the “lean startup” model.
The comparison, of course, has its merits. Startups and presidential campaigns raise and spend money at an aggressive clip. They scale and grow exponentially. They build a culture where young and fresh minds can thrive, and they share a bias for data and testing. At their core, campaigns are entrepreneurial and innovative, just like startups.
But here’s where the two diverge: while the greatest startups in the world go on to release newer, better products year after year, much of the R&D that is poured into a presidential campaign is lost after Election Day, wiped away virtually overnight. Wired recently detailed this tendency to reset to zero in politics every four years.
There are campaign alumni who are preserving – and capitalizing on – the advancements made during the political cycle by taking their talents to the private sector. But for many progressive organizations and Democrats, the barriers to entry for these services are too high. Most can’t afford or support the kind of scale that makes technologies deployed during a presidential campaign so successful. As a result, they tend to fall back on old habits while best practices learned in the heat of a presidential race never see the light of day.
When our firm was founded, we wanted to turn conventional wisdom in fundraising and advocacy on its head. We knew that the same email fundraising strategies and tactics our strategists have refined raising millions of dollars for House Democrats could be put to work for campaigns and organizations of all sizes. Many thought it couldn’t be done, but through persistent and rigorous testing and optimization we’ve been able to crack the code.
In every way, we operate like a startup. We’re dedicated to finding new and better applications for our work. But we’ve discovered that the same email principles that we’ve battle-tested during the political cycle can also work for advocacy organizations. The same techniques we’ve honed to compel thousands of grassroots supporters to donate to a campaign also make it possible for an organization to move policy agendas and change legislative or regulatory outcomes. This knowledge transfer would not have been possible in a more rigid environment.
Now, we’ve set our sights on a new aspect of political and cause campaigning in need of evolving — advertising. It’s estimated that digital advertising by political campaigns will pass the $1.7 billion mark for the first time in 2016. That’s an increase of more than 7,500 percent from what was spent on digital in 2008, but it’s still hovering around just 10 percent of the $11.4 billion that will be spent on all political ad formats this cycle.
This despite evidence that TV ad waste is at an all-time high and advertisers in most other industries are dedicating far more of their budgets to digital. By comparison, advertisers outside politics commonly dedicate anywhere between 30 and 50 percent of their media budgets to digital advertising. At the same time that consumer digital ad spending is on track to surpass TV spending for the first time in 2016, even by 2020 digital spending by political campaigns won’t eclipse what is currently being spent on broadcast television.
The reasons for the slow adoption are debatable, but the effect isn’t. The absence of innovation has uncovered a huge opportunity for political candidates and advocacy groups to edge out their competitors with smarter, more effective targeting and new, high impact creative. This was on full display following the 2012 presidential election, when the Romney campaign was widely criticized for running an ineffective advertising program. In fact, it was outspent four-to-one online by the Obama campaign.
Without more adoption the effect will be lasting. And while it would be misguided to expect the industry to evolve overnight, at the very least, this is a conversation worth having.
Digital advocacy is a market desperately in need of a new approach. Of course, we’re not the only player in this space, but it’s still a small club. Despite all of the headlines about the way online is shaping elections, digital political advertising remains largely unexplored.
Andy Amsler is Director of Advertising and Advocacy for Mothership Strategies, an agency specializing in online fundraising and digital advertising for Democrats and progressive causes.