Ten Ways to Blow It Online in 2010
By Colin Delany
In politics, winning is everything. But why obsess about winning when epic failure is so much more exciting?
Here are ten excellent ways to completely blow it online in 2010.
1. Start Late
Don’t want online support? No problem—just wait until the last minute to get rolling. Sure, some campaigns occasionally grow into Internet behemoths overnight, but most have to start slo-o-o-owly and build up over time. Like a retirement account, almost every list starts tiny before it gets big enough to matter, usually growing just a little bit every day. Think of online outreach as siege warfare, not the accumulation of many individual triumphs over a long period of time, not through a single bold stroke. Start recruiting now!
2. Steer Clear of E-Mail
In a world of Facebook and Twitter, who needs e-mail? Well, political campaigns do, at least if they want to tap much of the Internet’s potential to persuade people to donate money, knock on doors and make phone calls. Just ask Barack Obama, whose campaign relied on e-mail more than any other tool to communicate with supporters and motivate them to donate both cash and time.
He and other successful online campaigners still use e-mail because it works. Just one example: Of the $500 million Obama raised online, roughly two-thirds came directly via someone clicking on a “donate now” link in a campaign e-mail. Of course, Obama had a couple million friends on Facebook and MySpace, but he ended the 2008 cycle with over 13 million addresses on his e-mail list, and by Election Day its members had received roughly one billion individual messages from his campaign. Though not much of a recruiting tool (except when someone sends-to-a-friend), e-mail absolutely excels at building and maintaining relationships online.
3. Ignore the Bloggers
Bloggers in their pajama-clad ranks can be annoying, particularly for political professionals who aren’t too pleased to have amateurs poaching on their turf. But who cares? Political blogs get read by the very activists and donors candidates usually need to reach.
While getting mentioned in a national-level blog can make a splash, state- and local-level campaigns should pay particular attention to local political bloggers. They’re more likely to focus on a legislative or congressional race, and you can help them fill their precious pixels by pitching a story idea or a guest article from your candidate.
Also, since your target often isn’t the actual blogger, but his or her readers, consider advertising on relevant blogs—blog ads can be very cheap, particularly for local or niche sites. And bloggers do tend to notice who buys space on their sites.
4. Don’t Use Google Ads
Speaking of online advertising, we all know that it doesn’t work—except when it does. In fact, Google Ads are a perfect match for most candidates in 2010, for two basic reasons. First, they’re highly targetable, and second you only pay when someone actually clicks on an ad. Google Ads are particularly effective as a list-building tool, sometimes yielding a four- or five-fold return on invest- ment, measured in donations.
Their targeting ability can be a real help, since you can not only zero in on your district but also aim different messages at different audiences depending on the content they’re reading or searching online. Campaigns frequently run Google Ads using their candidate’s name and that of their opponent as keywords, for instance, while a higher-level Google Ad blitz might target dozens or hundreds of different keyword/landing page combinations. Even when someone doesn’t click on a Google Ad, it’s still sitting there on the page as a branding element, complete with your message and link.
5. Avoid Facebook, MySpace and YouTube
E-mail may be key to maintaining connections with your existing supporters and donors, but online social networks like Facebook and MySpace are great places to fish for new ones. Your own campaign web page is a start, but encourage supporters to spread the word, too—each of your Facebook or MySpace friends is a potential recruiting hub within their own social circles. YouTube has a potential double effect, since you can use it as both a free video hosting site and as a social network in which to look for support.
As you connect with people on Facebook or MySpace, though, do try to move them onto your main activist list as much as possible. Hard political experience has shown that a good e-mail message to the list can have a response rate 10 or more times higher than a request sent over an online social network.
6. Ignore All Those Online Critics
Hostile bloggers, Twitterers and YouTubers can be a real thorn in a campaign’s side, particularly since you never know who’s listening to what they’re saying. But short of a comprehensive assassination scheme (not recommended), you’re stuck with ‘em. So what should a campaign do?
The best answer to a wave of negative online content is often to try to “flood the zone” with targeted information of your own, while also reaching out to individuals in the opposition to see if they can be brought around. For instance, if unflattering YouTube clips are dogging your candidate, post a bunch of your own videos on the same or a related topic, not only to counter the hostile messages directly but also to dilute them in search results. While you may not be able to turn an enraged blogger into a bosom buddy, a few e-mails behind the scenes could shift him or her from angry to at least neutral (a little access to the candidate wouldn’t hurt either).
7. Treat Your Supporters Like ATMs
Yes, the Internet can be a great source of political money, particularly when a campaign can aggregate small donations from a big list of individual supporters. But even the most enthusiastic donors may turn off the spigot if they get the feeling that all a campaign cares about is their money. Unlike bank machines, online donors give cash because they truly care about the candidate or the issues. Taking them for granted can be a quick way to convince them to take their donations elsewhere.
Taking a page again from Obama’s online playbook, try to mix your fundraising messages with other appeals or even with e-mails that are primarily informative. You might ask supporters to view a particular video and post it to their own blogs or Facebook pages, something that will help the campaign but that won’t cost your friends a dime. When you do ask for money directly, have a clear “value proposition” that explains how you’ll be using the funds and why it matters. Don’t forget to follow up with the results! People are a lot more likely to donate again if they feel that their past gifts have made a difference.
8. Twitter! Twitter! Twitter!
Not to pick on Twitter in particular, because it can be a great way to reach journalists, bloggers and individual activists, but it’s just one tool. Despite the hype, a relatively small percentage of people have embraced microblogging so far. Serious Twitter outreach can be ridiculously time consuming, potentially taking resources away from other vital functions, and needs to be balanced with all of a campaign’s communications needs.
Though useful for outreach, for instance, Twitter isn’t going to take the place of a website, an e-mail-based communications program or online video—though it can be a great way to bring some attention to them all. Put in the proper context, Twitter can be an online promoter’s close (but not exclusive) friend.
9. Here, There, Everywhere—But Not Integrated
Twitter’s over-hyped role in online outreach brings us to the real nut of the matter: If you want to fail, go scattershot all the way. But for online political success, try a different tack: Make sure the various pieces of your Internet presence work together.
For instance, do your online videos or your guest posts on political blogs refer back to your main website? Does your site clearly steer people toward opportunities to sign up and get involved? Once people are on your list, are you asking them to help spread the word through the online (and offline) channels they use most? Done correctly, the various parts of your online outreach will reinforce each other and the rest of your old-world communications work.
More broadly, online and offline campaigns should work together. For instance, many campaigns build their online activist lists at real-world events, taking advantage of every opportunity to sign up a new supporter. Don’t forget yard signs! Plaster your website address on every piece of material that leaves your office, even as you think of creative ways to put your list of online supporters to work in the real world.
10. Who Needs a Strategy? I Already Have a Website!
Repeat after me: A website is not a strategy. For that matter, nor is any other tool. Unless you know why you’re using a piece of technology and what results you want to get, it’s not likely to do you much good. Differences in levels of success between one campaign and another usually come down to how they use the tools, not which ones they choose to emphasize.
For instance, Barack Obama didn’t do much online that was entirely new, mainly employing technologies that have been around for a couple of election cycles, but his campaign almost always used new media with a clear plan, constant testing and ruthless efficiency. A little “strategery” can go a long, long way in online politics. In Obama’s case, it went a long way toward putting him in the White House.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of Epolitics.com, which focuses on the tools and tactics of Internet-based political advocacy, and a communications consultant. His recent publications, “Learning from Obama” and “How Candidates Can Use the Internet to Win in 2010,” can be downloaded free at Epolitics.com.