A guide for campaigns to successfully kick off their online efforts
All too often political campaigns launch with critical pieces of their strategy missing. The result is bad press or no press at all. But the greatest failing is that campaigns don’t capitalize on the moment.
A successful launch can mean the ability to rake in some early dollars and recruit enough supporters to kick start your campaign. If you don’t have a primary or if you’re supported by larger organizations, you’ll have time to right the ship. Not every campaign will have that luxury, and you can never get the missed time or opportunities back.
As a digital strategist and political consultant, I’ve helped a lot of candidates get launched over the past few months. For first time candidates, or folks who have been out of office for a while and are not used to online tools, we find ourselves telling them the same things. What you do now can give you the boost you need for a successful launch, and get your campaign on track to win.
So how do you get started when you’re running for office? Here’s our list to help guide candidates and would-be candidates during the crucial phase between “thinking about running” and actually launching.
1. Your list is the heart muscle of your campaign. Strengthen and build it as much as you can before you launch. I’m talking about your list of donors, prospects, volunteers and supporters.
Even if you’re starting from scratch, you have a list: friends, family, and coworkers, at the very least. Now is the time to be combing through stacks of business cards to input the info and getting your personal email address book, work email address book and your cellphone contacts all synced. You’ll wind up using this list for your announcement email, and also for your initial fundraising call time sessions.
Recent issues of C&E have some great tips on how to build your network, but here’s one important thing to note regarding email addresses: If you’re not on LinkedIn, get on there and start building your professional network. It’s a great way to get current contact info from people you may have worked with years ago but have lost touch with since. You can also download your contacts’ email addresses via LinkedIn, which you really can’t do with Twitter or Facebook.
You will be able to download basic information (name/email/company) via LinkedIn, but you will not be able to mass download phone numbers and addresses—you’ll need to spend some time on LinkedIn copying that info down by hand, just as you must with Facebook.
And if you’re not there already, now is also the time to get yourself on Twitter and Facebook to start building out your social media contacts.
2. Claim your name online
One thing campaigns often forget to do right away is to buy domain names. If you wait until rumors are out there that you’re running for office, squatters could grab your domain and refuse to give it back unless you pay an exorbitant fee. Your opponent could also snatch up your domain name, which is worse. So buy them now.
Which domains should you purchase? Purchasing just about every combination of your first and last name, including nicknames (Jim, Jimmy, James) can be useful for your campaign. And be sure to purchase the trifecta of common urls—.com/net/org.
Domains are cheap, but not buying a domain can be costly. The last thing you want is to save $10 by not buying a Jimmy.com, because you go by James, only to have your opponent put up an attack site a few weeks later, which spreads all kinds of lies and falsehoods about your past. Now your campaign may be forced to spend thousands of extra earned media dollars to rebut an opponent’s attacks.
Defense aside, what domain should the campaign use? I highly recommend making sure your full name is in your domain, because this will help with search engines. Hopefully your name is easy to spell. If it isn’t, be sure to buy misspellings. And perhaps use a simplified URL when you’re giving speeches.
As a brand new campaign launching a site, it will be hard to achieve good organic search engine placement right away. It takes time to build up quality inbound links and get a higher rank on Google, which is why campaigns often supplement with a paid ad campaign when they launch.
When you do launch, many newspaper articles and blog posts will link to your campaign site. This will be an enormous boost when it comes to search engine optimization, which is one of the reasons it’s so critical to have a website in place when you launch. That should go without saying, but too many small campaigns—and even some larger efforts—aren’t ready with an online presence when they announce. Keep in mind that you’ll get another search engine boost by having key search terms embedded in your URL, which is why I suggest using your full name.
In terms of social media and naming, while it may be possible to make a one-time change to your URL or page title on Facebook, and unlimited changes of your Twitter username, don’t assume you can do this. The Internet is littered with one-time-use campaign social media profiles. If you’re under 90 years old (or heck, even if you are 90) choose a Facebook page title and URL that won’t tie you down to running for a specific office in a specific year. We all know politics is about the long game.
Some of the most successful politicians in history had to run more than once before they got elected to office. So use your name—your full name—and not any info that will end up out of date, such as year or office, when building your social media pages. This will help with search engine work in a few days and it might help your career in public service for years to come.
3. Get professional head shots.
These are the pictures that will be going on your campaign website and at the top of your social media profiles. Local newspapers are likely to use these photos in their stories and they could even wind up in your mail pieces if you decide against spending additional dollars on photography for your direct mailers. Trusting a friend to snap something flattering on an iPhone or repurposing a work photo from a decade ago just isn’t going to hold up.
So get good photos while you have the time. When the campaign is in full swing, it will be much harder to find blocks of time away from the call room and your event schedule to do a photo shoot. So this is a great time to get it done. Your website won’t do a very good job when it comes to branding if it doesn’t even have your photo on it.
4. Hire a professional to design your logo.
Get it done right, at the beginning, and it will help with branding and last you throughout the campaign. Make sure to get high resolution and vector versions of the logo that you can use for print ads, TV and other media. It’s worth investing in the thing people will most associate with your campaign, other than your name.
You have plenty of time now to go back and forth with designers on the details and can adjust the logo until you’re happy with it. There just won’t be the free time to be nitpicky once the campaign is at full speed.
Your website is also likely to be built around the same style and color scheme, so it’s important to sort out the logo first and then build the surrounding structure.
5. Get set up to accept online donations.
There are plenty of options here for Democrats from ActBlue to even PayPal that are free, or you can use a full CRM like NGP VAN, Salsa Labs, Blue State Digital or NationBuilder. Republicans have some options too, from PayPal on the free side to NationBuilder on the CRM side or standalone tools like RedPledge, which you can embed on your website if you’re piecing multiple tools together.
But you must have a way to process credit cards online when you launch, or you’ll be missing out on what could be the biggest fundraising opportunity of your entire campaign.
6. Get set up with mass email software.
You’ll need a way to email the hundreds (hopefully thousands or tens of thousands) of people in your network about the campaign. This tool is going to be like your car—it will work every single day to get you where you need to go. You need to be talking to voters, raising money and meeting the people you need to win your race. It’s worth kicking the tires on a few and picking something reliable that will see you through the busy weeks ahead. If you have no money to work with, look at MailChimp. If you do have some money to get started here, look into a CRM or think about piecing multiple tools together to build something that best fits your needs. Systems built specifically for campaigns tend to be the best choice.
Some consulting firms may offer their own tools for mass email. If possible, it’s worth looking for a tool that’s not specific to a consulting team. That way you’re not stuck if you ever switch consultants. My firm has the same philosophy when it comes to campaign websites: an open source tool like WordPress or Drupal is easy to use and avoids this issue. The campaign can easily update content, and many campaign staffers will be familiar with these tools so you don’t have to be locked in to your web development team.
7. Have a simple splash page up on your website at a minimum when you announce.
This is the bare minimum you should have online when you launch a campaign. If the full site isn’t ready, a simple splash page will get the job done on launch day. The page should say a little bit about the candidate, have a donate button, an email sign-up and social media links. While not ideal, it’s at least enough to get you started and you can work on a full website later when your campaign has some additional money and a sense of how the race is actually progressing.
This also goes back to an earlier point about your announcement being a prime fundraising opportunity. Make sure you are ready to take advantage of it by having something in place to collect names, emails and donations.
8. Get ready for launch day.
You should write your announcement email and have it ready to send to your full list the day you kick off. You’ll need to get your press release ready ahead of time and have built your list of press contacts so you have somebody to send it to.
You’ll need to have your social media accounts ready to go (make sure they’re private until launch day), and have your website or splash page ready (but obviously not public). You want to be able to pull the trigger on all this stuff more or less simultaneously.
Having all of these pieces together will mean a smooth launch, lots of money raised, supporters recruited and good press. Not bad for a first day.
Laura Packard is a digital strategist and new media consultant at PowerThru Consulting, a new media consulting firm for progressive nonprofits and campaigns.