If you are looking ahead to a future election, whether from the vantage point of a recently reelected incumbent, an almost-successful candidate looking for a rematch, or a first time candidate ready to toss your hat in the ring, it’s never too early for some thoughtful planning on using technology to optimize your campaign.
Games Without Frontiers The first question you’ll ask is “Why?” Why worry about the technology, social media, the online advertising and all of those services with funny names that make Twitter and Tumblr sound normal. Won’t some palm cards, a few buttons, press releases and community events be enough for your local campaign? The answer might be yes—if you could keep it local. But what we saw in 2012 was the outsized influence of money and organizing from outside groups leaving many down-ticket candidates, who didn’t establish their own identity, buried under the weight of “Swift Boat” style attacks on congressional or Senate candidates at the top of the ticket. Thoughtful use of technology and social media can give you the ability to connect with voters without spending the big bucks to compete in an advertising battle that isn’t even your fight.
Who Are You? Think of yourself as the subject of a documentary. If you start early and direct it yourself it might seem a bit repetitive, but you’ll control the storyline. If you wait, it could end up being a horror story. If it’s the first impression that counts, your goal is to make lots of little impressions. By that, I mean ditch the press releases with talking points and start a blog. Engage in conversations on Twitter and Facebook. Encourage others to talk about their interactions with you on their own social media accounts with the objective of building a reputation that you are a real person, not the caricature your opponent will want to paint.
Every Move You Make Eventually, you’ll need volunteers. It takes time to get people engaged beyond the first contact, but the strongest campaigns get started early. Make it easy on your campaign staff by integrating your contact and signup forms into a single contact management system. And be tough on insisting that every new contact gets a substantive follow-up within 24 hours or less. An auto-response thank you is not a follow-up. You don’t need to have a program to deploy hundreds of volunteers to knock on doors 18 months before the election, but you do want to make sure you have tasks you can assign as soon as the first supporter contacts you. Even if it’s a weekly goal of sending a message to five friends or collecting 10 signatures, a constant stream of activities keeps your volunteers plugged in so the energy will be there when you need it.
Talking About My Generation Social media is about sharing a conversation. The topics and formats can vary but ultimately the conversation is about ideas, arguments and feelings. Who says something and how it’s conveyed can be more important than the actual content of the conversation. The flip side of talking is listening. If you start early enough, you can create opportunities for listening and customizing your conversation by recruiting individuals within communities to share your ideas and introduce you to their circles of contacts. By engaging in social media conversations with individuals already embedded within a group, you’re more likely to hit the mark with targeted messages and avoid the pitfalls of pre-packaged messaging that can too easily be perceived as pandering.
There Must Be 50 Ways Test everything. What worked last cycle might be good, but it might not be good enough. If you don’t test, you won’t know whether you’re underperforming until it’s too late. Social media, online advertising and email lend themselves to small scale and rapid testing. For example, you don’t need to email your entire list once a week with the same message. Try mailing a portion of the list each day with multiple messages and subject lines. You should also vary the time of day you send. Pick the best performing combination and test it against other variations the following day. If you get through your entire list within the week, you’ll have the equivalent of two months-worth of data compared to a weekly mass mailing to your entire list.
So We Keep On Waiting If there’s a recurring theme in all of this, it’s that the key to being successful with social media is realizing that it rewards time more than money. If you start early, you’ll be building your advantage on both fronts.
Steve Pearson is an expert in technology-enhanced communication and is the president of CivicNEXT.