With 2014 already looming, let’s focus on some practical ways to put digital tools to work—for and against campaigns next cycle.
As anyone who’s actually run a political Facebook Page knows, even a big following doesn’t easily translate into action. Aaron Windeknecht talked extensively in the last issue of C&E about using good visual content to mobilize a Facebook following, and his advice is well worth your time. But most efforts to engage people on Facebook involve giving them something to do within the site itself, usually to share (or “Like”) an image, video or link so that it shows up in front of more Facebook users.
For the time and effort it takes to build a Facebook following, wouldn’t it be better to get something back in the real world? Traditionally, Page administrators might try to get followers to donate, join a volunteer team or sign up to phone bank by posting a link to an action page. Their hope? That enough people will 1) see the link on Facebook, 2) click it and leave Facebook, and 3) take the actual action they land on.
Here’s the problem: those asks just didn’t perform well in practice, in part because they go against Facebook’s imperative to keep users within its walls as long as possible. One solution is to employ a tool that puts the online action in Facebook, rather than in a link that takes the user to another page.
ActionSprout is a new example of this kind of social technology, which I saw in demonstration at one of Alan Rosenblatt’s Internet Advocacy Roundtable sessions this summer. ActionSprout is an embedded action widget that can “live” within Facebook, allowing people to donate, join an email list or sign up for events without ever clicking away. When it’s posted to Facebook, the widget appears in an expandable window similar to those Facebook uses to display videos.
The crucial part? Each ActionSprout widget is customizable, allowing a campaign to include images, video and, most importantly, action buttons as needed. When someone clicks on an action button, the signup/donate/petition form pops right into the widget so the user doesn’t have to click away.
It will allow a campaign to move Facebook followers onto an email list, for example, since email can spark action far better than a typical Facebook post. A tool like ActionSprout then becomes a “force multiplier,” in the military sense, because it can help you get more out of the resources you already have, both in the form of higher response rates within Facebook and by moving Facebook followers to more productive channels. Not surprisingly, ActionSprout’s already seeing some political use, and I suspect it’ll get more in 2014.
Vanity metrics: not just a social disease
The raw size of a Facebook following is a classic “vanity metric”—a commonly cited, less-than-meets-the-eye measure. One obvious problem: how many of those followers are actually able to vote for the campaign? A follower in the wrong state, or in Brazil, isn’t going to do most of us much good.
But vanity metrics aren’t just a problem in social media. At June’s Netroots Nation conference, Obama 2012 alum Ethan Roeder noted that canvassing measures can also become vanity metrics. “We knocked on 10,000 doors this weekend!” That’s great, but were those the voters your campaign actually needed to reach? You’re not running a door-knocking campaign, you’re trying to get someone elected, and the sheer number of voters contacted might not be truly relevant.
You can imagine similar scenarios in other campaign communications. Campaigns will sometimes publicize their TV ad spending, in part to impress reporters and create a sense of momentum. But what if that money isn’t being spent well? Are the right voters seeing the right messaging?
In 2012, much to the glee of local TV stations, several outside groups spent tens of millions of dollars on TV ads but got little in return. (Crossroads GPS, I’m looking at you.) Vanity metrics can be a real danger when they obscure what actually matters.
Guerrillas on the campaign trail
Big groups like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads aren’t the only outsiders spending money to influence elections—the Internet lets little guys get into the act as well. I’ve seen a series of online ads target Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch, Lamar Alexander and Lisa Murkowski over their committee votes on a gay rights bill. The advertiser? A one-person social conservative “group” based in Virginia, which is busy using the ads to pad out its fundraising email list.
I’ve also seen Facebook ads run by a Republican outsider against the state party in the past—spending a few dollars per day can yield tens of thousands of ad impressions in a short time. Plus, the new generation of online organizing tools like NationBuilder allow individual activists to run list-building petitions, raise money, organize events and generally find ways to make life difficult for mainstream political campaigns. We’ll see new actors playing on the political stage in the years to come, and not everyone’s going to be happy with the performance.
Yes Virginia, 2014 will be a good year for data gurus
Virginia elects a new governor in November, and while the political fundamentals (and the current governor’s ethics) will likely determine the outcome, both Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe are using voter data to target their canvassing outreach. McAuliffe has several Obama 2012 alumni helping out, too. Many of us will be watching to get an idea of how well an Obama-style operation will translate to a statewide race. With control of Congress on the line and voter turnout likely to be low, 2014 should be a good year for political data experts.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning Epolitics.com, and a 15-year veteran of online politics. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org