Websites, Twitter accounts and Facebook pages are ubiquitous during elections. Most Canadian campaigns spend thousands of dollars on custom-made websites and databases that require hours of technical service. Many are implemented without regard to long-term planning or a vision for digital strategy with the broader campaign plan. Digital technology’s impact on Canadian political campaigns has remained relatively stagnant.
Part of the problem is that money plays less of a role in Canadian politics than American politics. Donation and spending limits mean campaigns must use funds cautiously. Innovation is often stifled in favor of the status quo. Campaigns create a website, tweet to their followers and call it digital strategy. South of the border, campaigns and professional consultants invest heavily in client relationship management (CRM) software, data infrastructure and sophisticated outreach tools. Only major parties and well-financed campaigns can afford these technologies; smaller municipal and advocacy campaigns lack advanced tools to capitalize on the emerging and increasingly important digital landscape.
But a shift is taking place in Canadian digital campaigning, thanks largely to the American venture capital community. Upstart campaign technologies are easy to use, cost very little and can be extraordinary powerful. One such platform is NationBuilder, which provides a number of cutting-edge digital tools including a free website, a social CRM system, fundraising software, campaign database and email service all in one integrated package. Prices start at $20 a month and rise depending on the size of the database. Recently appointed President Joe Green, who is credited with developing Facebook Causes, believes that NationBuilder offers tools more advanced than President Obama’s campaign used in 2008, at a fraction of the cost. NationBuilder board members include technology notables Sean Parker founder of digital music pioneer Napster, and Facebook co-founders Chris Hughes and Dustin Moskovitz.
Canadian political campaigns are only starting to wake-up to the availability of technologies like NationBuilder. In Western Canada, the upstart Alberta Party used the platform for its revamped website. While the party polls in the single digits, its social media presence is only slightly behind that of the Liberal Party, which sits at 18 per cent. Nathan Cullen’s New Democratic Party leadership campaign was using NationBulder and was recently recognized by the influential Hill Times newspaper for its successful database and social media integration. NationBuilder allows politicians to track, engage and empower volunteers by tracing their online actions within the central database. The website includes innovative gamefication features where users can collect points for certain actions like tweeting a link or attending an event. These points can be cashed in for prizes and offer an incentive for supporters to engage with the campaign. Similar tools from elsewhere cost thousands of dollars and require extensive coding.
A growing number of advocacy groups are utilizing NationBuilder to identify and raise awareness for issues-based campaigns. For example, the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation recently launched a successful NationBuilder campaign called Stand Up For BC, collecting the signatures of over 18,000 people – all of whom are tracked in a central social CRM database. The campaign can then target those people to engage in further actions to support their cause.
The implications of these new innovations are enormous. Canadian municipal campaigns can now have access to professional voter databases to better track and reach out to voters; advocacy groups will be better able to promote their causes through NationBuilder’s sophisticated social media CRM; and smaller political parties will be able to afford cutting-edge technology at a minimal cost.
This is why current digital strategies are no longer enough– not by a long shot. Tools like NationBuilder will change how Canadian campaigns, advocacy groups and small not-for-profits interact with their target audiences in the digital world.
Geoff Sharpe is an experienced digital and online organizer and currently works for Navigator Ltd. as a digital strategy consultant. He can be reached at email@example.com