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The answer to this all-important question depends on a number of factors: the type of campaign you're running, how big of an investment you're making in digital, and what sort of digital outreach you're focusing on.
The best place to start? Figuring out what types of digital investments you'll be making. For instance, determine what you’re paying for your technology, including your website, database tools, and organizing tools.
Once you’ve tabulated those costs, factor in paid media, which is your cost for online advertising, and fundraising outreach. Then comes owned media. This refers to things like keeping the website updated, running your social media pages, and doing all of the smaller segmented emails around localized events.
The answer for the tech piece, at least from our firm’s perspective, is simple: outsource it. It's almost impossible for most organizations to hire the right staff to build the website, database tools and organizing tools cheaper or better than they could license it. Hire a firm and pay for off-the-shelf campaign tools integrated with a website that’s easy to update and looks good on all devices.
Owned media is often a good thing to do in-house, but this assumes you have a team who can competently handle it. The main reason to do it in-house is that most owned media updates/posts happen on the fly, with high frequency. It can be nice to have this handled by somebody within arm’s reach.
Moreover, if your organization has multiple people on the approval chain, it’s good if somebody can physically chase down approvals when there’s a bottleneck. It's not rocket science —especially compared to the tech or ads piece — so it's fairly cheap to hire or train an existing staffer. On the other hand, if your digital vendor wants to bundle it with its other services, and you have an efficient workflow with them, there's nothing wrong with outsourcing it.
It almost never makes sense to handle paid media in-house. Having skill and experience in online advertising means having bought millions of dollars of video, display, social, mobile, and search ads in the online markets. It's not something to let an inexperienced staffer learn on the job.
There are so many kinds of online ads and so many ways to buy them these days that you really need a team of online ad specialists to run a decent program. Same with creative production—you want a team with a deep enough bench to spin up half a dozen different ad formats, for the same buy, at the same time.
Finally, a huge chunk of online ad inventory is sold through auctions, not a fixed-rate card. This means a skilled team of buyers can run significantly more ads for the exact same budget — even after their fees.
Meanwhile, fundraising is unique. It’s also the area of digital that has been around the longest. As a result, there are a lot more people out there capable of running a solid online fundraising program. This means it's possible to do it well through outsourcing or by making hires. In general, smaller fundraising programs are cheaper to run in-house with existing staff—medium-sized and larger campaigns benefit from having the extra firepower firms bring to bear.
Now, we have to consider the size and type of campaign. Smaller races, such as state legislative efforts, are easy to prescribe. This kind of race usually won't raise much money online — and most of it will come from the same people they're reaching during call time — so your finance person is probably best positioned to be emailing that list.
On smaller races, a staffer should handle owned media, and not spend much time on it. Online advertising, however, might be a huge chunk of these smaller races’ budgets, especially if the district is too small or oddly shaped for TV to be efficient. If so, our advice is to outsource it. Since these races are usually run by one or two people at most, they can be easy to work with, which in turn means they can attract surprisingly good consultants considering the size of their budgets.
Medium-sized races like, say, a congressional contest are the toughest to answer this question for. They straddle that awkward gap where they might be too small to attract top-tier digital talent, but are big enough to often have serious digital needs and a lot of cooks in the kitchen. This combination of high needs and low budgets tends to limit their staff and vendor options.
To some degree, these races have to take what they can get. If you have a young staff who grew up in the digital era, one solution is to split the responsibilities: have your communications person handle owned media, have your finance department handle online fundraising, license your tech, and hire a digital firm to place your online media. If you're planning on doing a large digital program, or if you're a congressional race that draws lots of national attention, you might instead consider following the advice for statewide races.
Larger races, like top-tier statewides, are also simple to prescribe. They need to hire digital staff and hire digital consultants. At this level, you need a staffer just to shepherd everything through the approvals process and keep all the moving pieces organized. If they're good, this person or team can often handle some or most of the owned channels as well.
The firms usually do the heavy lifting with fundraising, advertising and tech. Unless you have a digital director you love from your last race, it's best to hire the firms first because they can help you find and place the digital director and even the deputy digital director.
Mega-organizations, including presidential campaigns and party committees, also need to do both, but obviously they’ll do it bigger. They’re most likely building an entire team of digital marketing specialists and hiring specialty firms to help each sub-department.
Josh Koster is the managing partner of Chong and Koster, a digital agency that works with Democrats and responsible corporations.