Austria’s Sebastian Kurz didn’t just remake his party ahead of winning a snap election earlier this year, the 31-year-old ran a campaign that placed social media mobilization and digital organizing at the forefront.

C&E Europe recently spoke with Kurz’s lead consultant, Philipp Maderthaner, about the campaign, the expanding role of social media, and the new role of digital fundraising in Austria.     

C&E Europe: You organized a very unconventional campaign for an unconventional candidate in Austria’s recent election. What were the success factors for the Kurz campaign?

Maderthaner: The road to election success is built on the three “Cs”: candidate, cause and campaign. When all three dovetail nicely, the prerequisites are right. That was certainly the case in this campaign. With Sebastian Kurz, we had an outstanding frontrunner, who credibly stands for a new style of politics. We had a clear outlook with the core topics of social security, taxes and migration. Finally, with our strong campaign, we managed to create a real movement that attracted hundreds of thousands of people in the end.

With this new and open campaign approach, which is pretty common in the United States, but unconventional in traditional multi-party democracies, we managed to achieve a historic election victory. Incidentally, the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) had previously only managed to land the top spot twice over the last 50 years.

C&E Europe: The time period between the nomination and the election was quite short – just about 4 months. That’s even shorter than the time Emanuel Macron had to build support ahead of the French election. What were your priorities during that period?

Maderthaner: This is indeed a crucial point. The challenge was not just to set up a viable campaign in next to no time, but also to undertake a change process within the party at lighting speed. Sebastian Kurz was the face of this renewal, and he promptly implemented it throughout the party. When it came to creating a grassroots movement, we were lucky that we could draw on an already existing foundation. Back in 2013, we organised a preferential vote campaign for Sebastian Kurz and recruited tens of thousands of supporters with whom we have stayed in touch ever since. We have involved them throughout the entire process, and they were a key factor that helped us give our campaign momentum right from the word go.

C&E Europe: Your company, the Campaigning Bureau, is focused on social media mobilization. What’s the difference between an election campaign and the other non-political campaigns you are working on in that regard?

Maderthaner: The method is always the same. It’s all about identifying a credible cause, a purpose, a mission—something a company or organisation stands for. It’s about establishing a powerful theory of change. Next, it’s about finding like-minded people via microtargeting and all the wonderful possibilities digital platforms offer these days—even in Europe.

After that, the trick lies in involving these people in a simple way, and empowering them to make a meaningful contribution. If this succeeds, it results in an incredible lever for any organisation: all of a sudden, you’ve got an army of supporters ready to accompany you all the way. We have already done this for large corporations, start-ups, NGOs and political movements.

Above: The Kurz website featured a small-dollar donation portal.

C&E Europe: The campaign was accompanied by a US-style fundraising effort. How did it work in Austria and can you share some of the statistics?

Maderthaner: This was a first. We were always told this kind of thing only works in the United States. It’s got no tradition here. To which I reply: every tradition was started at some point. And that’s what we have done here. Viewed from the U.S., it looked like peanuts; for us, it was a revolution. Two million euros through online fundraising—95% from microdonations. 

C&E Europe: In terms of campaign resources, both money and time, how much of a share did digital campaigning get versus more traditional tools?

Maderthaner: I would estimate that the entire digital operation made up 15% of the budget. That’s a start. You mustn’t forget that in Europe, a lot less of the funds go into TV than in the U.S. and that much more is invested in print media and posters, both of which still play a role.

C&E Europe: How did you use digital channels like Facebook to segment voters? And can you give us some insight into the kind of segments you built?

Maderthaner: For us, Facebook was both the most important social media channel and the most important recruitment pool for new supporters. Segmentation in the recruitment process was very agile, very data-driven due to various A/B tests. For us, demographic criteria were a lot less important in segmentation than behaviour-related criteria. How and where someone interacts with the campaign often says more than how old that someone is.

C&E Europe: Over the years the right-wing FPÖ has successfully established a parallel (social) media universe. How did this factor into the campaign you ran?

Maderthaner: Admittedly, a few years ago, the right had a clear competitive edge when it came to owned media. But Sebastian Kurz not only caught up, but jumped right to the top over the course of the campaign. We managed to reach 1 in 3 eligible voters via his Facebook page. 1 in 6 of our own voters were already on our database as supporters and addressable directly via email or WhatsApp.

C&E Europe: We know that emotionally compelling messages are more effective at mobilizing voters than weighty policy discussions, but what in your view are the implications for truth in that context? Has the rise of social media as a communications tool changed that equation at all?

Maderthaner: David Ogilvy, the legendary advertising tycoon, once said that advertising is “truth well told”, and that’s how it should be. Yes, fake news is a problem. But certain owned media channels of political opponents that spread manipulative stories as neutral reporting are also challenging. The answer can only be transparency and raising public awareness. Both are necessary, I believe. 

C&E Europe: Very often the dialog between politicians and voters stops after Election Day. What are your recommendations for a continuous dialog and how important do you think it is?

Maderthaner: I think this type of grassroots-driven mobilisation is a one-way ticket. Once started, you can’t stop without losing your credibility. Obama demonstrated this in 2008 and 2012, even when that role was transferred to Organizing for Action so as to endure long-term. Anyone serious about what they are doing needs to follow this approach. Sebastian Kurz started back in 2013, never stopped and won the election in 2017. I presume that here, too, the direct access to his own supporters will not break off.