By Eric Wilson, April 2019
Everything a modern political campaign does relies on technology, and increasingly most of the campaign is taking place online. As a journalist covering the political process and trying to explain it to voters, it’s harder than ever to keep up with the constantly changing landscape of campaign technology and how candidates use it.
But one thing remains unchanged: the winner is the candidate who gets the most votes. Everything a campaign does – online and off – should be in service of this primary goal. An effective online campaign will reflect this reality, so it’s important to understand how certain tactics play into the bigger picture.
It is often the case that a new digital tactic or strategy is really just a gimmick. Once you’ve read through this guide, I’m confident you’ll be able to tell the difference.
No matter what new technology emerges, we can never lose sight of the fact that everything a winning campaign does isn’t right and everything a losing campaign does isn’t wrong. Good digital strategy is built on the practicalities of the campaign – including budget, personnel, and risk tolerance – and is always a work in progress.
In this guide you’ll learn how common tactics are used in online campaigning, what technologies are shaping campaigns, background about the differences between Republican and Democrat campaigns online, and some tools to help you in your reporting.
I hope this guide will aid your reporting by helping you cut through buzzwords and spin to find out what campaigns are really up to online.
About Learn Test Optimize
Learn Test Optimize is a website for professionals working at the intersection of technology and politics. The weekly LTO newsletter is a must-read for politicos on both sides of the aisle and journalists covering political technology.
About Eric Wilson
Eric Wilson is a digital-first political strategist based in Washington, DC. He’s a veteran of numerous campaigns, having led Marco Rubio’s digital team during his 2016 campaign for president, served as digital director of Ed Gillespie’s campaign for Virginia Governor in 2017 and US Senate in 2014, and advised on digital strategy for the National Republican Senatorial Campaign in 2016 and the Liberal Party of Australia in 2016. In addition, Eric has held digital strategy roles at the American Action Network, Engage, and the House of Representatives.
|If I can ever be helpful to you in your reporting, please send me an email at email@example.com|
I’d also be grateful if you sign up for my weekly newsletter here, which regularly highlights great reporting by your fellow journalists.
Key Differences Between Republicans and Democrats Online
Republican tech and Democrat tech are like Darwin’s finches. They evolved on separate islands and adapted to different challenges. In broad strokes, the Left is largely collectivist in its technology decisions: Democrats create one platform and all agree to use it. On the Right, technology decisions are more market driven: Republicans create a number of competing platforms and usage is relationship-driven.
As a result, Democrats have a single, core set of tools you can expect to find on nearly every campaign and they will seamlessly share data across various platforms. Republicans, on the other hand, have a broader ecosystem of many different tools created that may or may not have an integration with each other.
It’s worth noting that since the 2016 elections, the Democrats have turned to venture capital to expand their suite of tools through groups like Higher Ground Labs and New Media Ventures. Groups like Tech for Campaigns are also injecting new types of volunteer energy into Democrat campaigns up and down the ticket.
Another key area of divergence between Right and Left involves campaigns’ investments in online advertising. Republicans have traditionally invested more money into online persuasion advertising while Democrats invest more into list building.
It’s hard to say which side is up versus the other on digital technology at a given moment. Always remember the old adage, “Defeat is an orphan. Victory has a thousand fathers.”
The larger a campaign’s email list is, the more money they’ll raise online. That’s the big secret to online fundraising. A major focus for campaigns and other political organizations online is list building. Petitions and surveys are the most effective tactics for growing an email list.
Typically these petitions and surveys are hosted on a candidate’s website and capture key details like name, email address, and ZIP code. The landing pages are promoted on social media, usually via paid ads, to targets based on custom audiences, website traffic, or the social network’s own data.
The list building activities are optimized to the messages that are most likely to convert signups at the lowest cost. This is driven by conversations happening on social media and in the news rather than the campaign’s message or agenda.
Often, reporters will see a petition and think the campaign is running a secret message or is shifting tactics, but the reality is the campaign is putting its limited resources behind the petition or survey with the lowest cost per conversion. Don’t read too much into the ads a campaign promotes for list building.
The single biggest driver of online fundraising is through email. Any time you see (or report on) a big online fundraising haul, expect the vast majority of the donations to have been made in response to an email. Campaigns carefully time their emails to be near the top of the inbox during key moments in a campaign like launches, debates, or primaries.
A candidate may have a viral moment on social media, but the supporter is converted in the email inbox. Fundraising email copy is crafted to be opened, clicked on, and acted upon within less than a minute.
Social Media Ads
Ads on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are called “native ads,” because they’re meant to look like the normal, organic content a user would see using the platform. The significant amount of time voters are spending on social media combined with the significant data targeting options provided by the platforms make ads there a must-use tool for campaigns.
The ads will have a few different objectives depending on the campaign’s goals and will fall into three broad categories: awareness, persuasion, and direct response.
As the name implies, these ads try to make voters aware of the campaign. On social media, this can take the form of promoting a candidate’s bio video or driving likes to their Facebook page.
These ads attempt to change a voter’s mind about a candidate or issue. There’s some interesting research about whether or not this is effective, but campaigns are still spending big bucks on the social media platforms on persuasion. You’ll most often see this in the form of shortened web versions of the campaign’s TV ads promoted into users’ social media feeds.
These ads are the key to List Building and promote petitions or surveys into a users’ news feed.
Campaigns pay for these ads in a few different ways, including cost per click (CPC), a cost per conversion or acquisition (CPA), cost per thousand impressions (CPM), or cost per view (CPV). Pricing is determined dynamically based on an auction and costs fluctuate depending on demand and availability.
During a competitive campaign in a smaller state, for example, with lots of outside groups, costs can soar.
The major social media platforms offer a number of targeting options for advertisers, including details the user provides when setting up a profile, information the platform learns about the user as they interact with content and other users, data provided by the user’s device, and custom lists based on customer data provided by the advertiser.
Search Engine Ads
When you perform a search on Google, for example, you’ll most likely receive a mix of paid and organic results. The search ads are designed to look as close to normal search results as possible and are dynamically generated based on the query a user enters.
There’s usually fierce competition around candidates’ names and searches spike on Election Day as voters research their choices.
For most campaigns, video ads take the form of a regular TV ad placed online, but increasingly, candidates’ teams are creating online-specific videos, typically 15 or even 6 seconds long. On Facebook, stats show that video views start to trail off after about 13 seconds of watching. On YouTube, there are 6 and 15 second long, “forced view” ad formats, but anything longer can be skipped.
If a campaign is only using 30 second spots for online video advertising, most voters won’t see their complete message.
Banner ads are ubiquitous around the internet and campaigns still use them for direct response, persuasion, and awareness. The rise of ad blocking technology is hurting banner ads the most, but in many cases they remain highly visible.
An effective way for a campaign to earn attention, both on social media and in the press, is to build a microsite for a particular messaging push or hit on an opponent. These will typically be simple, one page websites and will often feature a video.
Domain Name Trolling
Domain name trolling – where an opponent buys a domain name riffing on a candidate’s name or slogan – is about as clever (and effective) as stealing an opposing candidate’s yard sign. Most of the time you see this tactic, it’s an earned media play.
It costs less than $20 and it’s irresponsible for a campaign to spend its limited resources purchasing every possible iteration of their name. With Google’s autocomplete function and other features, domain names aren’t as important now as they once were.
Transparency Online Post 2016
Prior to the changes made by Facebook, Twitter, and Google following the 2016 campaign, it was difficult to report on who was doing what online, particularly with so-called “dark posts” that could only be seen by targeted users.
Now, campaigns and other organizations seeking to run ads online around elections and political issues must follow strict guidelines imposed by the major online platforms. Each company’s system varies in subtle ways, but the core principles are verification and transparency.
In order to run ads online that discuss an election, candidates for election, or issues of national importance (listed here), an individual must first verify their identity with Facebook. The full process is outlined here, but it involves sharing photo ID, the last four digits of a social security number, and a physical mailing address within the US where the potential advertiser can receive a postcard and enter the code online.
Once an advertiser is individually verified, they must configure the Facebook page running the ads to include a disclaimer indicating who paid for the ads. Note that this disclaimer does not have to be consistent with any FEC disclaimer language.
Finally, any political ads run under this scheme are included in the Facebook ads database and preserved for 7 years.
Advertisers on Twitter also have to get verified. The Twitter disclosure includes the name of the entity actually ordering the ads. So if it’s paid via a credit card, it will include the name on the credit card or if it’s paid via a line of credit, like through an agency, the company’s name.
Google also requires advertisers to be verified. The paid for must match FEC records.
How to use the ads databases in your reporting
There are lots of ways the information in these advertising databases can be used to build stories and verify what a campaign tells you. You can see how much a campaign is spending on certain messages. You can see if they’re targeting messages to some areas and not others. You can learn how third party groups are spending their resources and what messages they think are most effective.
It’s important to keep in mind that while they are the most commonly used, these aren’t the only platforms a campaign could run online advertising.
Tools for Reporting
Throttle keeps your real inbox free while still letting you receive a campaign’s fundraising and volunteer emails. This web- and mobile-based app generates a unique email address for each website you visit. You’ll be able to organize the emails you receive into subfolders and find out if a campaign is sharing your email address with someone else.
Campaigns will typically filter reporter emails out from their fundraising and volunteer emails, so you can use Throttle to mask your address.
Slack for Monitoring Twitter
Slack can help you monitor, search, and archive social media posts on Twitter. For example, you could create a channel for a particular race and fill it with Tweets from relevant accounts. This will even save Tweets that later get deleted.
Built With is a website that will tell you all of the forward-facing technology a campaign’s website is using. Of particular interest to reporters will be the tab on relationships, which may reveal connections to other sites, including those built with a shared vendor.
Performing a WHOIS lookup of a domain name will return information about where a given domain is registered and possibly, to whom it has been registered. A savvy operative will always pay the nominal fee for the increased privacy, but sometimes you may get lucky.
Glossary of Key Terms
There’s a lot of jargon thrown around online marketing. Here’s what you need to know to cut through the noise.
A conversion occurs when a user completes a desired action, like signing a petition or making a donation. Conversions are among the most important metrics for online campaigners.
Cookie is the name given to tracking pixels loaded on a website that a web browser (like Chrome or Firefox) will then use to identify a user as they travel around the web. A campaign’s website will typically load a number of invisible 1×1 images (the pixels) onto your browser when you visit their site. As long as these files (the Cookies) remain on your device, they’ll be able to serve you ads on other sites via platforms like Facebook, Google, and Twitter.
When a campaign provides data about a specific group of people, usually an email list or voter file, to an advertiser, it is called a custom audience. When a campaign talks about “matching to a voter file” online, they’re likely discussing a custom audience.
In the context of online marketing, the email list refers to the entire collection of contacts a campaign uses for mass marketing. Fundraising is the main goal for most email lists. In rough orders of magnitude, a congressional campaign should have a list in the tens of thousands, a statewide in the hundreds of thousands, and a national in the millions.
A landing page is what we call any page a user arrives at after clicking on something, usually from social media, an ad, or an email. These are often optimized towards a specific action, like signing a petition or viewing a video.