It’s hard to believe that prior to 2004 the internet was barely a factor in presidential elections. Now, digital engagement, including online fundraising, social media and email outreach, are absolutely essential to any robust fundraising strategies for political campaigns. Targeted, proactive engagement of opted-in supporters, without taking a one-size-fits-all approach, is the likeliest way to find success building a coalition of political donors.
A recent article in Fast Company on candidates’ use of digital marketing strategies, noted, “The digital teams on campaigns are working to create a marketing funnel to increase awareness, engage supporters, and drive them to action either through donating, volunteering or voting.”
Digital Engagement Is More Important Than Ever For Candidates
This year’s presidential election has been unique, because candidates were unable to hit the road during much of primary season the way they normally would, due to social distancing requirements. An article in The Washington Post from early March highlighted the candidates’ readiness to tackle digital marketing, supporter engagement and donor recruitment strategies more broadly. Those candidates who already had a deep bench of digital engagement across social media and email were more likely to easily transition to digital outreach during quarantines. “Town halls, rallies, fundraisers and canvassing – in the traditional sense – have all been put on hold, with staffers devising creative ways to keep campaigns running online and through Skype, Zoom video conferencing and FaceTime,” reported The Post.
In an unfortunate “too little too late” situation, Pete Buttigieg may have been in the best position to reach donors effectively online. Prior to dropping out of the race March 1, Buttigieg’s online engagement director created a “digital door knocking” program ahead of Super Tuesday, enlisting “over 1,000 volunteers to scrape Buttigieg's followers on social media platforms and make contact with those followers through direct messaging.” And, while it may not have benefited Buttigieg this time around, it is a lesson to other candidates that elections aren’t about just shaking hands or holding rallies. Voters are everywhere, and young voters, in particular, are more likely to turn online engagement into offline action.
Candidates Worried About FEC Reporting Instead Of List Building Could Get Left Behind
The amount of money candidates have raised over the last several elections has been record breaking. Having big war chests is considered essential to compete in national elections for the long haul, and the flurry of activity that always surrounds Federal Election Commission (FEC) reporting deadlines is indicative of how seriously candidates take the need for seemingly endless reserves of money.
However, republican political strategist Eric Wilcon pointed out that having a myopic view of fundraising can be detrimental to candidates: “A candidate can launch a campaign without much money and reach large segments of the electorate through the internet quicker than ever. Being nimble like this and scaling on demand is actually an advantage challengers have over slow-moving incumbents.” Wilson added, “Campaigns that are focused on FEC reports aren’t building the critical infrastructure, namely an email list and online fundraising program, they need to be successful in modern campaigning.”
List building offers the opportunity to raise money via email and targeted messaging while asking for additional actions to be taken by supporters, including sharing positive articles on social media and helping out with the campaign. The more engaged donors are, the more likely they are to give again, to stay loyal and, particularly with small dollar donors, to feel a sense of belonging with the candidate and campaign.
Small donations have become an important part of presidential campaigns, and this year is no different. As of March 31, presumptive democratic nominee Joe Biden, had raised more than $53 million in small donor donations, and President Trump more than $33 million.
The Coronavirus Pandemic Spurred A Surge In Donations
According to Act Blue, the coronavirus pandemic inspired donors to give more than $140 million dollars in small donations averaging $31 to campaigns and candidates they care about in April 2020, with 51% of contributions made on mobile devices.
Subscriber database building allows candidates to capitalize on the many micromoments that happen in campaigns and news cycles. An FEC deadline is an obvious one, with many candidates asking for a “spare $3 before midnight,” but any newsworthy, viral moment that can be used to reinforce the beliefs of a candidate or highlight the weaknesses of another can be quickly deployed as messaging within email, SMS or other digital outreach.
A Think with Google blog post, reflecting on how YouTube and video have been an integral part of campaigns in recent years, observed “It's not just political events, like debates and caucuses, that are shaping election watch-time trends. Timely, cultural conversations spark voter micromoments, too. For example, the week after same-sex marriage was legalized, watch time for related videos was 24x compared to the average of the three weeks prior.” Candidates that effectively use digital marketing to align campaign messaging with voter interest spikes are more likely to capitalize on viral moments.
Acquiring Political Campaign Supporters Now And In The Future Will Rely Increasingly On Digital Channels
From Fast Company: “All modern political campaigns are waged with technology, from web video launch announcements to sophisticated voter targeting and data modeling.”
Political campaigns are digital. Every modern candidate is actively engaged on social media and uploading new content across media channels every day to make targeted connections with voters. By effectively reaching audiences with sophisticated digital marketing strategies, using strategically built first-party databases, political campaigns can coalesce lasting engagement that offers benefits fiscally and on election day.
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