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Organizing Online for Down Ballot Progressive Political Campaigns

Guest post from Cole Haymond.

Coming off an election year, we were able to bear witness to one of the most effective, efficient and successful online campaigns in our nation’s history with the reelection of President Obama. From early 2011 to the 2012 elections, I had the pleasure of consulting on a myriad of campaigns serving as their new media director, among other positions. From Mayoral to US Senate campaigns, I utilized numerous strategies and dealt with varying situations in my efforts these past two years.

Through my experiences, I have learned tricks, tips, and rules for online campaigning. The following post details my observations, experiences and recommendations for fellow online campaigners working on political campaigns.

The Launch

With many campaigns this past cycle, I joined at the start of my client’s respective candidacies. In turn, I built their online infrastructure from the ground up. Many of my clients had little to no knowledge of Social Media. So in writing my online plans, I was tasked with explaining to most clients, step-by-step, what exactly the benefits are to making an effort in the online community. There are many examples I could mention but    an example of my basic set up for my online organizing efforts for political campaigns is as follows:

Starting off with Facebook, I would seamlessly embed the campaign’s donation, volunteer, email signup links onto the page. This way, the ‘fan’ or ‘like’ will not have to deal with being directed to a separate window. Don’t give them the ability to second guess joining the campaign in some capacity.

Next, I populated the pages with a plethora of photos including but not limited to family photos or professionally produced photos commissioned by the campaign. Keeping your page fresh with visuals is key in fostering continued activity on the page.

The following step, which I truly enjoyed, was listing the candidate’s interests, favorite books, movies, hobbies, quotes and life milestones. It not only allowed me to get to know my client, but much more importantly gave the candidate the ability to demonstrate that they are a real person with real-life interests, not just politics.

For Twitter, I begin with the usual set up process- bio, location, profile picture, background if I think it’s appropriate.

Finally, emails. The aesthetics for how emails should appear in our inboxes have been debated since online campaigning began. Visuals? No visuals? Should we make it look like a personal email from a smartphone? Should we make it appear like an informative newsletter? My answer: if you’re not doing all of them, you’re opening the door to early onset monotony. For email campaigning, I have always found that variety in the layout of your emails can make a difference. With the ever expanding long slogs campaigns have become, keeping things fresh is extremely important. Tinkering with your donate, volunteer and email sign up form pages as you go also keeps your content feeling fresh.

The Voice

The Dream Candidate

In the early part of the 2012 cycle, I had the pleasure of working for a progressive Democrat running in an open congressional seat in the mountain west. My client was a very well informed, inspiring and tried and true progressive, which made my job easier. With that, I assumed the voice of a female state legislator in her sixties (tip: if you do engage in this form of organizing for your campaign, make sure you actually take the time to get to know the candidate.) This strategy allowed for constant, free flowing communication between the campaign, press, bloggers, activists in and out of district/state. When followers who can be considered allies are tweeting or commenting on Facebook posts with each other discussing your campaign, that will indicate you’re doing things right.

The Laissez-Faire Candidate

In 2011, I worked for a Mayoral Campaign that took a similar approach as the aforementioned client, but veered in a different direction. We similarly saw success conversing with activists, bloggers and press but it was also my first experience with out and out pushback. My progressive, staunchly pro-labor client was facing heat online. Use your discretion with who and what your response is. My client very openly did not have the knowledge nor wanted to take the time to learn the ins and outs of social media, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but in turn, he had no input and I was left to drive my own created message for the campaign on my own or respond to press. That’s not to say that we weren’t successful in our online efforts. Our Democratic primary opponent did not make a concerted effort to organize online, leaving us to essentially own the arena. Every online poll conducted by local news/blogs saw our campaign as overwhelming winners. Our followers were more engaged online. I do not recommend this approach for campaigns that want to win.

The Team Concept

Some of my clients, a few of which already had established social media, preferred separate but coordinated posting. I have seen both sides of this approach, the good and the bad. This would mean that the candidate would have an unfiltered and clear channel to post on their own. I would set up a campaign team account and would implement weekly plans driving people to the candidates personal twitter account and she would reciprocate with sharing content. Coordinated retweeting worked seamlessly, until the unfiltered material would work against our decided-upon messaging for our online organizing. Despite that, I found this approach to be successful, especially if you have a calculated candidate who thinks before they hit submit.

The Short leash candidates

Who am I to say that a candidate is wrong when they say to me, “It’s my name on the ballot,  I understand your recommendations, but, I’d like to go in this direction with the content were posting”? Every single post I proposed daily would go through not just the campaign manager, but also the candidate, regardless of content. This content vetting process took hours, given that I would work from DC and not on the ground. This issue worked directly against the whole idea of social media, given how free flowing content sharing and discussion is (Twitter especially) online.

The Dreamer Candidate

I had the pleasure of working with a very intelligent, ambitious and opinionated man running for Mayor. While the candidate campaigned door-to-door, he saw an enormous and inconvenient pothole in the street, with a garbage receptacle thrown inside to give warning to passing drivers. The residents who lived nearby complained that the said pothole had gone ignored for over two weeks time. We used this picture of the large and deep pothole to frame to press and voters alike that the incumbent Mayor did not have his finger on the pulse of the city. Shortly after the picture was spread around online and in print, the pothole was quickly filled. While consistently sharing content is the best course of action, over-posting without a focus could be detrimental in regards to reaching potential voters.


Challenging a Goliath

While I had worked for a couple of progressive clients that lost to overwhelming favorites in November, there are things I saw working for the underdogs challenging incumbent Democratic members of Congress or top flight recruits in a primary that may fall flat but can force the winds of change.

One example was a first time progressive candidate challenging a top moderate DSCC recruit. Our campaign wanted to hold her accountable on the Keystone XL pipeline. So, to gain media attention, I chose a photo of the candidate and edited it into a petition to encourage her to stand with President Obama and change her stance on Keystone. Using only $100 on Facebook ads, I targeted this petition in-state to a progressive and Democratic Party audience, leading to news reports and follow up radio interviews regarding our hard-hitting attack. While our efforts encouraging the candidate did not get her to evolve her views on the Keystone pipeline, it forced them to finally begin organizing online in earnest (including creating a Twitter account and begin advertising to their Facebook page).  It generated an open discussion about how splintered the progressive environmental community and the labor and pro business moderate community would coalesce behind the DSCC recruit.

Another example that I am proud of is my involvement in a campaign that pressured a longtime incumbent on the Defense of Marriage Act. The Congressman was previously on record as a DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) co-sponsor and eventually were for supporting marriage equality through constant pressure in press statements, Facebook, Twitter and our emails. Again, through the ads directing individuals to sign onto the petition to urge the incumbent to change their stance on marriage equality, we saw a transformation in the Congressman’s stance as the primary drew closer. The member’s chief of staff went on record stating the Congressman was now for marriage equality and repealing DOMA.

Endorsements and maximizing them online

Once you receive an endorsement, a well-trained operative knows you aren’t finished earning the support of an organization. These groups are allies and important decision-makers and partners in primary and general elections. Continuing dialogue only shows the respective group that your campaign and candidate cares and is making efforts to earn their support. You must continue your efforts in order to retain and grow that support. Many of these organizations with PACs can assist in fueling your campaign with cash. But you aren’t done there. You need to make efforts to earn those boots on the ground as well as online. Engaging local unions on Facebook or Twitter (you’re more apt to find them on Facebook), thanking them for their support, keeping them updated on the goings on of the campaign, encouraging them to drive their followers/members to the campaign’s Social Media, engaging them in policy discussion or reaching out to them to push back against an opponent are effective means to take advantage of an organizational endorsement.

Does the campaign actually have to advertise?

I’m going to come out and say it- Social Media is most effective if you’re a well-financed and well known commodity (i.e. President Obama, Elizabeth Warren). A lot of my efforts online have been entirely organic with no advertising in the budget. In this day and age of Facebook, continuing this type of barebones effort will not result in significant growth online. With these campaigns, we hit a wall in progress with no money behind it and went stagnant. You cannot have successful online organizing without advertising, even modestly. Google Adwords and image ads or Facebook ads are the most effective. The new visibility thresholds with Facebook almost force you to advertise in order to get the most out of your page. To put it bluntly, advertising makes the difference.

Raising money through social media

Just like with email fundraising, it’s imperative that you create some sense of urgency or inspiration for a prospective donor to give through Social Media. An inexpensive way to do this is to advertise PPC (Pay per Click) to just the individuals who like your Facebook page or promoting a post asking for a contribution of $5 or more. You’re much better off, especially for a congressional campaign all the way down to Mayoral, to target within your district or city. If you are reaching out to those who do not currently ‘like’ your page, it’s best to have them taking action in the form of liking the page or signing onto a petition to begin the process of building that relationship that could eventually lead to a contribution.

Tips for political campaign new media operatives

Don’t exhaust your email list too quickly – On far too many campaigns, the pressure to constantly communicate can lead to your email list to become exhausted and begin to tune out to your message. With the exception of fundraising deadlines or getting out the vote, be sure to be cognizant of your open rate and tailor the rate in which emails are sent out accordingly.

Don’t treat your email list and followers as ATMs – The increased pressure to raise money has made far too many campaigns request you make an ask for donations on a far too regular basis. Your email list size and amount of followers are nowhere close to Obama’s, who’s campaign can afford chunks of unsubscribes and unlikes/unfollows.

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Always communicate with the campaign – Coordination is key. If you’re not working closely with the communications director, campaign manager and candidate to have a cohesive message and unified goals, you could be walking right into a dead end.

Numbers don’t always matter – The number of people who like or follow your campaign doesn’t necessarily make or break your online efforts. A better measure of success is the amount of engagement and activity you drum up. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t do whatever you can to continue growing, but big numbers don’t always translate into effectiveness (i.e. Newt Gingrich’s phantom social media followers).

Be consistent – Consistent communication with your followers is vital in identifying and retaining supporters for your campaign. Look to Twitter for posting more than Facebook on a daily basis. Your message should ALWAYS be consistent. Just because Twitter has more of a stream of conscious posting style, it does not mean you have to jeopardize your campaign’s overall message or theme.

Engage, engage, engage- if you’re not growing online as a political campaign, you’re dying. It is important to consistently engage not only targeted twitter users and Facebook users, but also the press, bloggers and organizations. With respect to press, it’s even harder for a down ballot campaign to be recognized, let alone covered. I always send out campaign press releases via email, Facebook and Twitter, which works in coordination with the communications staff of the campaign reaching out to these targeted media outlets. Twitter is very conversational. Take advantage. Open ended questions on Facebook allow your followers to share their opinion or endorse your candidate’s view on a particular issue.


Cole Haymond is a Progressive Political Consultant specializing in Social Media, Communications and PAC Fundraising. Haymond has worked and consulted on dozens of political campaigns from Mayoral to Presidential across the country. Haymond lives and continues to work in Washington, DC. For more information or questions, please contact him at [email protected]


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