What to prioritize during a campaign’s start-up phase

Campaigns in the digital age are still all about grassroots organizing, driven by authentic storytelling, direct voter contact and leadership development. What’s changed is that a new generation of digital tools and tactics has allowed us to take that voter contact to scale.

So how do you shape your campaign’s strategy — and therefore its budget — to capitalize?

Prioritize the early investments in digital and field that will yield results for your campaign over the long term. After launching, your first priority — no surprise — should be hiring an experienced and proficient finance director.

Campaigns still run on money, and early checks from within your network will help pay for crucial investments in the infrastructure necessary to win. But long term, your finance director will be working hand-in-glove with your digital team, so you’ll want to find someone with a track record of excelling at both online and offline fundraising.

Once you’ve established a viable fundraising base, it’s time to build a base of actual support among voters. In the Reagan or Clinton eras, you’d have done this with direct mail and broadcast TV. Now, you’d do well to focus your attention online — where your dollars will stretch further and your message can be delivered (and tested) more precisely. How precisely?

With digital ads on Facebook, Google, and Twitter you can say with certainty that your spots are being shown in-district.

Unfortunately, that’s just not true for TV ads.

In fact, last cycle $245 million was spent on TV ads shown to viewers in the wrong districts, according to an analysis by Targeted Victory. Put another way, $0.75 of every dollar spent on broadcast TV was wasted. With digital’s ability to guarantee that ads are shown in district — and, if done properly, to specific individuals within the district — your ad budget will never be wasted online. The National Republican Senatorial Committee now recommends that campaigns plan to spend roughly 30 percent of their overall budget online ads alone — not counting their website and consultants.

Taken altogether, this means that means your next big investment is in your campaign’s digital team. This group should have an expansive role within your campaign, regularly coordinating with and helping to shape advertising, communications, data, field, fundraising and scheduling.

In these early days, their first priority will be to help deploy your campaign’s infrastructure: a website built for action, a database of supporters (and prospective supporters), online advertising and fundraising tools, social media, and an email delivery system.

Unless you’re running a billion dollar national campaign, you’ll want to hire an experienced consultant for this role, rather than try to staff it in-house. Pricing structures can vary from shop to shop, but you can reasonably expect to spend about 10 percent of your campaign’s budget on your digital team’s consulting fees.

There are no shortcuts in building a supporter base that’ll yield online fundraising revenue and carry you to victory on Election Day, and your campaign shouldn’t try to take any.

Buying emails or renting lists all seem like quick, cost effective ways to grow your email list and balloon your online fundraising. But you’ll quickly find that they won’t perform for you, even if they did for their original owners. Instead, you’ll need to invest money early in targeted digital advertising and build a list of genuine supporters. You’ll get better results from a 10,000 person list of genuine supporters than a 100,000 person list you bought from a firm or borrowed from an ally.

As your fundraising ramps up, your next big investment should be in your field operation. The days of winning an election through broadcast television and direct mail are largely over. Now, elections are one by grinding it out door to door, talking to voters and building relationships. Pouring the money you raise online and on the phones back into a strong field program will be one of the smartest, and most cost-effective investments your campaign will make.

All this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t budget money for TV, radio, and direct mail — by all means do so. But your campaign’s first investments ought to be in the critical digital and field infrastructure necessary to raise money, identify supporters, and turn out the vote on Election Day.

This article originally appeared in Campaigns & Elections Magazine online.

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