In August 2016, we received an unlikely phone call. Evan McMullin, an unknown former CIA agent and chief policy advisor to the Republicans in the US House of Representatives was running for President of the United States as an independent, and his campaign manager-Joel Searby-wanted to know if we would help.
I had been talking with Joel for some months about the possibility of an independent campaign, but now that possibility had become a reality. The campaign was launching on Monday, Joel said, and we had three days to develop all the digital infrastructure and strategy for launch.
Politics is a fast-moving industry, for sure, but even by political campaign standards launching this sort of campaign in just three days would require a Herculean effort. Everything had to be done right, and there was no margin for error - no time for do-overs. Luckily, we had undertaken a similar effort for UK Prime Minister Theresa May earlier that year and knew it could be done.
Of course, we said "yes." What happened next was nothing short of historic.
Putting digital at the center of the campaign's strategy, and allowing it to lead
Political campaign teams, particularly at the statewide or national level, can be overly-complex bureaucracies. And as in any bureaucracy, organizational complexity can make it difficult to execute a comprehensive strategy with speed and focus. Various internal teams vie for influence, budget, and control, and the result is often a campaign that moves in many directions at once - and slowly.
From Day One, when just ten of us met in a small hotel conference room in Washington, DC, the McMullin for President campaign was a small, flat, nimble organization. It was clear that digital strategy would be central to everything the campaign did, and it was never a fight to get the resources or buy-in we needed to succeed.
Evan knew that the campaign needed to succeed digitally if it was to succeed at all.
Hines Digital was charged with overseeing the campaign's digital organizing strategy, including website design and content, lead acquisition, digital advertising, email marketing, online fundraising, and pretty much any other aspect of the campaign that involved software or the internet. We had no time to waste (start to finish the campaign was just twelve weeks), so we didn't waste any. We were given broad autonomy to generate ideas, make decisions, and get things done.
As a result, we were able to bring to bear all of our experience, wisdom, and knowledge - to approach digital organizing "the Hines Digital way" - and that level of autonomy and trust was an essential component in the strategy's success.
Launching the campaign in just three days
From start to finish, the McMullin campaign lasted twelve weeks. It was a pure sprint, and that pace started even before the official Day One of the campaign. We had just three days - from the day we learned that Evan had committed to running to the day we publicly launched the campaign - to design, build, and launch the campaign's digital infrastructure, and we hit our target.
We anchored the campaign's digital infrastructure on NationBuilder's platform, of course, as it's the only unified organizing toolkit that could have been deployed and scaled so quickly. For online donation processing, we used Anedot, which allowed us to begin building a base of repeat and recurring donors from Day One.
Launching such a complete and robust website and engagement infrastructure out of the gate helped the campaign to project the level of preparedness and professionalism necessary to be taken seriously. A campaign or organization's website is often how it makes the first impression with prospective supporters and donors, and a strong, launch-day digital rollout conveys to those early stakeholders that their early adopter support is not misplaced.
Being prepared on Day One was essential: nearly 19% of all online fundraising came from supporters who signed up in the first 24 hours of the campaign.
Our "launch day" supporters were our strongest supporters - they sustained the campaign. Fully 9.25% of the campaign's eventual email list was comprised of supporters who signed up within the campaign's first 24 hours. Moreover, those "founding members" of the campaign contributed 18.76% of the campaigns total online fundraising revenue-more than $267,000 in total.
By ensuring that the campaign had a complete, robust, and scalable digital infrastructure-including both a website and the underlying tech to power a true digital organizing effort-we helped to put Evan in a position to succeed down the stretch.
After Launch: An email program that engaged - and retained - supporters
As an insurgent candidate, we knew that the bulk of Evan's fundraising would necessarily come from grassroots enthusiasts and small-dollar donors. This presented both a challenge and an opportunity: a challenge because Evan entered the campaign with an email list of zero, but also an opportunity to push the limits of what could be achieved when building a supporter list from scratch.
Key Stat: 96% of the money raised on the McMullin for President Campaign was raised online.
While most top-tier Republican campaigns take a "churn and burn" approach to email fundraising - sending tremendous volume and offsetting unsubscribes and spam reporters with advertising-driven list growth - we were unable to take that approach.
Lacking the launch-day capital to run aggressive lead generation ads, we were initially reliant on organic growth; and given our zero-based start and short timeline, we couldn't afford to shed supporters en masse through spam complaints and opt-outs. Once we acquired a new supporter email we needed to keep that supporter actively engaged. This necessity of avoiding churn shaped our engagement strategy to tremendous positive effect.
That meant devising an email strategy that immediately engaged new supporters with non-fundraising emails while keeping up a frequency of fundraising asks that kept much-needed dollars coming in at a high rate.
Warming up new supporters with an intentionally designed on-boarding experience
Once a new supporter signed up on the website, they received a series of on-boarding emails over the following five to seven days that accomplished three major goals:
- To convey an ongoing "conversation" between the campaign and its supporters;
- To glean more information about our supporters; and
- To acclimate supporters to receive emails from several different senders.
The new supporter would receive emails from Evan McMullin, Mindy Finn (Evan's running mate), Joel Searby, John Claybrook (Deputy Campaign Manager), me (Ian Hines), and Richie Alicea (Deputy Digital Director) - in that order. Importantly, none of these emails were a direct fundraising appeal. Instead, new supporters were asked to:
- complete their profile on our website;
- volunteer with the campaign;
- share their support on Facebook, Twitter, and Brigade; and
- get a bumper sticker.
Only after completing the initial onboarding email sequence without opting out would they begin receiving regular fundraising asks and engagement emails.
Overall email list performance
By the end of the campaign, we had built a powerful and engaged email list that - while not on the same scale as the Clinton or Trump campaign's lists - would have been the envy of any statewide campaign in America. We sent more than four million individual emails over twelve weeks, not including auto-response messages, and our performance far exceeded industry averages.
Our email program's performance far exceeded industry averages, including an all-time "Open Rate" of 30.8%, an "Unsubscribe Rate" of just 0.4%, and a spam complaint rate of just 0.1%.
By the end of the twelve-week campaign, the supporter email list - which did not exist at all on Day One - was perhaps its most important operational asset after the candidates themselves.
The clearest way to convey the value that this approach to email fundraising achieved is by looking at it from a per-address fundraising return basis. Each new email address had an average value of $15.49 over the life of the campaign. For every dollar spent on email acquisition, the campaign would raise nearly $8 in return. Digital ads were effectively printing money.
Naturally, the highest value was with supporters who signed up in August, when Evan announced his candidacy. Over the life of the campaign, each August signup contributed an average of $24.47, and 37% of these signups donated to the campaign more than once.
Fundraising doesn't only happen via email: how user experience design yielded major fundraising returns
As important as Evan's email program was to the success of the campaign, only about 32% of the campaign's overall online fundraising was the result of direct email appeals. More often, people donated directly on the website - either on one of our "quick donate and get a sticker" buttons or via a daisy-chained donation page.
We found that it was essential to balance the "warming up" of new supporters with ensuring that they also had ample opportunity to donate when they were most enthusiastic about the campaign's message.
Through a combination of chaining donation asks to initial signup forms and with passive donation asks in engagement emails and autoresponders in the form of a prominent donate button below the signature of emails, the vast majority of donors gave in the same month they signed up.
25% of new supporters donated in the same month they signed up: the value of each same-month donor was $54.52.
This fast donor conversion timeline was essential to the campaign's success, because on a twelve-week sprint we simply didn't have any time to waste. We worked hard to craft a user-experience that (a) encouraged our supporters to sign up and join the campaign and (b) urged them to give immediately-and it worked.
A final point on campaign leadership & message
I want to say a final word about something that I believe had a significant impact on the digital program's performance, but that I cannot support with data: Evan's own vision for the campaign.
In the campaign's first meeting, at the Hilton Garden Inn in Washington, DC, I framed our eventual digital program by saying (and I'm paraphrasing from memory, here):
We're not going to lean on fake hyperbole, we won't be telling our supporters that the sky will fall if they don't give us $50, and we won't try to trick anyone into donating. We're going to speak the truth, tell our story, and ask our supporters to be part of something bigger than themselves. If we empower them to do the right thing, they'll step up to the plate and help us.
Thankfully, Evan and Joel agreed (they didn't even need to be persuaded!), and that gave us the freedom to pursue the strategy we did. I'm incredibly thankful for their support and buy-in on that front: if they had insisted that we send spam, or rent every list on the planet, or use direct mail strategies via email, we would never have achieved what we achieved.
Evan and the rest of the team were relentlessly focused on keeping our messaging positive. Positive messaging lifts people up and empowers them, and when people feel empowered they take action. Even when we used negative themes (i.e., calling out another candidate) we always pivoted back to empowerment and inspiration before we made the hard ask. That was key.
The Bottom Line
I think it's fair to say that-despite the result-the McMullin for President campaign was the most challenging, exciting, and professionally rewarding project that we worked on at Hines Digital in 2016.
Evan McMullin, Mindy Finn, Joel Searby, and the rest of the campaign team were stand up folks and a pleasure to work with. In an industry that often talks about "not having a seat at the table," I can say honestly that Evan's was a digital-first campaign-the first truly "digital-first" campaign I've been a part of. I had a direct line to the candidate and the campaign manager, and while I didn't always get what I wanted I always got a fair hearing and an explanation. I can't overemphasize how rare or valuable that is.
I also don't want to understate how important Evan's personal contribution to the campaign was to the success of the digital program. He was a relentless campaigner-incredibly disciplined and on-message-and the leadership he displayed on the campaign trail inspired conservatives across America to stand up with him. That, in turn, made it easier to write clear, compelling copy online and in emails. He trusted us, and we trusted him.
We believe that we learned a lot of valuable lessons that'll serve our clients well in 2018 and beyond. Most importantly, we believe we established a model for what an effective, center-right digital engagement and fundraising program looks like.
The metrics we saw on this campaign, and the record time in which we built a big-dollar fundraising program, are so surreal that people often don't believe me when I tell them. But believe me-they're real and reproducible.
We can't wait to see what's next.