Sunday, December 25, 2005


November 2005 Lessons

Political campaigns with a three month timeline to an election and the need to move voters in highly targeted ways may not need blogs. That appears to have been among the lessons touted at a recent "lessons learned" meeting of high level online campaigners in D.C.

This should surprise no one. Blogs take time to develop, must have an audience to succeed, and reach a technically savy, already politicized audience (as one presenter apparently noted, they definitely reach the opposition's campaign staff). They are not designed to deliver specific campaign messages to voters in key districts.

But bloggers should not be disappointed, and there's much much more to learn about the confluence of email, blogs, MSM, direct mail and volunteerism in politics--particularly for the longer term projects that most nonprofits support.

In a long term issue campaign (say, to pass a bill in Congress), organizations must effectively appeal to a variety of audiences and retain their interest over a long time. These are busy people with families who support our causes but don't have a lot of time (email works great), politically savy people with original ideas that might move the cause forward (blogs work great), members of the media (blogs work great), politicians themselves (blogs work great), volunteers who want to help but don't want to have to think up their own personal strategies (email works great), people who have personal stories that relate to the cause (email clicking through to a forum with dialog works great).

In a two or three month electoral context, we're starting to learn a lot about the limits of online campaigning generally, and the limits of blogging is just one component.

Consumers Union recently joined with Health Access California in support of Prop 79, the initiative for a good prescription drug discount plan. We had little time, no television and no direct mail, so we focused our efforts on earned media and an email campaign to build volunteers. The volunteers "self-selected" by ordering door hangers that they could distribute in their own neighborhoods, where ever they happened to live.

This was wildly successful and drew hundreds of volunteers (there was no existing field structure so all these folks were generated by online efforts) who distributed tens of thousands of door hangers. A few people volunteered directly for other activities, but the door hanger group became a very active volunteer list for almost all the other work. Many of these folks had never volunteered for a campaign before, and some were motivated by personal experience.

Our biggest success was the inclusion of many new volunteers in a political fight. Our biggest loss was...well...the election.

Without TV or targeted direct mail we didn't have a delivery system that could get our message out to the people who needed to understand it and vote our way. Polling showed that if people knew Prop 79 was supported by consumer groups and Prop 78 was supported by Pharma, then they overwhelmingly moved our way. But how could we get them that information?

While email is relatively easy to target, email list building is more difficult to do in a targeted way. Relatively few people signed on to the campaign from Southern California, where we needed greater support. Almost more daunting, the conversion rate of e-list members to volunteers in some districts implied that we would have required a truely massive list to get people on the ground in districts where we needed them or even to fundraise at a competitive level. The drug companies spent over $80 million on TV ads and direct mail. We didn't stand a chance.

Some of these lessons are reflected in the very thoughtful comments by
Micah Sifry after he concluded his work on the New York City Public Advocate campaign. Its one of the most honest and interesting discussions I've been able to find. Frequently it seems like we get caught up in our old debates (blogs vs email; open democracy vs. top down campaign control) and forget that we have to win in order to, well, win! We need everyone on the team to win, and we have to figure out how to use our skills to successfully get our message to a wide range of people--sometimes in a very short time, sometimes over years.

I hope to get the chance to manage the email and interactive components of an online electoral project again, but before I do I hope that many people in the trenches can meet and openly discuss what we've learned from unsuccessful as well as successful efforts.

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