What Campaigns Can Learn from BuzzFeed

January 29, 2015

“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” - William Gibson

As a champion for the use of technology in political campaigns I enjoy experimenting with the newest tools and techniques. I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to deploy them in statewide and local races. Politicians, like lawyers, can be averse to change and it is good that they question whether new tools are worth it. In many Connecticut state legislative races the highest proportion of spending is going towards direct mail. With its rising cost direct mail may have already lost its price competitiveness with the Internet, but the Internet still has a long way to go to be ready for mainstream campaigns.

Direct mail vendors have already built a working full-stack model for political campaigns. The typical state representative engages with a direct mail firm that has designers on staff to do the creative work, then the firm has a print and mail house they work with to distribute the direct mail piece. Many vendors work on a pricing model where a profit margin is baked into the per piece price of the mail. This means that the campaigns often do not need to pay for the design work up front. A campaign can go to a firm and ask for something and at the end pops out the working product with minimal work and expertise needed by the campaign. It is easy and effective.

Digital firms are currently a hot mess, or rather in beta. Most are either technology firms that lack expertise in communications and marketing, or they are communications and marketing firms that do not have technical expertise. If you are going to design a digital strategy page speed and responsive web design that make your content accessible is going to be as important as the content itself. However a well designed website does nothing if it is not being populated with relevant content that people want to watch or read.1 That content does nothing for you if you does not compel people to volunteer, donate, get out to vote, persuade them to vote for you, or to share the content with their voting friends.2 Most political content does not do this.3

Social media is a potential bright spot. Since the websites are built for general users it typically only requires someone with communications skills to use. However social media is not useful unless the message being conveyed does so in the native language of the platform and leads to more votes. Social media managers may get excited when posts get more likes or shares but unless it is putting the message in front of the eyes of new voters or the person who likes the item is going to then volunteer they are not a useful metric. Twitter followers are nice to have but many might not even be in your candidate’s district. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have some geographic targeting tools for advertising but it would be helpful if they could break down their data in a way that gives social media managers a better idea of whether their message is reaching their intended audience.

I think the future of campaigning looks like BuzzFeed. Campaigns will hire full stack digital shops that build them an online presence with both a technology toolset and a content strategy.4 Traditional banner and video pre-roll ads will be used to build name recongition, get out information about the candidate and recruit volunteers for a general audience. Then instead of being asked to spend hours making phone calls, volunteers will be asked to generate content. Campaigns will then spend money to push that content into the writer’s network to amplify its impact.

  1. The difference between a website or social media and other forms of engagement is that direct mail or television ads are pushed on you, whereas a website is something you choose to visit. 

  2. Offline content also has this issue, but many times offline content is not subjected to scrutiny as to whether it is effective because it is too expensive to do so. Clicks and views are easy to measure but it is difficult to know if a particular direct mail piece is being read or tossed in the trash or a commercial is being skipped via DVR. 

  3. The national parties and presidential campaigns have sometimes figured out how to create compelling content, but look at a random sampling of state party or legislator websites. Much of the content are press releases that lack originality. The problem with press releases is that they are written for the press, but websites are supposed to deliver information to the general public. 

  4. Many consulting groups exist that claim to do this. More often than not their expertise is much more narrow than they claim. Or the campaign will have a non-digital communications consultancy in charge of message and then bolt-on a digital agency and wonder why digital is not working well. Message crafters do not have to be technologists, but they do have to understand how the medium they are writing for is used so that they can do their best work. 

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This work by Matt Zagaja is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.