WASHINGTON -- On Nov. 15, a week after Democrats saw sweeping wins in U.S. Senate races, MoveOn.org members received an email from one of the biggest victors.
"I still can't believe it, even as I'm writing it. I'm in Washington, D.C. right now for the Senate's freshman orientation!" wrote Elizabeth Warren. "They have some strict rules around here, and I don't want to get caught passing notes. But I had to take a quick moment to say: THANK YOU."
Warren certainly had plenty for which to thank the progressive community. MoveOn alone raised more than $1 million for the Massachusetts Democratic Senate candidate. And instead of having one of her staffers write the email, she wrote it herself.
"Obviously Elizabeth is above writing emails, but she doesn't think of herself as above writing emails," said Daniel Mintz, who was MoveOn's national director of coordinated campaigns at the time. "I think that speaks to how Elizabeth views digital and online organizing herself -- as a means by which she can connect to this broader movement. I think she very much sees herself -- not just as the senator from Massachusetts ... but as a leader of, and part of, this broader movement."
Warren's digital operation was one of her secret weapons in her race against Scott Brown, the Republican incumbent. She built up one of the most sophisticated programs outside of the presidential campaigns, bringing on Lauren Miller -- a respected strategist from Blue State Digital -- as a full-time senior staffer devoted to new media. That digital army has the potential to be a tremendous asset to Warren in the Senate; the challenge, however, comes in keeping that list of supporters engaged when there's no campaign going on.
The Warren campaign essentially ran two different digital programs simultaneously: One was targeted at Massachusetts voters, who could knock on doors, phone-bank and ultimately, vote for Warren. The other was aimed at supporters around the country, who could build enthusiasm and donate, but not actually cast a ballot.
Mintz said that such a strategy isn't unique, but it takes a certain level of "sophistication and resources" that few campaigns possess.
"The campaign made a decision early on that digital could be a real resource for them, and so it was not something that they just shunned to the side or treated solely as a piggy bank," he said. "It also wasn't something where they said, we'll just hire a consultant and have them run it. They really wanted it to be integrated in the campaign, and I think they did that well."
The campaign did hire the consulting group Bully Pulpit Interactive, which also worked on President Barack Obama's reelection effort, to run its ad program. Miller said while it's smart to run an email operation in-house, running an ad program is beyond the capabilities of any Senate or House campaign.
BPI Partner Mark Skidmore was the chief digital ad strategist for the Warren campaign. He had three goals: persuasion (convincing voters to lean toward Warren), mobilization (get out the vote) and acquisition (donations). Reaching out to supporters on Facebook ended up being more important than he had anticipated -- it was virtually a non-issue in the 2008 election -- and the best times were during key moments in the campaign.
"From a buying perspective, early on, we really concentrated on the key moments we wanted to own. I think that was a really important part of the campaign," Skidmore said. "I would have spent way more on the conventions, for instance, because we saw a huge return from ads around the convention. Same thing around the debates -- I don't think we could have forecasted she would have done so well in those debates, but if I could have looked back and planned those out, we would have bought those debate moments even bigger than we had."
The gender gap also played a significant role in the Massachusetts race, with women heavily favoring Warren and men going for Brown. That made the digital strategy especially important for Warren's campaign, since women dominate many social media sites.
Warren's savvy digital operation also made it easier for outside organizations to mobilize grassroots support on her behalf. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee was one of Warren's earliest -- and strongest -- backers, raising more than a million dollars for her campaign. In July 2011, it launched a "Draft Warren" campaign to encourage her to run for Massachusetts' Senate seat, bringing in $100,000 for her before she had even announced. Warren recorded a "thank you" video that was sent to PCCC's supporters after the campaign.
"Elizabeth Warren's online operation had three major things working for it: Elizabeth's reputation for being a bold fighter that preceded her candidacy, Elizabeth's authenticity and a very sophisticated online operation that included a network of national progressive allies," said PCCC co-founder Adam Green.
A big question for the Warren campaign now is what to do with its digital operation now that she is in the Senate. Miller -- who is now on Warren's Senate staff -- told The Huffington Post that they are still figuring out what the post-campaign digital operation will look like, and how they will keep her supporters engaged. Warren already started a political action committee and helped raise money for Sen. Al Franken's (D-Minn.) reelection effort.
"During her entire campaign, she said we're going to fight every day until Election Day, and here's the really important part, we're going to keep fighting every day after the election to bring about change for middle-class families. ... Certainly we're not shutting down the program anytime soon, especially for the next six months," Miller said. "She cared the entire campaign about giving people a voice, about talking about investments in education and infrastructure and research, and she wants to keep giving people that voice."
Keeping up a strong digital operation is trickier while in office. Obama and Organizing for America, for example, came under significant heat from progressives for not staying as engaged during the big policy fights, such as health care reform. But figuring out that equation could be enormously powerful. MoveOn, for instance, has wielded significant influence on Capitol Hill amongst Democratic lawmakers, who know the group can help them raise money from their massive email list -- or launch a campaign to pressure them if they veer toward the right.
"It's more difficult to be an elected [official] in control of a big list of people than it is to be an outside organization. There are more strictures on what you can and can't do and the propriety of doing certain things," said Mintz, noting that some lawmakers are reluctant to go after members of their own party who may be the ones actually blocking legislation.
Miller declined to reveal the number of individuals on Warren's email list, but she said she's "never seen an email list of people more willing to give."
"I don't think the nut has been cracked yet, but I do think there are a number of people working hard at it, and I'm sure that Elizabeth will join that group," Mintz added. "I expect that they're going to trailblaze new ways for elected officials for mobilize their own lists and work with outside groups directly on an inside-outside game that you can show people in D.C. how much pressure there is outside D.C. for the kinds of changes that we want to see."
This story has been updated to include comments from the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
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