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The Internet in Politics: What's It Good For?

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The article below is an excerpt from the new ebook, "How to Use the Internet to Win in 2014: A Comprehensive Guide to Online Politics for Campaigns and Advocates," which is available for Kindle in the Amazon store and as a PDF download on Epolitics.com.

Sure, the internet brought us the glory of unlimited kitten photos, but what's it done for us lately? In the political world, quite a lot — and more every election cycle. Let us count the ways.

Fundraising

As now-President Obama's 2008 and 2012 campaigns showed, an online army can be a powerful source of funds — in '08 alone he raised over half a billion dollars online, two-thirds of it directly from someone clicking the "donate" button in a campaign email. 2012 saw both presidential campaigns pull in more than a billion dollars apiece, and candidates from city council to Congress took notice: even local campaigns have found online fundraising to be a very effective way to gather cash. Not surprisingly, building a base of repeat online donors will be a prime goal for many campaigns.

Recruiting

Online tools from advertising to Twitter can be great ways to connect with donors, volunteers and voters. Even when supporters interact with your campaign at a rally or house party, connecting with them afterwards via email and social media can help you start them on the path to giving money and time. Crucially, social media also let your supporters do the work for you: fire them up and arm them with promotion messaging and imagery, and they'll spread the word about your campaign via Facebook, Twitter and every other online channel they frequent.

Ebook: How to Use the Internet to Win in 2014

Mobilization

Online tools are great at helping your campaign give supporters other things to do besides harass their friends on Facebook. They can canvass their neighbors, bug family members via email, participate in "virtual phone-banks," vote on slogans or video ads, and even speak in public on the campaign's behalf (all organized digitally). For mobilization, email is king — people are far more likely to act on an "ask" delivered via your email list than one posted on Facebook (even if the "ask" is actually to share something on Facebook).

Grassroots Organizing

Digital tools — particularly mobile ones — are catching on in the world of grassroots organizers in a big way. iPads and other tablets will be everywhere in 2014, sometimes worn more intimately than others, as campaigns use them to ease the process of recruiting people and taking donations (via mobile credit card readers) in person. Meanwhile, mobile apps and mobile-optimized websites will provide addresses, maps, directions, videos and talking points to canvassers. A trend: more and more, successful campaigns are using sophisticated data analysis to target their grassroots outreach and optimize it over time.

Advertising and Messaging

In a modern media environment, digital channels are central to spreading a campaign's overall messaging. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Google and a plethora of blogs and news websites offer the opportunity to reach voters and opinion-leaders, with careful targeting helping you use advertising and outreach to hit the voters (or donors) with messages designed to appeal to them. At the same time, you can connect directly with reporters, bloggers and online activists one-on-one behind the scenes. Smart campaigns will employ an integrated mix of paid, social and personal approaches to influence the online conversation and build relationships.

Testing

The internet doesn't just carry messages: it helps you find out whether or not they work. Online advertising in particular lends itself to the testing of positions, slogans and taglines, since a campaign can run clusters of ads on Facebook and Google to see which attract clicks from potential donors and volunteers. Likewise, sending different variants of an email message and measuring the responses lets you test the results before going all-in on a particular subject line or appeal. In 2012, the Obama campaign sometimes found that subject line A/B testing helped them double the amount of money a given fundraising email blast produced.

Geographic Targeting

Top-level presidential candidates seem to get media attention every time they open their mouths, but the problem for state and local campaigns is more often to get noticed at all. In races with limited resources and little press coverage, the inherent ability to target most online outreach at low cost can help stretch a tight budget.

In a densely populated urban or suburban area, for instance, broadcast TV advertising is impractical for many campaigns because too many spots will be wasted on viewers outside district lines. Online (and online-enabled) outreach can usually be targeted demographically and geographically, by contrast, letting you hit the right voters cost-effectively.

Rapid Response

Finally, campaigns will use the 'net to push back against attacks and unfavorable coverage, using online channels' ability to go around traditional gatekeepers (like journalists) to reach voters and influencers directly. Fast and effective response tools include online ads (particularly Google/search ads on queries related to the story), YouTube videos, blog posts and social media messaging. Of course, an email to supporters asking them to help rarely hurts.

Getting Started

Now let's look at the essential online infrastructure most campaigns will need to build to accomplish these tasks....(for more, please see the ebook).