After working for a decade in the area of campaigning online, I've had the opportunity to observe the evolution of many tools and techniques used at varying degrees of success at all levels, from local to national. The 2012 election of course heralds the latest and greatest of mobile technology and is a year where I have seen more candidates embracing the Internet and new media than ever before. So here's my list of top ten tools for campaigns to use online this year.
10) Security & Backups
Who wants to get hacked or have their servers go down on election day? No one, but many campaigns ignore this basic IT tenet. Backups -- onsite and offsite -- are essential for all important campaign information, databases, e-mail and website. Secure servers for the website will be standard, but also smart passwords and password practices are becoming increasingly important. Putting in place a good backup, risk management and security plan to include these things -- as well as considering mobile security -- should be a top priority.
The notion that blogs are dead is both misguided and flawed. There are more active bloggers now than ever before, and blogs have taken on many forms, from casual journals to international columns. Blogs have changed over time, but they're definitely not dead. In fact, I've had more demand from candidates who want to learn to blog this year than ever. The trick is in the details. Blogging doesn't need to mean a fancy candidate blog. Blogging is not the best use of most candidates' time. However, a blog on the campaign website can provide a lot of useful news and information to readers, and I highly recommend that candidates guest blog on local publications in the same way they write op-eds to newspapers. It's all part of smart overall communications strategy, and blogs can be a great listening tool as well.
8) Social Networks
The beauty of social media is the ability to go where voters already are. Not all campaigns need a presence on every form of social media, nor should they attempt that. A targeted approach that considers the best social networks for voters in the candidate's area will be of the most use. Facebook usually comes up first, and advertising on Facebook generally produces positive results. A Twitter presence to connect with media and influencers can also prove useful. YouTube for video sharing and Flickr for images are the other top social networks, but new sites worth exploring include Pinterest and Google Plus.
7) Mobile Tools
For communicating in real time, there's nothing like having a mobile device that can send messages to supporters, showing live video or recent images, prompting an urgent response. Mobile phones and applications have developed at an amazing rate over the past four years. And now campaigns can fundraise through text messaging as well as through the apps or the mobile web. Building mobile into the overall online strategy must be done in 2012, even if it's just to capture candidate photos at events for posting on Facebook. Mobile may yet again prove to be the killer app of this election.
6) The Back Channel
A lot of campaigns make the mistake of just pushing out information, rather than engaging directly with supporters and influencers. The best way to fix this problem is by asking key staffers or volunteers to reach out to people through back channels -- email lists, Facebook groups, Twitter direct messaging, and through personal notes. This way, people become more engaged in the campaign. The general principle that personalized attention gets better results applies online as well. Some people will always be better reached by phone, but a private message online is way more effective than a robo-call.
5) Database & Fundraising Engine
Working together, a good database and fundraising engine can be the bread and butter of campaigns. We all know how important raising money online has become, but it doesn't happen by accident. The campaign database needs clean, accurate data, and ideally integration with the website, email and the fundraising engine, whether that's a tool added onto the site or something offsite, like ActBlue. Being able to quickly access data, segment and target individuals for fundraising and access funds easily are all essential.
A campaign without a website may as well not exist, because most voters today will assume a candidate is not viable if s/he doesn't have a site. The official campaign website is usually the place where voters look first to research candidates and learn about them. Therefore, a clean, crisp, well designed site and user interface must be the cornerstone of any online campaign. Essential pages: contact, donate, about/background, endorsements, issues, calendar. Also useful: news/blog, press, voter registration, volunteer hub, campaign store. A good website also has analytics that tell the campaign who's visiting the website, when, and where they came from.
Still the best way to reach users directly, email is the crown jewel of online outreach. While it may seem old school to the mobile generation, email works well because it goes directly to voters, rather than requiring them to go to a destination like a website or Facebook page to find information. It also reaches a wider demographic range, including many seniors. Unfortunately, email has been so analyzed and focus grouped that many campaigns now send out such canned messages that it's become a nuisance. Finding a way to remain authentic as a candidate and campaign, not always asking for money, and genuinely asking for help remains the key to campaign email. Also the private one-on-one e-mail back channel between candidates and friends, staffers and supporters can also make a big difference, as noted above.
2) Top Notch Content
Including well-written copy, crisp images and high quality video, great content showcases a candidate in the best light possible, highlighting his or her achievements and expertise, explaining the needs of the campaign and expressing relevant news. I've seen candidates for Congress whose website biographies were so poorly written, a high school student could have done better. Sometimes campaigns farm out social media posting to interns or inexperienced editors. While this is seemingly efficient, it can cause real problems. Top quality content must be authentic, diplomatic and inclusive.
1) A Great Team!
I try to avoid using exclamation points in articles, but a great team will always be top priority, and great teams need to be emphasized and recognized. Nothing happens online or off without a great team -- regardless of whether it's comprised of staffers, consultants, volunteers, or a combination. Great strategy comes easily from a great team and in many ways is linked. The best online teams include a diverse group of skills: technical, leadership, written, social and political. We live in a time where everything is becoming public, so we need well-rounded teams that can tackle a variety of challenges. Without people who are savvy in using the technical for the political, the written for the social and the leadership to keep the team together, online campaigns crumble from weak links.