Digital campaigning for first-time candidates: Answers to frequently asked questions

I’ve talked to a couple dozen people over the last few weeks who are running for office for the first time about how they should be using the internet as a tool to win. A lot of people have asked similar questions about digital campaigning, so I’m answering them in writing here in case they can be of help to other first-time candidates.

Feel free to share with a Democrat you know who’s running for office, or thinking about it.

(Context: I’m a digital strategist who’s spent the last 10 years working with and within campaigns, nonprofits, and advocacy organizations. And two caveats: This is all based on my experience, which does not encompass every campaign ever run in every circumstance possible; and platforms, algorithms, and other aspects of digital campaigning can and do change quickly. That’s what makes it [mostly] fun. Think of these recommendations as a place to start.)

  1. Should I be spending more of my time and energy on Facebook or on Twitter?

As someone who loves Twitter, I have sad news to report: Barely anyone uses Twitter.

Here’s some perspective from the Pew Research Center:

Look at that line for Facebook at the top. Then look at the crowd of other lines way below that. Then look at the Twitter line at the very bottom.

Twitter is still an important place to build a profile in the eyes of the press, since journalists are some of its most loyal users. Becoming a known quantity with local journalists can lead to earned media and help you build name recognition in your district.

But in terms of where most of your prospective voters and volunteers are spending their time online, you’re better off putting more time and energy into Facebook than Twitter. Think 70/30 rather than 50/50.

Other reasons Facebook should probably be your no. 1 social media priority: historically, Facebook posts tend to be more successful than tweets in getting people to do real things that help grow campaigns (sign up for an email list, donate money, become a volunteer); our Facebook friends tend to be people we know in real life, meaning people who are more likely to live nearby—and in the same city council, state legislature, or school board district.

2. Should I get on other social networks?

I could see a case for getting on a couple of other social networks if there are unusual things about your campaign:

  • Do you have a volunteer who could provide you with a consistent flow of reasonably high-quality photos and video? Maybe it’s worth getting on Instagram.
  • Are college-aged voters your base? If so, maybe you should prioritize Snapchat.

But the answer applying to 96% of campaigns is probably: Don’t spend much time on social media beyond a lot of Facebook and a little Twitter.

The bulk of your time spent on digital should really be spent on email. More on that below.

3. How can I use social media to raise money?

I’m sure this will change someday, and there are always campaigns that will be exceptions, but fundraising over social media generally represents a drop in the bucket compared to fundraising over email. People who do digital strategy for campaigns have been expecting this to stop being true every year for the past 10 years. But it keeps being true—true for Barack Obama, true for Bernie Sanders, true for campaigns up and down the ticket, probably true for you too.

Think of social media as a way to help people find your campaign and inspire them to become a part of it. But you should make the link to your email sign-up form easy to find from your social accounts, you should post it regularly, and you should think about how you can drive folks to sign up for your email list wherever possible.

4. How do I use the internet to recruit volunteers?

Email is also likely to be your best friend here. I do think you should experiment with Facebook events, including explicitly encouraging your existing volunteers to invite friends to join them for a given event. Because invitations show up in people’s Facebook notifications, they could get seen by more people than they otherwise would.

5. So email’s important. How do I start putting together a message calendar?

Think about big events coming up for your campaign over the next few months: an end-of-quarter fundraising filing deadline; six months out from your election date; Pride; a march for an issue you really care about; an upcoming vote in the legislative body you’re looking to join; a big moment for an issue you care about that’s playing out on the national stage (say, health care).

Then think about an email you might send a friend or family member to explain why that event speaks to what you want to do for people in office, and—important!—what the people reading your email can do to help you get there. Then think of a foll0w-up email you might send to remind people that a deadline or vote is coming. Then think of an email you would send to thank them once it’s over with a report-back on what happened.

That’s your email calendar and your email program. If you want some examples and inspiration, I think people like Elizabeth Warren and Chris Murphy have great and meaningful email programs.

You might come across folks who tell you to run a burn-it-down email program in which you do nothing but yell at people—ideally with bold fonts and highlighting—to donate now or the country will actually fall into a sinkhole. Those tactics sometimes work to raise quick money in the short term. But they’re not the way to build a real constituency of people who will support, volunteer for, and otherwise be a real part of your campaign over the long haul, which is what you need to win.

6. How do I make sure I’m not emailing people too much? I don’t want to spam them.

Are you emailing people fewer than two times a week? You’re probably not emailing people too much. If you are emailing more than that, keep an eye on your unsubscribe rate—if you see big upticks, look again at what you’re sending people and consider whether you’d think it was relevant to your life if you were a typical supporter of your campaign. In the history of the world, no one has complained that they were getting too many relevant, inspiring emails that made them feel like they were a part of something larger than themselves.

7. What are some good tools I should know about?

A lot of small campaigns and organizations have had good luck with ActionNetwork for email. Squarespace is a good tool for putting together nice-looking websites, with lots of templates to build off of (and you can probably find a 10% off coupon by listening to the ads of any major podcast). I’d recommend using Facebook and Twitter’s own back-ends for scheduling posts, managing your page, and looking at analytics. Tools like Hootsuite and Buffer are also decent choices for social media management. Just remember to keep a close eye on your passwords and permissions.

8. How much should I worry about saying the wrong thing?

You should obviously use common sense, common decency, and good manners. But beyond that, please don’t think that because you’re a capital-p Politician now you need to start talking like a robot who speaks only in poll-tested statements. I think you lose more than you could ever possibly gain from thinking that way. If you look at any of the politicians who break through and resonate with people—online, and therefore also in real life—they’re people like Elizabeth Warren, Chris Murphy, Kirsten Gillibrand, Maxine Waters, Jason Kander, and Kamala Harris. What they have in common: They are real about what they care about and why. They talk about politics in terms of shared values and personal stories—their own stories, and the stories of people they’ve met. They are people who sound like people. Wouldn’t you rather support and vote for and volunteer for a person rather than a Politician?

9. Any other tips I should know?

Something I’ve been advising people to do is to find the local resistance groups that have sprung up since the election, as well as older Democratic organizations—groups like Indivisible, the Women’s March Huddles, Flippable (state and local races), Swing Left (congressional races), EMILY’s List (for women), the DLCC (state leg races). Find local meetings in your district. Go to them, meet people, and introduce yourself as someone who’s running for office. You could recruit some volunteers that way. Folks attending these meetings have already raised their hands to say they want to do something real, which is huge. Your race could be a great opportunity for them to do it, in a really concrete way, by electing a great Democrat to office.

Other important resources: If you’re under 35, you should check out Run for Something, which is helping young Democratic candidates who are running for office. EMILY’s List is also running a program called Run To Win to provide advice and resources to Democratic, pro-choice women who are running for state and local office. Emerge America and She Should Run also offer trainings and other programs for women candidates.

For digital advice specifically, check out a volunteer organization of digital campaign professionals (mostly Obama folks) called Chorus Agency. (Full disclosure that Run For Something was founded by friends of mine, I do some work with Run To Win, and a bunch of friends are volunteers for Chorus. I swear they’re all really great despite my association.)

10. Above all…

Remember that your campaign isn’t just, or even mostly, about you. It’s about building a team of people—you, your staff, a bunch of volunteers and voters—who want to change your little corner of the world for the better. People invest in candidates and their campaign organizations because they want to be a part of something that’s bigger than themselves. So in your emails, social media posts, and other digital communications, you should say “we” much more than you say “I.” That “we” should always encompass the full campaign team of volunteers, supporters, and paid staff—it should never mean just paid staff, which has the potential to feel like you’re sitting on top of a mountaintop talking down to your lowly supporters and volunteers. The reality is that you’re building a team of people who want to see their values represented in office, and in grassroots campaigns everyone is an equally important part of that team. And if you are really lucky, you can represent that team in office someday. Good luck.

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