What I Learned from 16 months Running Rand Paul Digital
I remember being so nervous the first time I met Senator Rand Paul after being hired on his campaign to run digital operations. An hour later though, as I walked out of the meeting, I was more excited than ever. Here was a candidate who wanted to run a different kind of campaign and who espoused a message that would reach my generation. He professed to be a candidate that aimed to embrace digital into every aspect of communications, field, voter contact, and message. This was a candidate who led on technology policy, understood the power of the internet, and was beloved by those in Silicon Valley.
While stories have already begun being written about what “went wrong” in our campaign (many of which are just blatantly false, sourced with anonymous people with axes to grind), I want to take time to write about something that went so right.
Fellow Republican “digital folk” will sympathize with the slog we’ve had in the industry. The Republican party is hierarchical, and in our conservative nature, is slow to adapt. During my interview process, Doug Stafford, Rand Paul’s senior strategist and closest confidante, promised that this campaign would be different. It would be one in which a staffer with a digital title would be on every senior call, in senior meetings, and working directly with the candidate. It would be a Republican campaign where digital wasn’t beneath a communications director, but integrated into everything.
Leading up to the Senator’s formal announcement for President, there was a big focus by us to produce unique and creative content. Why? to generate not only media buzz, but increase traffic, sign ups, and grow remarketing lists. This led to numerous items from Hillary Clinton Pinterest boards, to Jeb Bush trolling, to my personal favorite…a fake phone call between Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. Importantly: for little, or no cost.
A year ago this weekend we launched a “liberty football” initiative, where we asked supporters to print out paper footballs, take pictures with them, and send us in selfies. It was wildly successful and served as a base model that we replicated around future debates and the Senator’s two filibusters.
Around the formal announcement, the campaign provided digital with every dollar we asked for. From a robust search budget, to Snapchat ads, to native advertising in early states on the ad platform Taboola, the digital launch was second to none. After watching previous announcements go awry with boondoggled live-streams, the campaign shelled out some serious dough for a YouTube-suggested vendor to ensure quality of the stream.
Senator Paul had an asset no other Republican campaign did: he was able to tap into an amazing talent pool of VERY creative types. I am not talking about your run of the mill self-taught graphic designers, but truly talented people. While most campaigns are scared of losing control of their branding, Senator Paul was the first candidate ever to provide a vector version of his logo to his supporters in order for them to be able to create content and push his message forward.
We aimed for the campaign to be “crowd-sourced” as much as possible. This term to me meant that anyone had access to us to provide ideas, input, design help, and get involved. I often tweeted out my email address and wanted to engage directly on social media with the Senator’s amazing supporters. Our goal was to put to good use the thousands of designers, video editors, coders, and engineers who supported Senator Paul. We did this in numerous ways including encouraging supporters to send in t-shirt designs (we received thousands of options from which we fundraised off of) and then being the first campaign ever to let a supporter create an ad from video we gave them and spending money behind it in Iowa.
If the campaign had progressed, one of our discussed goals was to build a developer sandbox where tools could be built and tested on top of a limited dataset then used nationally.
Around Hillary Clinton’s announcement the campaign took advantage of the opportunity and launched a slew of content with a “Liberty not Hillary’ theme, generating good buzz, money and excitement from our base.
Despite some negative media attention, the launch of Senator Paul’s very usable mobile app was also incredibly successful. We believed in not just creating an app for the purpose of creating an app! It needed to be sexy and have actual utility. Why would people actually want to download an app if it only had the same features as a campaign website? Our main unique selling point ended up being the ability to take a selfie with Rand. At this point, the campaign fundraising began to slow a bit, and the strange uses of the selfie feature generated a ton of press attention,which in turn actually helped the campaign get free installs of the app! It was a success.
The summer of the campaign saw the height of our digital and data infrastructure. We had a wonderful Chief Technology Officer in Ron Schnell, a fantastic tech advisory council, tech spaces in three cities, a wonderful firm of developers that had designed the official logo and assisted with the website and security (Cando), a full time creative director in-house for the campaign (Marianne Copenhaver),my company working on content/ads, and a large working budget. Our campaign had built a digital dream operation.
We opened working spaces at Austin’s Capitol Factory, as well as a space in San Francisco in order to communicate with and reach out to the tech community. There was even a successful hackathon held at the California location.
It wasn’t just the staff that was bought into digital, it was Senator Paul himself. He expressed this with time and constantly generating ideas for us to use online.
Last March, Senator Paul took time to come to my hometown of Austin, Texas for arguably the most important technology conference in the country, South by Southwest Interactive. He met with developers, entrepreneurs, potential donors, and even got to watch a Mark Ronson concert! His one on one with Evan Smith was well received and streamed worldwide. He traveled multiple times to California meeting with tech donors, moguls, and entrepreneurs from numerous start ups and large companies.
As the campaign progressed, Senator Paul continued to push us all to be innovative which led to him being the first candidate to live-stream an entire day. Yes…..at the end of the day the Senator sarcastically used the term “dumbass” to describe his experience but it was in jest! The Senator really did enjoy the day, and there were even plans to have a second (and third!)“dumbass” live stream as the campaign progressed. Why did we do this? Was it a press gimmick? No. The day of the Senator’s live-stream was one of the highest engaged, trafficked, and interactive days of the entire campaign. It was a time to see Senator Paul unscripted, discussing everything, and get to know him better. It is one of the events I am most proud of and something I believe will become more commonplace as my generation (and younger voters) continue to age. We love transparency and authenticity, which is exactly what the live-stream provided.
A campaign looking to spend money wisely, and perhaps more frugally, needs to produce content that has a viral tinge to it. We were never the campaign with the most money, not even close to it, so embedded into every thought process was a need to create something that would deliver a life of its own. This means content that was creative enough to be pass along to friends. Two now infamously wonderful videos reflective of this were the “choose your own way to destroy the tax code” video series(produced by the great company The Strategy Group) and “Audit the Ted” (which my company produced).
The former “choose your own adventure” style video was wildly successful, and a format in which other campaigns should replicate. By running external annotations within the video units, we were able to create remarketing audiences based on voters click-preferences. This could be replicated into issue-based or demographic-based message targeting.
37% of Senator Paul’s website traffic came from people between the ages of 18–34. This was also reflected on social media where our most active age demographics was 25–34 on Facebook. This is unheard of in Republican circles where engagement is generally 55+.
All of this said…what practically can be learned from spending the last 16 months running digital for a Presidential campaign?
- Republicans need to continue to focus on generating content. Not boring content, but content that gets shared. Facebook Mentions and Periscope have made it easy to stream video, but why are most campaigns only streaming video of perfectly scripted speeches? It was the behind the scenes video that drew our biggest crowds and views.
- Republicans need to unleash our supporters. Campaigns are too top down, with consultants pushing their vision for the digital efforts. We don’t ALWAYS know best! Some of the best ideas and content inspiration pieces were from supporters! Letting them take part in the campaign was educational, fun, and allowed for an actual dialogue online. It wasn’t simply shoving a :30 second ad at them and asking them robotically to “share it.”
- It takes money to run a good digital campaign. Real money. Not the crumbs left over after tv, direct mail, and everyone else has their fill.
- Republicans need to embrace Silicon Valley, young people, and engineers. Yes, they dress different than bro-tasic Vineyard Vines youngin’s but the GOP needs to find ways to tap into the exceptionally creative talents of the liberty movement. There was an array of incredibly talented creative-types that all came out to help Senator Paul. We need to harness these folks, find out how to give them scholarships, and get them involved!
- Building a good digital operation takes time. We spent months talking to data platforms, figuring out our mobile app, website, and working on tools. So much more was in the works (*tear*), but it all takes time! I only hope that the remaining GOP candidates and our eventual nominee are investing the time and energy right now in order to battle Hillary Clinton’s operation
6. Candidates are becoming commodities. Our campaign store was a very effective way to gain donors, push message, and get brand advocates. Every news story and campaign event was turned into a new store product (you could even buy Hillary’s hard drive!) We believed in making Rand’s store similar to running a large ecommerce site like American Eagle or Nordstrom. Every product had it’s own unique remarketing conversion pixel from which we’d run ads to lookers and not buyers. We even ran a successful flash sale!
7. Campaigns should set aside time for generating ideas. While some of the campaign’s most creative came sporadically, the campaign got together in numerous places to hold ideation sessions around upcoming events. Most notably, the campaign worked with senior brand folks at Google both in California and in Chicago, spending entire days with our phones turned off, doing nothing except generating ideas and looking forward. This time of reflection was helpful in many aspects. It is the only time I have ever done this on a campaign.
8. The traditional television ad continues to wane in importance. How can campaigns continue to bypass traditional media in reaching voters? I wrote about this in another piece on Medium. One of our long-terms plans on the campaign was to work with YouTube content creators to generate native content to existing audiences. No Republican campaign has been able to successfully do this so far.
People can prognosticate, guess, critique, and anonymously talk about Senator Paul’s campaign for the Presidency. While I wish my fellow Baylor Bear, Rand Paul, was being sworn in as President next year (I cried this morning upon the news he was dropping out!), but without him as an option, my hope is that we have a nominee who will invest in creativity, content, and isn’t afraid to talk to the tech community. Republican voters, strategists, and staff should all be concerned in this arena. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are running phenomenal digital efforts that our party (depending on the nominee), may have to scramble to catch up to.
I have no regrets working for Senator Paul. No frustrations. No anxiety. No people I am mad at or with. There’s no point in dwelling in the past, but only trusting God to take care of the future. It was an incredible time getting to work for someone of such deeply held conviction, and with a team that was willing to build out a digital infrastructure that at its peak, would have rivaled Hillary Clinton’s. Rand Paul is an amazing boss. Someone whose family, beliefs, and life I have come to admire and respect. Looking back, it’s perhaps the moments when the camera’s weren’t around that I appreciated most. Senator Paul is humble, funny, and one of the most intelligent people I have ever met. We are blessed as a country to have him fighting for us in the United States Senate, and perhaps… again…sometime, on the national stage once more.
Vincent Harris is CEO of Harris Media and served as Chief Digital Strategist for Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s Presidential Campaign. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Texas and has been guest faculty at Baylor University. Previously he ran digital operations for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz.