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McDonnell Online Strategy: People Matter

Team Engage

Team Engage

The McDonnell for Governor campaign made a commitment from the outset to run the most sophisticated campaign in Virginia statewide history. In addition to aggressive volunteer recruitment and voter contact programs, they recognized the value in investing in a professional-looking website and online strategy and media team. Keeping supporters engaged in the campaign with daily blog posts, photos from the campaign trail, Facebook contests and mobile updates, among other efforts was a constant focus, even throughout the primary season while the campaign waited for the Democratic candidate to be chosen.

Critical to the appeal of the communications with supporters through social media and the website was the top-to-bottom interest in the online aspects of the campaign. From the candidate to the campaign manager, communications director and political director, there was an open line of communications with the online team. While many campaigns make the mistake of focusing too heavily on straight numbers (emails, Facebook friends, website page views) or on earning media for shiny, cool new toys, the McDonnell campaign benefited from a focus on value: the number of real online activists, organic email signups and contributions.

The tactics and focus employed by the campaign may not appear novel to presidential-level strategists, but for statewide campaigns, the McDonnell campaign should serve as a model. A cautionary note about any case study on political campaigning: glean valuable lessons but recognize that the political environment and dynamics vary from race to race.If ones takes just a few basic lessons from the McDonnell online effort, take these, the 7 habits of highly successful campaigns:

  1. 1. Major statewide campaigns need multiple people working on the online aspects of the campaign, even if they are part-time. One person should be wholly dedicated to website content, social media and blog outreach, and this person will likely not have the bandwidth to run online organizing and fundraising.
  1. 2. Invest in a professional-looking site with a robust platform, but you can’t stop there. Budget for continued development to adjust to strategy shifts. Every campaign has them.
  1. 3. Devote between 5-10% of your media budget to online advertising. The commercial standard is 15%. With the exponential growth in DVR use and 10% of the population no longer watching television, you will miss voters if you don’t run online ads. Remember, online ads can be launched w/in minutes to rapidly respond to an incoming attack or to take advantage of an opponents’ stumble. Both happened on the McDonnell campaign.
  1. 4. Manage online fundraising expectations. No matter how hard you try, your biggest online fundraising haul will come in the final 2-3 months.
  1. 5. Don’t forget to utilize your online presence to engage and activate volunteers, and involve your political operation in this process.
  1. 6. Candidates and campaign managers must take a vested interest in the online strategy of a campaign. It will not succeed in a vacuum.
  1. 7. If you are able, invest in new communications channels such as mobile. Mobile messages reach recipients instantly and are opened at higher rates than email; however, recognize that email will allow you the greatest reach, and is unique in its ability to instantly inspire contributions.

Early Investment

The McDonnell campaign launched a robust, informative and captivating website in conjunction with their campaign’s launch. The early version of the site capitalized on the initial strengths of the candidate to introduce him to those who would key into the race eight months out. Upon visiting the website, one would be greeted with a lead-off bio video that highlighted the candidate’s record of service, experience and personal character that was produced by the media team.

This video was not of the garage-level production type, but instead a well-produced piece that would captivate those who visited. The idea of investing in video production even when the particular videos will never air on television is still foreign to some campaigns; however, the McDonnell campaign retained early a web video professional who could both shoot and produce video press releases, rapid response videos, feature pieces and campaign updates.

Also critical, the campaign invested early in an experienced staff member to direct the campaign blog, blog outreach, Facebook and Twitter, all of the media outreach and social media aspects of online campaigning. They recognized that they needed to build loyalty early from supporters, and didn’t hold back on unleashing someone to serve as the liaison for the candidate in those media channels. The online communications effort ultimately became a three to four person job.

To ensure the campaign was not missing out on the utility of any new tools, the campaign set an early goal to fully utilize mobile as a communications and engagement tool. They promoted their shortcode on all campaign materials from the candidate’s podium placard to screens at the state GOP convention. Acquiring mobile subscribers was a directive to all political staff, and the commitment remained even as they came in slower and steadier than hoped in these initial months.

Internal Audit

As the Democratic primary approached, our firm Engage – who was already working on helping the campaign take advantage of its national presence online — was tapped to conduct an internal audit of the McDonnell campaign’s online efforts. Everyone acknowledged that the efforts were strong; however, we wanted to ensure that the efforts were not only strong on a superficial level, but also that the infrastructure was in place to ensure the investment in new media and technology would pay off in supporters, money and votes. Too many campaigns suffer from false confidence in the money and time they have invested in new media, only to discover in the final weeks of a campaign, that their perceived online support does not translate at the polls. Furthermore, it was not enough for this campaign to run an above-average operation; they were determined to run an exceptional campaign, and the pressure from the Party committees to do so was tremendous.

First, as in any audit, we focused on what the campaign was doing well, including areas that were paying off but that could benefit from a few adjustments:

Senior-level focus on online efforts.

As cited above, the campaign had made a strong commitment to new media and technology. The campaign manager and other senior staff were determined not to fall in the trap of underestimating the importance of new media. Moreover, they knew what they didn’t know and were open and grateful for guidance.

Smart, early investment in blogger and social media relations.

The campaign had hired a native Virginian with ties to the blogging community to handle blogger relations. Several new blogs arose out of bloggers receiving special attention by the campaign from the beginning. To potential bloggers, starting a political blog in Virginia meant access to the candidate and special treatment by the campaign. At key moments, the campaign scheduled blogger calls along with press conferences and donor meetings. At the state GOP convention, the candidate spent nearly 45 minutes walking Bloggers Row, meeting with bloggers and responding to spontaneous interview requests.

Professional, compelling design.

The campaign valued design, meaning their website was visually appealing and user-friendly. It was clearly designed by a firm with experienced designers, not a web development firm for whom design is an afterthought.Strong use of video.The dedicated staffer focused on video allowed the campaign to rapidly respond and provided the bandwidth to produce content that could appeal to various coalition groups. The campaign dominated on YouTube thanks to the flood-the-zone approach to video content. When we recommended that candidate Bob McDonnell release a video statement in response to the Democratic primary results, rather than a straight press release, this was accomplished easily and professionally. On many campaigns, good ideas die for shear lack of infrastructure.

Budget allocation for online ads.

Online ads were a known quantity, and the campaign had committed to buying online ads in conjunction with their TV buys. There was a razor-like focus on consistent messaging across media: online ads, TV, radio and mail. This was indicative of a campaign that was on message.

Focus on email.

The campaign wasted no time amassing an email list. They arranged the necessary exchanges to access existing lists of Republican activists in Virginia. This allowed the campaign an impressive starting point from which to develop their own organic list.

Going mobile.

This campaign had clearly analyzed the 2008 presidential campaigns and had the foresight to invest in a mobile program early, allowing for a steady build of mobile subscribers, and cushion time to perfect mobile tactics. The lesson here is that if your campaign is committed to trying out a specific technology, tactic or program for which there is not much precedent, get started early so you can truly gauge its effectiveness.

Turning It Up a Notch

Then, we outlined ten top-line recommendations for how the campaign could improve. Our recommendations reflected the gear shift from primary season to the general election campaign and included several initiatives that would become harder to execute as we neared the dizzying few months before Election Day, November 3, 2009:

Redesign BobMcDonnell.com.

The McDonnell site worked well at introducing the candidate and providing fodder for the MSM and bloggers. It also quite obviously showed where one could contribute with large “Contribute” buttons on every page. Our theory was that these Contribute buttons were actually depressing contributions and certainly not increasing them. The portal to contribute should stand out; however, an overwhelming number of contribute buttons send the wrong message about the proportional value of donors and volunteers. We put a plan in place to redesign the site to better balance grassroots activity with messaging and fundraising going into the general election.

Primary Season Homepage:


General Election Homepage:

McDonnell New

Institutionalize the collection of email address and mobile number at offline events.The campaign was highly organized and every door-to-door and event volunteer would follow a standard script to identify Bob McDonnell supporters. However, the script did not include asking the positive ID’ed supporters for their email address and mobile number so the campaign could stay in touch. We immediately set the wheels in motion to substitute in a new script that would ask for these additional pieces of information. Our rate of subscription to email and mobile skyrocketed by X%.

Segment email program.

Keeping supporters engaged through an eight-month long campaign is a challenge. Some who subscribe to the email list have the appetite for unlimited email messages. Others, while interested in following the campaign, are repelled by too much information. The campaign’s email unsubscribe rate was higher than desired going into the general election. Thus, we recommended segmenting the list into activists (defined by the percentage of messages they opened), donors, and general subscribers, and sending targeted, relevant messages with varied frequency depending on the segment.

Launch a platform for community action.

The campaign was benefiting from a steady stream of volunteer signups through the site; however, the concern was that volunteers energy was not being met with ways for them to get involved. We recommended an online action network, a platform that would give a new volunteer signup the opportunity to connect with other supporters and get to work more immediately. The McDonnell campaign already had a well thought-out and robust field operation. They had also already invested a significant amount of money into their website, videos and new media team. We decided from a cost-benefit standpoint, it made good sense to integrate a Ning network, for a very low cost, that would accomplish our goal of connecting supporters and helping to build their enthusiasm and commitment to the campaign. We branded this network “McDonnell Action,” and re-engineered the volunteer sign-up process, so that new volunteers would only have to sign up once — on McDonnell Action.

Train political team to integrate activity with online action network.

For the online action network to operate as more than a glorified social network, the field staff have to step out of their comfort zone and treat the online action network as another headquarters. We did not feel the need to launch such a site if the field staff were not going to participate. Thus, we made sure all staff were trained on the functionality of the network, and the more tech-savvy staff were made available to set standards and answer questions for the staff as a whole. The result: once field staff realized how little extra work was required on their part to identify new volunteers and valuable supporters, they praised the network.

Online fundraising marketing system.

Our experience had shown that at least 70% of a campaign’s online contributions come in the final 30% of the campaign. We wanted to be ready for the major online fundraising period with a marketing program to maximize the number and dollar amount of contributions. At the point of the audit, the campaign was using an untested contribution form layout, and didn’t have the ability to support multiple online fundraising initiatives to measure how each performed. We recommended that they integrate our proprietary online fundraising platform iContribute, which empowers campaigns to create new fundraising initiative pages on the fly, track the success of various placements of the Contribute button on the website, give supporters their own trackable contribution links and view real-time reports by initiative.

Set hard fundraising email and initiative schedule.

To settle a tension about the pace of hard fundraising emails, we recommended setting a hard schedule that worked around benchmarks in the campaign, such as end of fundraising periods, holidays, political and policy announcements. The subject of the messages might adjust, but this way, all parties could feel confident that fundraising asks were well balanced.

Run baseline ad plan independent of TV advertising.

When and how much to run television advertising is a major decision because every television ad buy takes a big bite out of the campaign budget. Rather than mirror the online display ad buy to the TV buy, we recommended that we continuously run online advertising — both display and search. Online advertising was contributing to signups and donations, and it was important to continuously run the advertising for that purpose alone. Additionally, we could target advertising to specific affinity groups such as women to maximize our dollar.

Save major online ad buy for surge into Election Day.

Particularly in a close race, it’s important to ensure as many voters as possible are touched with a Get-Out-the-Vote message. You don’t leave to chance that your voters will turn out. We recommended a pre-Election Day Google “surge,” a new technique whereby one buys all the inventory in Google’s ad network. Since there is little to no targeting involved, the cost-per-impression for each ad is unusually low, allowing a campaign to serve up more ads for less money. Upon our recommendation, the McDonnell campaign budgeted for a Google blast, which allowed the campaign to serve up over 14 million impressions to potential Virginia voters in eight critical hours the day before the Election.

Boost GOTV with technology.

No matter the number of Facebook friends, email signups and contributions, campaigns must expend all their energy towards turning out their voters in the final couple of weeks before Election Day. Looking forward to Election Day, we worked with the field team to identify which online applications could help reach the campaign’s turnout goals. Supporting absentee and early voting, giving willing volunteers the ability to do GOTV from home and making it easy-as-pie for voters to find their voting locations were identified as the major programs. In response, we built an application whereby absentee voters could fill out their absentee ballot application online (a feature not available through the state), rolled out a Call at Home application and a lookup tool for absentee, in-person voting. We had planned to build an Election Day vote location lookup took; however, Google launched a widget for that purpose, and we simply integrated that into the campaign site and Action Network.

Probably one of the newest applications we employed was the mobile phone bank. The mobile phone bank, made possible by the diligent collection of mobile phone numbers involved emailing potential participants to alert them that they would receive a text message asking them to make calls for the campaign. If they replied “yes,” that they wanted to make calls, they would receive the script (something simple; in this case “Do you plan to vote for Bob McDonnell?) and a name and number of the first person to call. After hanging up and recording the response from the first callee, they would be prompted to receive another voter to call. This is a new program and we only utilized it on a small scale, but it holds great promise for future campaigns who want to use mobile for more than just blast text messaging.

Game Day

Headed into Game Day the McDonnell online strategy had paid off tremendously. The campaign could communicate with up to 200,000 individuals regarding the race. All ten top-line recommendations had been implemented to the satisfaction of the entire campaign team.

  • The site had been redesigned and launched at the end of July 2009 to provide more focus to grassroots activities, policy rollouts and the news of the day.
  • Through email and mobile collection offline, and McDonnell Action, the grassroots network was highly connected to each other and the campaign.
  • More importantly, the campaign had a volunteer force that made more calls and knocked on more doors than in any campaign in Virginia history.
  • The campaign far surpassed its internal goal of raising $1,000,000 online from over 4,000 contributors. 82% of the contributions came in after August 1 when iContribute was put in place.
  • The online ad campaign had run consistently through the general election with up to seven different display ads running at once, targeted to unique geographic and demographic targets.
  • Thousands of voters had utilized the absentee ballot application, call at home and vote location lookup tools.
  • We invested in a 12-hour Google ad surge the day before the election, serving up more than 14,000,000 impressions of a “Vote Tomorrow, Bob McDonnell for Governor” ad in DC and Virginia.

This ad showed 14,000,000+ times on November 2, 2009, the day before the election:

Vote Tomorrow

The Final Tally

  • Members of the online team: 5
  • Amount raised online: more than $1.25 million
    • 82% raised after August 1
    • 72% raised after September 1
  • Number of online donors: 4,171
  • Percentage spent online of total advertising: 7.5%
  • Number of emails: 187,000
  • Mobile subscribers: 9,700
  • McDonnell Action top-level activists: 2,554
  • Facebook fans: 31,645
  • Twitter followers: 7,152


Campaign Manager: Phil Cox
Communications Director: Tucker Martin
Senior Online Strategy (overall, grassroots, fundraising, advertising): Mindy Finn & Patrick Ruffini, Engage
Online Director (blog, social media, web content): Vincent Harris, Harris Media
Website Design & Development: Steve Sanford and Tori Sheppeard, W3BG
Online Video Production: Ed Frank, Frank Strategies
Online Advertising Placement: Media Placement Technologies
Online Advertising Creative: Matt Murphy, Chatham Light Media
Media Consultant: Doug McAuliffe, M3
Mobile Vendor: Tusk Mobile
Mobile Phone Bank: Be Real Good

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    Although the campaign and website design is a step in the right direction, it seems pretty clear that the people at W3BG used an off the shelf template for Bob's campaign identity and website. Compare Bob's website and this local candidate: http://www.natalie4bowiecounty.com/ It's a shame that in the post-Obama era of political campaigns that GOP candidates (and design firms) haven't quite embraced the emotional power of design in the same way.

  • marcaross

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    Mindy - thanks for sharing. The campaign was fun to watch and see the success of incorporating digital advocacy from day one into this campaign. I crunched some benchmark numbers with I thought could be compelling to your readers - here is the link to read more: http://advocacytwopointzero.blogspot.com/2009/11/mcdonnell-campaign-digitial-advocacy.html

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  • Matt Bales

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    Great article! I think it will be interesting to observe the new critical mass of political donations needed to fund this new avenue of voter outreach! Traditional media costs are steadily increasing contrary to economic rationale, but to add an entirely new avenue to the game could be very interesting... Campaigns will be forced to raise more than ever! Again, great article!

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