From email fundraising to peer-to-peer texting, digital technology is an increasingly critical part of successful political campaigns. We sat down with Mike Liddell, GM of Digital at NGP VAN, to talk about the evolving trends in digital campaigning and how political campaigns can prepare for the 2018 cycle.
LISTEN: To learn more about the evolution of digital strategy and the digital trendsetters to watch this cycle, listen to the full interview here:
What are the biggest digital trends that we're going to see in 2018 political campaigns?
Mike: I think there's definitely going to be a lot of interesting trends coming out of this cycle - these are the top five that I've been thinking about.
1. Digital Sprawl
One of the really interesting trends that we're seeing here at NGP VAN is that Digital is kind of expanding now. It's moving beyond what traditionally "Digital" was: its own department, focused mostly on doing fundraising and maybe little bit of social media, taking care of the website, talking to digital journalists and things like that. Now it is really starting to spread and it's going beyond just the Digital team; every team on a campaign is starting to use digital tools. Organizing and field teams are using digital tools to send email reminders to people who are coming to events or who they just canvassed at a door. Offline fundraisers are using digital tools, of course for basic things like sending out invites to events, but also using more advanced techniques like looking up what potential donors are saying on social media before they call them up. Digital is definitely moving beyond what used to be its little siloed area, and it's really getting into all parts of campaigns now. We’re really starting to see that if you want to be an effective campaign staffer, it doesn't matter what team you're on, you need to know Digital and you need to have some really great digital tools.
2. Sustaining Donors
Another trend that I’m seeing more this cycle is sustainers. This goes back to email fundraising, campaigns are starting to make a much more concerted effort to grab recurring donors (people who want to give on a monthly basis) and are making that a really big part of their program. Nonprofits have been relying on sustainers for a long time now, and that's coming a lot more into play on the political side in 2018. We're already seeing it used a lot more this cycle, and I suspect that it's going to continue growing and we're going to see even more people focused on sustainers.
3. Digital Staff > Consultants
Another trend we're definitely seeing is that campaigns are starting to have more in-house digital staff as opposed to relying on consultants, especially when we're talking about digital fundraising. In the past oftentimes you would have a Digital Director on a Senate or Congressional race, and a lot of what they did was work with consultants. A lot of times the consultants were the ones who were writing emails and developing the email calendar and who were really responsible for hitting the campaign’s goals. Now we're seeing a lot more involvement at the campaign level - consultants, of course, are still heavily involved and doing a lot of those same tasks - but now there's a lot of campaign staff that are getting a lot more involved in all of the different pieces and making sure that the campaign's voice is coming through. I think we're seeing a lot more of a desire from campaigns to hire more in-house staff and not necessarily rely on consultants as much as they have in the past.
4. More and More Emails
One of the things that I think is always something to keep an eye on is the volume of email that campaigns are sending - how much email are they sending out when it comes to their fundraising emails, and how much can the recipients take before they unsubscribe. The trends have definitely been towards more and more volume, people have been sending more and more, and I think that most campaigns have seen that you really can send a significant amount of email, especially at at key times like the ends of quarters, and the drop-off from folks who can't handle that much volume is not bad when you look at the net gain. You're actually raising enough revenue to overcome the drop-off. I think it'll be really interesting to see if that trend holds up, if people will send even more email, or if there's a limit that people are starting to find. I'm not sure where we're going to end up on that yet; right now the trend is still definitely to send as much as possible but we'll see how that shapes up this cycle.
5. New Technology & Tools
The last trend is definitely from the technology world, with all of the new things that folks are using this cycle. One of those is peer-to-peer texting, which was huge last cycle, and used by a lot of the presidential campaigns. This time it definitely seems to have moved down the races, and so now we're seeing Senate campaigns and House races and even further down the ballot folks using those texting tools. Here at NGP VAN we have lots of integrations for folks to use with those texting tools.
The other thing that I always like to say when it comes to technology is that I feel like there's probably going to be something that happens this cycle that no one is predicting yet. I was at the DSCC during what a lot of people called the “Macaca Moment,” which was when a video of sitting Republican Senator George Allen got posted to YouTube, and eventually it led to him losing his seat to Jim Webb. During the previous cycle YouTube hadn't even really been around - no one knew what it was - and then it ended up dethroning a Senator. So I do think there's always the unexpected. I think there's definitely going to be some new technology that will pop up unexpectedly, so keep looking out for those.
What is NGP VAN doing to keep our clients on the cutting edge of digital technology?
Mike: Let's go back through the list and I'll name a couple of the things we've built to make sure our clients have the best tools available.
1. Sustaining Donor Retention
We have a bunch of sustainer functionality built into our platform, such as a lot of flexibility for setting up recurring donations. They can be monthly, every two weeks, every quarter, or even yearly. Towards the end of the cycle we see people who want to do a weekly recurring donation, you can do that as well. Our forms also have the ability for you to set up a recurring donation that ends on election day. It's a lot easier to get people to donate if they can calculate what their total donation will be and know that it's going to be spread out over the course of the campaign, so that's a nice functionality we have on the sustainer side.
We also have some really cool tools for once you have someone making recurring donations. We have a feature called Credit Card Updater, so if they lose their credit card and their credit card company sends them a new one, we’ll get that new card number from the company and update the record automatically to keep that recurring donation going. The donor doesn't even have to update their information. For those card numbers that we can't get (if someone cancels their credit card for instance), we have the ability to send automatic reminders to anyone who has a failing recurring donation, and they can easily just click on a link and go in and update their information to fix that failing payment. So there's a lot of functionality that we've built into our tools to make it really easy for you to manage and maximize the amount of money that you're getting out of sustainers.
2. Campaign-Wide Digital Integration
When it comes to Digital moving into different parts of the campaign, that's where NGP VAN shines, because all of our tools are integrated. We have digital tools that are working hand-in-hand with Votebuilder and VAN. We have digital tools that are fully integrated with NGP, so your donations automatically come in and your compliance folks can see the employer and occupation right away. Your offline fundraisers can see how much money someone's given, whether it was online or offline, all in one place, and you don't have to worry about importing it from somewhere else or uploading spreadsheets. This is one of the things that we've been focusing on with a lot of our tools - making sure that they're well positioned to take advantage of this trend where campaigns are using digital in all different parts of what they're doing.
3. Email Volume Management
In terms of volume and the amount of email that people send, we're gearing up to ensure that our tools can handle all of that volume and that we'll be able to get all of our emails out quickly, especially when it comes to election day and end of quarter. We use a pro-level set of tools to send out our emails, the same technology that a lot of big name senders use, like LinkedIn and Twitter, big companies that send tons and tons of email. That's a real benefit to our clients - they can get those emails out quickly and they're gonna get in before midnight at the end of the quarter, or whenever you need them to get in. We've also always made it a huge focus to be sure that, despite the fact that people are sending lots of email, we want to make sure that they still have really good deliverability rates so that all of those emails actually make it to the donor or supporter.
4. Easy Integration With New Tools
Some of the things that we're building in are a whole set of APIs that are available for those new technologies coming out. We're working with a lot of folks who are building some of those new tools, and we're making sure that they have access to our APIs and that they have some good support if they have questions, so we're always prepared for that and want to make sure that folks can easily interact with the tools that campaigns are using.
Another new tool coming out that we're really excited about: for the first time NGP VAN is going to be integrating with ActBlue. We already pull basic stats from ActBlue pages into your digital dashboard, but we're about to release a new feature that pulls even more data in and will let folks segment off of ActBlue data when they're sending out emails. That's something that's been a long-time request that campaigns have been asking for, and we're really exciting to be rolling that out.
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