Whether you were ready or not, COVID has forced consultants to think digital-first. In a recent session titled “Fundraising: Mixing It Up” during AAPC’s virtual Digital Politics conference, Jon Adams, President of TAG Strategies, Julia Ager, President & Founder of Sapphire Strategies, Mike Alm, Executive Vice President of Campaign Solutions, Lindsay Jacobs, Executive Director of Majority Money, and Ryan Thompson, Chief Digital Officer at the DCCC, shared insights on how to successfully execute a digital fundraising approach.
Check out the full recording of “Fundraising: Mixing It Up” here for even more insights, as well as recordings of all other sessions held during the 2020 Digital Politics Conference!
What are some of the things you are doing in the midst of this pandemic to fundraise that are different for you and that would be considered mixing it up compared to previous cycles?
Ryan: In speaking to the digital ecosystem as a whole, in this time we’ve had to reimagine our strategies regarding voter contact and have pivoted to text messaging for fundraising, particularly peer-to-peer. We’re seeing success also because it’s a very low-cost tool.
Mike: Texting has taken off as well as video on Facebook. We’re seeing this being a huge funding source for campaigns right now.
Jon: Peer-to-peer texting has been a good tool. Facebook video has been great, but the kicker is direct-to-camera Facebook video. I’ll speak from my experience – I worked at the NRSC for a long time and no one knows what those four letters are. They get them all mixed up, and that happens with pretty much every committee. In the past, running Facebook video for ads from a committee that no one knows the name of hasn’t always been our most successful channel for fundraising. However, this cycle, we’ve noticed that putting senators direct-to-camera, whether it be the campaign or the committee, has taken off and been a huge hit for not only senate campaigns, but also the committee as well in terms of fundraising. I think a bigger thing with COVID and how it relates to fundraising right now is that in the past, campaigns and committees had to rely on what we call their ‘major donor programs’ for events and larger contributions. COVID has really changed the world of those major donors, but not so much our world. What COVID has done to the digital side is that it’s made the campaign actually have to focus on digital because it is the channel right now that is bringing in all the money since you can’t hold dinners, etc. Some major donors have been open to digital options. But compared to major donors previously hosting a dinner at their house, they are now getting ‘Facetime’ or a ‘Zoom session’, which people are not as excited about. They are still bringing in money on the major donor side but it’s not the same set up it used to be, so I think right now the biggest difference is campaigns are having to do digital. They are realizing that they can reach a lot of people and raise a lot of money rather quickly, and are starting to wonder why they haven’t been doing this all along. So, they are having to invest in this.
Lindsay: COVID has created an awareness about the long-term scale of digital fundraising and how important it is to invest early, along with the importance of building a list and using these programs everyone has referenced. When something like COVID happens or if something in your race happens that’s really exciting that could be an opportunity to raise a lot of money, if you haven’t built a list and built up these stable of tools to use in order to get your message out and reach voters you won’t be able to capitalize on the moment. COVID has reinforced how important digital is, so there’s no question now about why it’s important to invest in digital now moving forward.
What are some good ideas for virtual fundraisers?
Lindsay: I’ve seen things like cocktail classes, poker games, folks playing the HouseParty app where you can compete against candidates. There’s ways to make it unique – keeping it small is a great way to promote a personal connection with the candidate.
Julia: Lining up a big-ticket person can be super helpful. Focusing on one bigger Zoom fundraiser with a big-ticket person may be more beneficial vs. overdoing it with a lot of small virtual events. If you do get a big-ticket person with a large list, see if they’d be willing to send an email to their list about the Zoom event and integrate this with your own approach to small dollar donors.
What are you seeing for conversion rates?
Mike: One of our top Senate races had a VIP come in for a Zoom fundraiser. We pitched it on digital, text and email and found the conversion rate was quite low. We realized it’s still major donor fundraising – the major donor team has to get on the phone and make calls. At the end of the day it’s still old fashioned major donor fundraising but using different technology.
Lindsay: All of these virtual tools are enhancements of what you should already be doing. I’ve seen no absolute answer that means you no longer have to make phone calls anymore, etc…
Are there new technologies and tools that you’ve had to be more reliant on or discovered to figure out how to better integrate all of your fundraising efforts?
Jon: At the committee in previous cycles, the way committees typically work, they have a digital team, they have a finance team that goes after major donors, and they may have a one-off mail or phones person which is telemarketing and direct mail. At the NRSC during the last cycle, we integrated so that all those fell under the digital program who worked simultaneously with the finance team. We had a mail and telemarketing person who worked for me but no message went out that wasn’t seen by me, which helped us make sure the mail and telemarketing had the same message as the digital team. And that comes with a CRM. If you have a CRM and are tagging everything correctly, it’s really easy to say “this person donated in a mail piece three days ago, so let’s suppress them from email for 30 days and then we will put them back into the funnel.” If you have the infrastructure set up, it’s a pretty easy process. The key is getting the infrastructure, and at committees where there is turn over every two years, those of us who are there multiple cycles are unicorns.
Does a largely digital fundraising effort really work for smaller or local races?
Jon: I hate to be the Debbie Downer to people, but the reality is that you can implement a good program, and be very good, and still not see results that you want. If you take Donald Trump’s fundraising or his strategy and tactics, or you take Bernie Sanders’ fundraising or strategy and tactics and give it to Hillary Clinton (and I’m just using her as an example) it’s not going to work. You won’t see the same results. A lot of it is making sure whoever is doing your fundraising and strategy are experienced and have worked with a variety of people so that they actually know what works and what doesn’t. We are all figuring out a lot of this as we go. We’ve seen from our experience what works and what doesn’t, so we don’t necessarily knock on that door anymore, but we try stuff all the time. And if something doesn’t work, we just pivot to the next thing. There are three things that are important for fundraising: authenticity, creativity and consistency. If you are not authentic and everything you say is fake and it looks like somebody wrote it down on a piece of paper for you, it’s not going to work. You need to be able to do those three things by having the people that run your fundraising have experience and know what they are doing, and are able to pivot when things don’t work.
These days, going viral can feel like the highest achievement and goal to work towards when thinking about digital fundraising. Is going viral a necessary component to a successful campaign? And are only certain types of candidates going to be successful at digital fundraising, or can a less dynamic/viral candidate be successful as well?
Jon: There are certain types of candidates who will outperform others, even if everyone was doing the same thing. But, consistent candidates always outperform everyone. If you are consistently running a program, you will do better than the one-off person who has a hot moment over the course of a cycle. Being consistent is the biggest take away you need.
Lindsay: There’s a really great example on the Republican side right now about why what Jon said is so important. Kim Klacik is a GOP candidate running for Congress in MD-07. She has been consistently digitally fundraising since mid, if not early-2019 sending out one email a week, doing lead acquisition with not a ton of return. She’s running in a very solidly Democratic seat. So she has chugged along, built a list and made the investment. If you haven’t seen her recent viral ad, check it out here. If she had not built out the infrastructure, she wouldn’t have had an audience to get this ad in front of and a team to take advantage of the fundraising moment. Not everyone will have a viral moment. But if you haven’t spent time building this asset, you won’t be able to leverage the moment.
If you had to give advice to someone starting out in digital fundraising, what is the first thing you would tell them to do? What is most important, especially if you are getting in late in the game?
Jon: The first thing you have to understand is that you are not going to see an immediate return. You have to be committed to what you are doing and trust that whoever you hire knows what they are doing. I will say that now that digital has become the defacto fundraising arm, there are a lot of people out there saying they do digital fundraising but have no clue what they are doing. Hiring someone who knows what they are doing is the second most important thing. And the third is consistency, and that comes with committing to doing it. If you do those three things, you should get off the ground.
Mike: When you find that moment or when something is working, don’t stop it. Go all in. The moment could be fleeting. Take advantage of it when you can.
Jon: If you have one of the moments that Mike referenced, and find that you’ve spent most of your budget when the viral moment happens, get more budget. You can make more money in 24 hours during a high-impact moment than you can in 24 days just chugging along.
Julia: There’s enough digital talent out there where we’re seeing folks move from digital to campaign management. When working with people who have this background, in terms of making split second decisions on spending money and making the investment, they’re so in-tune to this. It’s a lot easier to make the case to invest in digital to someone who has this background.
Do you have any ideas for combatting Zoom fatigue? What are some ways to energize and think beyond it?
Lindsay: Try and get creative. We did a virtual wine tasting. Before the event we had interns drive around in the area of major donors, passing out glasses, etc… You can make it fun, do a game night or something to engage people that’s not just people getting on Zoom and talking.