The New Normal is Digital

by Taryn Rosenkranz for Campaigns and Elections Magazine

Digital campaigning is now the expected, not the extraordinary.

Going into the 2012 cycle there were plenty of opinions about the next big thing—what would turn digital campaigning on its head? Would it be mobile? Pre-roll video? Would text donations come of age quickly?

Many pegged 2012 to be the year of the cookie. Digital strategists argued online advertising would be revolutionized with the ability of campaigns to target persuadable voters with cookies on their browser. But while there are some terrific case studies, I don’t think we can declare this the year of the cookie.

In June we had a spate of stories on the Federal Election Commission’s approval of text-to-give. Then the conversation turned to the hot commodity that was pre-roll video; article after article pronounced shortages of pre-roll space thanks to the high demand. But in the end the hottest “new” thing was actually not really new.
This past cycle should be remembered as the year that “new media” started becoming a lot less new and a lot more expected.

This year proved that digital campaigning could become the new normal—the expected instead of the extraordinary. The most successful campaigners were the ones who brought digital tactics into every aspect of their campaigns while still keeping a close eye on their return on investment. It was no longer just the presidential campaigns boasting comprehensive online advertising strategies. The majority of competitive campaigns were buying ads on Facebook and Google.

The biggest lesson learned was the old communication adage of the K.I.S.S principle—keep it simple stupid. That adage manifested in nearly all of 2012’s top trends. Here are five:

1. Emails became a lot more personal. Obama Campaign Manager Jim Messina became simply “Messina” in his signature, and the president frequently wrote me with a “Hey” in the subject line. But just about every candidate—from the president on down to the guy running for local dog catcher—realized the more personal the email, the better.

2. Keep it brief. Emails became shorter and shorter. One email from the Obama campaign that arrived a few days before the election was only a single line with a contribute button. Some emails used only an infographic, letting the picture speak for itself.

3. Email still reigns. Despite predictions about what social media channels like Facebook and Twitter would do to raise money this cycle, it was still good, old-fashioned email that prevailed as the top-generator of online revenues.

4. Online ads became legit. Facebook and Google’s self-service advertising models opened the door to smaller campaigns, and online advertising became a part of just about everyone’s budget. The media firms finally got on board, and pre-roll and mobile made their first big showing as many House races employed them as part of the final GOTV push. Lastly, it was the new “cookie-targeting” ability that finally convinced a lot of hold-outs that there was worth to advertising online.

5. Everybody got “Twitter” with it. In 2010, just a small percentage of campaigns had a Twitter account. But this cycle, nearly all candidates were using social networks including Twitter, Facebook and newcomer Tumblr to communicate. Twitter became the go-to conversation during the national conventions and the presidential debates. Candidates realized they could no longer ignore it.

The reality is that campaigns changed a lot this cycle, but in many ways they truly returned campaigning to its more personal roots; consultants and campaigns just used more sophisticated digital tools to do it.

Taryn Rosenkranz is president and CEO of the Democratic firm New Blue Interactive. She’s the former new media director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and now serves as senior advisor to the DCCC.

Reprinted from Campaigns and Elections magazine.

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