Record-Breaking Online Fundraising
When we started working on Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, we didn’t know how much money we could raise online from small-dollar donors. About a week before the campaign launched, we projected somewhere between $30 to $50 million online if he ran a credible campaign that lasted through Iowa. But after 30,000 people contributed almost $1.5 million in the first 24 hours, we knew the campaign had a chance to make history.
From the start, Senator Sanders told us he wanted his campaign to be about the issues, and that the digital fundraising effort should reflect that. He made it clear that our job was to inspire people to participate because of the values we share, not scare them into giving because of an opponent they fear.
Throughout the campaign, we were creative and timely with our approach and data-driven with our decisions. From emails to ads, to the homepage to contribution pages and everything in-between, we rigorously tested and optimized to maximize our returns. But the common thread was a focus on substance and the goal of connecting with supporters directly about the issues.
The campaign raised $218 million online, almost exclusively from small-dollar donors giving an average of $27 at a time.
The Sanders campaign received more contributions in a presidential primary than any candidate ever, and more than Obama received in 2008 in full. Senator Sanders’ message inspired record-breaking participation from small-dollar donors. Every single team within Revolution Messaging — email, ads, development, creative, and mobile — had a hand in proving that if you are willing to speak to the issues important to the American people and put forth a solid digital effort, you can run a competitive campaign for any office in the country.
A Revolution in Campaign Art and Culture
Behind our work with the Sanders campaign is a commitment to powerful political graphics and video. Behind-the-scenes video releases comprise an archive of gritty humanity to followers who hunger for authenticity. Photography that opts out of digital sleekness in the iPhone age sends a message about a new kind of politics; one that breaks with “best practices” to embrace the flaws of reality and tells the true story of a 74-year-old Jewish democratic socialist from Vermont challenging history’s most powerful non-incumbent opponent for the nomination.
The distinct visual identity of our graphic design, videos, banner ads, and shareables allowed us to hold a microphone to Bernie’s message across increasingly horizontal and democratized social media platforms. The Senator himself favored an engaging narrative style that won us over with 8-minute videos and lengthy emails that saw engagement rates go through the roof. This includes a nearly 2,500-word fundraising email and a long direct-to-camera video on income inequality, which received more than 7 million views on Facebook.
Our embedded video team created more than 550 unique videos for the campaign. By June 2016, Sanders’ 557 videos had reached over 42 million views on Facebook alone.
Revolution Messaging co-founded Artists for Bernie, an organization for musicians and artists who #FeelTheBern. These celebrities and opinion leaders signed an online endorsement letter and contributed their time by doing event appearances, knocking on doors in battleground states, filming videos for the campaign to use, tweeting their support, and even making ice cream for us to raffle off (thanks Ben and Jerry!). Our team produced concerts, earned media events and unannounced live acoustic performances for over a dozen members of Artists for Bernie looking to share their support of the senator. Artists for Bernie recruited more than 200 critically acclaimed artists and musicians who pitched in to give voice to the revolution.
Rewriting the Advertising Playbook
The Sanders campaign spent more on digital advertising than all federal races combined in 2008. And with good reason. Since Bernie had never run for office nationally, he started at a significant disadvantage in terms of name recognition, familiarity with his positions and the size of his supporter list. With Bernie‘s digital advertising placements, we were able to quickly and cost-effectively assist in record-breaking fundraising, grow Bernie‘s base, persuade key targets, and turn out voters. Our strategy was to focus our early advertising efforts on digital, connect with voters early and often, mobilize online quickly during key moments, experiment frequently, and not overcomplicate our message or tactics.
The key, especially in the first months of our campaign, was focusing on what worked best. For example, in the early days of Bernie’s candidacy, many journalists and insiders were quick to write him off. The press argued that Bernie’s attempt to put the focus on certain issues was futile. So, we targeted the millions of progressives who cared about those issues most. Those same people were targeted with ads encouraging them to join Bernie‘s rallies, which built the foundation for what would become a political phenomenon.
The campaign raised more than $61 million and acquired more than three million email addresses from digital ads.
The campaign was marked by many firsts in the political advertising space. We were the first Presidential campaign to employ Facebook Canvas ads, Twitter conversational video ads and YouTube bumper ads. The campaign ran the first-ever political takeover on the homepage of the New York Times. Bernie Sanders was also the first presidential candidate to employ sponsored content with publishers like Buzzfeed, The Hill and Politico.
We placed a series of Snapchat filter ads for the nine days leading up to, and including, the Iowa caucus. It was the first Snapchat ad placement for a Democratic candidate ever, and the first time Snapchat ran a geotargeted campaign for that many consecutive days. The series of filters featured a cartoon Bernie counting down the days to the caucus and asking Iowans if they were ready to “Feel the Bern.” The ads were viewed more than 3 million times.
Leveraging Powerful Technology and Development
We were tasked with building the first iteration of BernieSanders.com just 72 hours before the launch of the campaign. And over the course of the next 15 months, the site was optimized and evolved into a hub that helped the campaign build an email list, drive contributions, empower supporters to organize as part of a massive distributed field effort, and educate voters about the senator’s decades of progressive work, driving the enthusiasm behind his campaign.
The homepage, BernieSanders.com, was constantly tested and optimized to maximize the number of people signing up to join the campaign. We adapted the site for high-leverage moments by creating a unique “splash contribute” homepage. The feature helped the campaign raise more than $7 million in 24 hours when Bernie held a “National Fundraiser” during his New Hampshire victory speech. Before the first debate, we built a splash “signup to contribute” page that raised $337 PER SECOND in the first 30 minutes after the debate.
Revolution Messaging built an online store that stayed true to Senator Sanders’ vision for America. Every item was made in America, and came with a guarantee that every printer and fulfillment worker received a liveable wage. By designing the merchandise in-house, controlling the online store web interface and working with our own ads team, we were able to quickly produce small batches of limited-edition merchandise – and quickly sell out of each item. We sold more than $15 million of online merchandise in just a few short months.
42% of all contributions came from a mobile phone.
The Bernie 2016 mobile program, powered by Revere Mobile, took off with enormous and rapid list growth from day one. The first large event was Bernie’s Organizing Kickoff, where more than 3,000 house parties and more than 100,000 attendees across the country tuned in to a livestream in which the digital organizing director told everyone to text WORK to 82623 to join an organizing team and volunteer. Within a few hours almost half of the attendees of the house parties had joined the Bernie 2016 mobile list. Throughout the campaign, the average monthly list growth was 77 percent with significant spikes during pushes for voter outreach.
We launched the first ever text-to-donate technology to leverage donor support during big moments. First, our team launched an integration with ActBlue Express, empowering individuals to text a keyword to donate $20 using their ActBlue account. Three weeks later we announced seamless donations via a user’s phone bill.