During the 2016 election cycle, a progressive campaign came to Loren Merchan, VP of Advertising, with a problem. They were getting slammed by GOP opposition, who had built multiple landing pages dedicated to attacking them and pumped so much money into search ads that the sites were showing up as the top Google search results for the candidate’s name.
The progressive candidate could never hope to match GOP spending, so how would they recapture top billing on Google’s digital marquee?
Our advertising team (affectionately known as RAD) understood that there’s more to digital advertising than big budgets. “We had to figure out a way to get results even though the most obvious route of just outspending the competition wasn’t available to us,” said Merchan. They drew on their experience with the Google algorithm, crunched some numbers, and researched optimal ad timing and predictive metrics to find the perfect moments and conditions to strike. While the opposition burned cash, this progressive candidate ran a smarter campaign and got better results for a fraction of the cost.
Years of experiences like these are what separate RAD from most other ad teams. Rather than just relying on exorbitant budgets to do all the hard work, RAD has honed the ability to do a lot with a little and to outperform others that have more resources.
“We aren’t just here to execute ads in the same way as everyone else or even in the same way for every client,” Merchan says, “We look to reach people in new ways, to make a better impact than opposing candidates or organizations, and to make fast changes when something unexpected, like a flood of attack ads, happens. A lot of what we do is creative problem-solving.”
In the progressive political space, advertising is an opportunity to create major social movements, but like any advertising campaign, it has to begin with a clear cut strategy. Retail advertising has the obvious goal of sales, but in politics, success is often measured by more than just clicks or signups. Rather than just feeding money into a machine that spits out clicks, RAD researches the relevant district, the existing supporters and the issues at stake. While they may start with a simple metric like clicks, signups or donations, these are just the tip of the iceberg; there are also a variety of more subtle factors including recall and sentiment. Whatever the goal, careful message testing and tone determine the best way to achieve it.
“All of the work we did was informed by the ultimate goal of mobilizing Americans for Bernie, and in the process, achieve healthcare for all and make college more affordable. We wanted to communicate these issues with the audience.”
Jonathan Barnes played an important role on Bernie 2016 where, rather than focusing on irrelevant metrics, ads were approached with the primary goal of inspiring the audience. By familiarizing themselves with the candidate and conducting extensive message testing, Jonathan and the rest of RAD were able to strike the right tone for Bernie and for his audiences. Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) reflected that the authentic messaging paid off.
Loren believes that every campaign, even the ones that don’t immediately meet their goals, can be valuable if you take the time to collect and analyze data for future use. “We try to learn from every campaign. We are very familiar with best practices, but this is an industry that is constantly evolving and in which things can turn on a dime. We monitor and optimize campaigns multiple times a day. Every data point is valuable. Instead of just resting on what’s worked for other campaigns or letting ads run without frequent analysis and updates, we constantly look at what works best for each individual client and in each unique situation.”
Lately, one subject has been a surefire attention-grabber: Trump. But while Trump ads may be effective for a lot of audiences, others prefer substance. Connor Cotton is an account manager who specializes in analytics. Much of his time is spent defining audiences and what gets their attention. Recently, he was working on ads for a state legislative race, and after studying the district, he had a hunch. “I tested standard anti-Trump ads against ads that explained that DeVos is planning on allowing states to decide much more about schools, including whether kids with disabilities or kids who are LGBT are protected. The difference was between painting Trump as the bogeyman or treating people like adults.” Sure enough, the DeVos ads performed better.
“Scare tactics won’t work forever,” explained Loren, “We try to find ways to cut through the clutter and motivate people by highlighting what we’re all fighting for. A lack of public support for Trump doesn’t automatically translate to full-throated support for anyone who is anti-Trump.”
Of course, there are plenty of times when a campaign doesn’t have the time to thoroughly build or test audiences and messaging. Successful direct response campaigns are often also rapid response campaigns. Every second between when news breaks and a campaign launches is a second wasted. Getting your message out first — before there is too much clutter or opposing opinions — means something. These campaigns instead draw heavily on lessons learned from past campaigns around similar issues and audiences. It’s this sort of experience that allows a campaign to quickly find a message that aligns with its audience and distinct call to-action. In this way, even campaigns with limited resources can build a valuable knowledge base that can help all aspects of the campaign better connect with its audience.
RAD often works closely with the Campaigns team to drive email subscriptions and donations. Liz Bennett has worked on a number of direct response campaigns, including notable candidates like Representative Tulsi Gabbard, Senator Sanders and Senator Kamala Harris. “It is absolutely exhilarating to create a campaign quickly to benefit our clients and their causes. Helping them build an audience and a way to communicate with that audience is 100% critical to their success.”
When breaking news hits, Crystal Stanford sees it as an opportunity to unite progressives behind a common cause.
Beto O’Rourke partnered with the team at Revolution Messaging in March of 2017 to launch his campaign for U.S. Senate against Ted Cruz. Working closely alongside the email fundraising team, Crystal and Liz quickly built Congressman O’Rourke’s email list and solicited donations within the first 48 hours of his campaign launch utilizing Facebook and Search advertising. The results were impressive.
For a lot of other campaigns, success can be more difficult to measure, but that doesn’t make it any less important. While click-through rate is a crucial metric, it doesn’t account for other supporters influenced by an ad. How, for instance, can you account for supporters who simply don’t like clicking on ads? This is where RAD has to dig a little deeper, using every method from tracking the amount of time people spend on a site to how long their cursors hovered over an ad.
Alejandro Díaz Blanquez specializes in audience tracking and segmentation. He creates and places retargeting pixels to track how visitors engage with websites, an important data point in measuring supporter interest and possible future mobilization. To quantify the unseen impact, Alejandro and Connor are working to develop ways to better track and move people up the “ladder of engagement,” or the process that ultimately leads supporters to take desired actions like donate, sign-up or vote.
Jonathan likens the ladder of engagement to a traditional grassroots approach. “It may be the former organizer in me, but ad campaigns are all about relationships. Serving ads is comparable to knocking on someone’s door, or calling them on the phone.” The key is reinforcing the message.
Working in a progressive environment comes with other advantages too. Laura Porter is the most recent addition to the team. “I love the community we have here at Revolution Messaging. Not just that, but we get to work for awesome clients who are making real and lasting change. Laura Moser is running in my home district. We’re all rooting for the same issues, and to know we helped make a difference is great feeling.” With so many ad placements and so much to accomplish, it takes long hours and consistent dedication to run a successful campaign. No matter the budget, RAD is driven by passion for the clients and causes they work for, and it’s this passion drives the unique focus on testing, analysis and meaningful results that makes them successful.