The North Carolina race for Senate in 2016 was one of the most competitive – and expensive – races in the country that year. The election pitted Republican incumbent Richard Burr against the lesser-known Democrat Deborah Ross, a former state House Representative, in what turned out to be a closer race than anyone expected.

Burr held a narrow lead through much of the campaign, but that lead began to shrink beginning in October. The candidates were tied in polls conducted in the final weeks of the campaign. But in the end, the incumbent Republican Burr captured 51.12% of the state’s votes, compared to Democratic opponent Deborah Ross’ 45.32% (Sean Haugh, libertarian candidate and pizza delivery driver got 3.56% of the vote).

While the two campaigns may have been drastically different in terms of their political platforms and public image, what they did have in common was their willingness to tap into the power of data, technology and social media.  Both employed a digital campaign strategy. Both teams made digital content and strategic, data-informed messaging priorities.

And in doing so, both teams found success.

While much has been written about Barack Obama’s masterful use of technology, and more recently about the social media success of Donald Trump, little has been written about digital campaigning at the state level, where resources (and the playing fields) are more limited.

And while there are authors who have explored the digital divide between Democrats and Republicans, few have taken a deep look at a state-level race to see how rival campaigns have differed in their uses of data and digital technology.

To explore the different ways that the Burr and Ross campaigns took advantage of 2016’s advanced digital landscape, I went behind the scenes – I spoke with people from both campaigns, dug up data, and analyzed their social media content. What I found is that tech-savvy, data-driven campaigning isn’t just for presidential candidates. Congressional hopefuls are investing in tech now, too.

Election 2016: One for the books (and Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat)

The 2016 election cycle dealt a strange hand to those running for office. The political arena seemed to be turned on its head, especially once Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s names were secured at the top of the ballot. Lifelong Democrats were planning to vote for Trump. Well-known Republicans were coming out for Clinton.

At the state level, North Carolina was divided over topics such as House Bill 2 (HB2), more commonly known as “the Bathroom Bill,” which prevented transgender people from using government-run bathrooms corresponding to the gender with which they identify.

North Carolina was one of the most pivotal battleground states during the 2016 election. One of the swingiest swing states, North Carolinians voted for Obama in 2008 then Romney in 2012 – and the state’s 15 electoral votes were a must-win for Trump. It was also a state the Republicans were counting on to maintain their Senate majority.

The two major candidates running for Senate in the state were Republican incumbent Richard Burr and Democratic challenger Deborah Ross. Burr had been serving in the Senate since 2005, and spent a decade representing N.C.’s 5th Congressional District in the House before that. Ross’ political experience included five terms in the N.C. House of Representatives and leading the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in the 1990’s.

Perhaps the most memorable part of the race that seemed to overshadow the “real” issues was the he-said, she-said fight over Ross’ actions regarding legislation that would place sex offenders in a public database. Burr sponsored ads across virtually every platform that accused his opponent of opposing the sex offender registry. Ross responded with her own ads rebutting Burr’s claims, saying that she had actually fought to strengthen the sex offender registry.

Burr’s campaign pushed the sex offender registry issue hard, along with reminding voters of Ross’ background with the ACLU, trying to paint her as “too liberal” for North Carolina. Meanwhile, Ross’ campaign was showing Burr as a self-interested politician who was more interested in taking private money than in creating positive change in Washington. The race got close, it got dirty, and it got expensive.

Outside groups alone spent more than $58 million to influence the race – much of it going to Burr and Ross’ attack ads that bombarded North Carolina voters in the last few months of the race. That outside-spending total is especially surprising considering that the Ross and Burr campaigns raised a combined $23 million themselves.

But at the end of the day, what both campaigns needed were votes – which meant motivating voters. Many of these voters were most concerned about the state of the economy. Some were focused on terrorism. Foreign Policy. Health care. Gun control. And there was one thing that almost every one of these voters had in common: their use of the internet and digital tools made them (and their data) accessible for these political campaigns.

For those running for public office, the United States’ addiction to the internet and digital media meant there were more ways to reach potential voters – to gain name recognition, to fundraise, to discredit their opponent – than ever before. In a country that is somewhat disinterested in politics (with a low voter turnout, by international standards), connecting with the electorate online gives candidates a captive audience. Meeting potential voters where they already are – on their screens.

In November 2016, 4.7 million people voted in the state of North Carolina. An estimated 90% of those (4.2 million) voters regularly use the internet. Over three quarters (77%) of them own smartphones, and 76% subscribe to paid TV service at home. A large majority – about 69% of them – use social media, and most check their email multiple times a day.

This electorate in 2016 was dramatically more connected than ever before. Virtually all potential voters regularly entered the digital arena in one way or another – and every time they did, they offered campaigns another chance to grab their attention.

And while the rapid advancement and increased adoption of digital technology was offering political candidates new and improved ways to get information to their audience, it simultaneously provides campaigns more advanced ways to get information from their audience.

Taking advantage of large-scale voter data, campaigns (working with data vendors) know more and more about the people whose vote they’re trying to secure. They know all about our lives – our interests, our histories, and our values. They use advanced data models to target individuals with personalized messages. Their messages can be strategically placed and constantly measured.

Both Richard Burr and Deborah Ross built teams that understood the power of these tools and weren’t afraid to use them. The two teams, though slightly different in their approach, were able to use technology and data to garner support, raise money, and ultimately, to secure votes.

These campaigns were run by people who were not only using their own experience to make decisions, but who were also constantly looking for ways to measure the success of those decisions. They listened to each other, but also listened to their data. They followed the money. They pivoted and attacked. And in doing so, they learned some important lessons, and they shared those with me.

In researching these campaigns, I learned three big things:

  1. Even as social media and digital campaigning become more important, elections are still won on TV. TV ads are still what moves the needle.
  2. Emails drive fundraising, especially in terms of small-dollar donations
  3. Senate campaigns are beginning to invest in social media and data technology tools, but they haven’t reached national levels yet.

But there is much, much more to be learned from these campaigns.

Building the dream team: campaign staff

When staff from the Deborah Ross and Richard Burr campaigns described their teams, both sounded more like start-ups than campaigns for the U.S. Senate.

On one hand, there’s Burr’s campaign, who prided themselves on their small but mighty staff.

“Our team was so small – a quarter, maybe a fifth of the size of any other major Republican Senate campaign in the country,” said Alex Johnson, Burr’s Director of Strategic Operations.

“If you look at the average Senate campaign – for example, Kelly Ayotte – they’ve got four or five staffers on their digital team alone. We had a total of four, maybe five, paid staff handling all campaign messaging,” Johnson recounted.

In a world of red tape and approvals, the Republicans’ small team approach allowed them to stay more nimble.

“I think keeping it lean and mean was great, because sometimes that approval process slows things down; sometimes there are too many cooks in the kitchen,” said Johnson.

Across the aisle, there was Deborah Ross’ team, who sounded even more like a start-up. They started their campaign with nothing. Literally – zero dollars in the bank. They didn’t even have an email list.

“We were working out of her kitchen we started,” said Ben Waldon, the campaign’s Finance Director and first official hire.

“Deborah had never run for anything; never been anything but a State Rep. She had never raised more than $100K, and we had to figure out how to raise $16 million. For someone that had only ever been a State Rep. in Raleigh, that’s tough,” said Waldon.

On both teams, the campaign senior staff mostly came from past campaigns or party endeavors. Until joining the Burr campaign in January 2016, Alex Johnson had been running what he described as “the Koch-supported millennial organization,” Generation Opportunity.

Ben Waldon was serving as Director of Intergovernmental Affairs for the office of Representative Hank Johnson when the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) invited him to a training for Senate campaign finance directors. The DSCC, along with Emily’s List, then recruited him onto the Ross campaign.

Jonathon Bray, Ross’ Campaign Manager, was also brought on by the DSCC and Emily’s List. Bray had formerly served as Campaign Manager and later as Chief of Staff to Florida Congresswoman Lois Frankel.

The one senior staff member that I spoke with that did not have a political background was Karthik Balasubramanian. Balasubramanian, the Ross campaign’s Data Director, was a doctoral student at Harvard Business School whose research interests relate to optimization of inventory management and incentives for mobile money agents in the developing world. ​

Having a data science genius on the team meant that the Ross campaign could do some of their own number-crunching without logging billable hours with their data firm. “We did some of our own internal analysis,” said Jonathon Bray. “We used a lot of Excel.”

In terms of staffing, having Karthik in-house was the one major advantage that the Ross seemed to have on Burr. When it came to data science, Burr’s campaign did not have their own data expert to call on, and thus had to rely more on outside (expensive) help.

“Everyone on our team and every one of our vendors had political backgrounds,” said Alex Johnson (Director of Strategic Operations, Burr campaign).

“Our digital team – the guys that handled all of our online ads, emails, email acquisition – they are strictly political – they came from the Romney campaign and everyone on that team has been involved in politics,” said Johnson.

Hiring out: consultants and vendors

Campaigns often hire outside consultants and vendors to offer expertise on areas such as digital, polling, fundraising, databases, media buying and mail. They spend millions to ensure that they’ve got the top experts in the industry (and on their side of the aisle) working to put them into office. Deborah Ross and Richard Burr’s campaigns were no exception – both spent millions on outside-the-shop expertise and services.

“Our campaign was structured similar to most Democratic campaigns,” said Ross’ Campaign Manager, Jonathon Bray. “Outside of our actual campaign staff, there was a consultant team that included a media consultant, a mail consultant, digital consultant, and a pollster – those were the big consultants.”

According to FEC records, the campaign’s media company, AL Media, received the bulk of the campaign’s funds – $11,482,818 to be exact (keeping in mind that Ross’ campaign spent just over $14 million total).

The second largest payout went to Ross’ digital firm, Well & Lighthouse, where the campaign’s disbursements totaled over $2 million.

“Well & Lighthouse [was] responsible for doing our online fundraising. That’s email building, list acquisition, fundraising through social media networks – though fundraising through Facebook and things aren’t as necessarily effective as direct email solicitations,” said Bray. “[Well & Lighthouse] also helped us with placing our paid digital communications.”

Other high-dollar help brought on by the Ross campaign were polling services from the Feldman Group totaling $457,573; fundraising technology from ActBlue, which cost them $400,912; financial database and tracking services from NGP VAN (the company that maintains the voter file Vote Builder and financial databases) and LexisNexis, $32,167; and Blue State Digital, through whom the campaign ran most of their emails, $10,651.

Alex Johnson and the Burr campaign brought on plenty of outside help, as well. “Every one of our vendors had political backgrounds. Our data vendor, i360, came out of the Koch group. They have their own database, so we work with them a lot,” said Johnson.

“Our digital vendor was Targeted Victory. Our media buyer was National Media – but we also worked directly with Google for some of our digital buys. Our pollster [was] Public Opinion Strategies.”

As with Ross, Burr’s largest expenditure, by far, was to their media company, National Media, totaling $9,273,084. Those ad buys straight from Google cost $79,884.52. Targeted Victory received $633,978 from the campaign for their digital marketing services, and their data vendor, i360 was paid $80,953.70.

Perhaps the only major difference between the two campaigns’ spending was in how much they invested into polling. The Ross campaign spent almost half a million on polling, and yet Burr’s campaign’s tab with their pollsters, Public Opinion Strategies, barely topped $50,000.

Instead of relying so much on old-fashioned polling, Alex Johnson said, the Burr campaign paid their data vendor, i360, to fund what he calls “person-to-person” research that was more accurate than the polling data (more on this later).

Putting data at the forefront of campaign strategy

Thanks to the advancement in online data collection and brokerage, political campaigns are able to work with these firms to create more “complete” voter profiles, which analysts then use to build models that can more accurately predict things like the likelihood of a specific voter turning out, or how likely it is that the voter will vote against their registered party.

“Now, because of technology, we have the ability to track and use data to make better decisions,” said Ross’ Finance Director, Ben Waldon. “Not just fundraising, but campaigns as a whole, are all going in the direction of, in my opinion, making better decisions based on measurable differences.”

Not only does this data help campaigns make better decisions in regard to ad strategy, it also keeps these high-dollar consultancies honest. “If I can’t see that something’s working, and I can’t tell, I’m not going to just trust you on that,” said Waldon.

He continued, “In the past, only having public polling to rely on, and not being able to digitally analyze what you’re doing, [allowed] a lot of rich D.C. consultants to tell people how to run their campaigns.”

This new model of political campaigning – relying heavily on data, technology and analytics to shape campaign strategy – has been adopted on both sides of the aisle. Old-school “gut instinct” political strategy is making way for numerical models and predictive analytics.

Campaigns are now moving some of their money from their TV advertising budgets into digital and social media. They’re spending more now than ever, but when they spend on digital, they’re able to spend it smarter. But to do this, campaigns need to know more than just politics. They need technology on their side. They need people like Karthik Balasubramanian.

“[The Ross campaign] spent a significant amount of money on paid communication – across broadcast, cable, radio, and online media,” said Balasubramanian.

“I developed analyses that helped advise these decisions – how much, where, and to who in the case of digital – by integrating cost, internal and external polling, and adversarial spend.

While digital tools may come second-nature to the “millennials” running the campaigns, some politicians may need help adjusting to this rapidly-changing technological environment, especially if they’ve been in Washington for over two decades doing things the way they’ve always done them.

Burr’s team, for instance, said that they had to “prove the worth” of digital data to the Senator because, as Alex Johnson said “he was used to just instinct-run campaigns.”

“It’s definitely tough,” said Johnson, “because you have these candidates that have run before, and they know the state, but now we have all this science behind it, and we see that the science works.”

After all, Johnson said, “Gut instincts didn’t tell anyone that Donald Trump was going to win the election.”

…but the data doesn’t all have to be “big”

Ross’ Data Director, KarthikBalasubramanian, believes that there is way too much hype around the buzz-words ‘big data.’ “Especially at the expense of just making smart, more basic data-driven decisions,” he said.

“Far more important is smart little data analyses,” he said.

“For example,” continued Balasubramanian, “if advertising in one broadcast TV media market is x% more expensive than another per target voter, it probably makes sense to underweight on TV in that market. Or, if advertising in one type of online medium is far more expensive than another, without clear evidence that that extra expense is worth it in terms of persuasion or motivation value, then you should probably not use the more expensive online medium.”

“It’s these types of basic, less sexy cost-benefit analyses are far more important to get right before worrying about fine tuning targeting with ‘big data,’” he said.

…and don’t forget the human element

While data and analytics tools are becoming increasingly advantageous in political campaigning, these tools must be balanced with the tools we cannot get from a computer, like experience. And personality.

“When you’re spending money, you want to get the most information possible. You don’t ever want to make a [purely] gut decision; you want it to be informed on some sort of data,” said Jonathon Bray.

“But at the same time, that data tells you just part of the story,” he said. “Experience matters. People who have done this in the past have seen what works and what doesn’t work, so you have to combine all of those information streams together to make the best decision.”

With the proliferation of digital tools at their disposal, Deborah Ross wanted to make sure the human element was not lost in their campaign’s messaging.

“The campaign was very, very data-driven,” said Ross. “But, because I was not a new candidate, and had some familiarity with the state, and care about that human connection, we had that aspect as a campaign, as well. I think that made an enormous difference, particularly in the rural areas where we over-performed.”

Measuring everything – and adapting accordingly

Nothing in the 2016 election cycle was to be unmeasured, untested, untargeted or static when it came to mobilizing voters. For instance, if a campaign website page was the color blue, and the “donate” button was the color red, there should be metrics behind those choices. Strategies for digital outreach – announcements, generating media, seeding grassroots interest, attracting donations – should be constantly informed and shaped by digital data.

“Without data, how do you know if you’re making good decisions?” asked Finance Director Ben Waldon.

“I would rely on data to do everything regarding my mail plan,” he said. “That’s like paid marketing – you’d mail people a letter with an envelope and be like ‘please return $20’– that kind of thing. We used data for all of that.”

The Ross campaign’s digital firm, Well & Lighthouse, provided regular figures to help the team plan their solicitation messaging. The firm would provide the staff with a weekly update which contained data such as the amount of emails captured that week.

“I got daily updates on the amount of money those pages brought in, the amount of money the digital fundraising program was bringing in, unsubscribe rate – all of these kind of quantitative figures,” said Waldon.

The Finance Director would then look to that data for ways to improve or steer content and delivery. For instance, Waldon said, he may have noticed that email unsubscribe rates were unusually high – so maybe they shouldn’t should send as many emails. Perhaps they’re bringing in a lot of money on Google Search – so maybe they should ratchet that up and see if it continues.

This data isn’t just collected through computer models, points out Alex Johnson from Burr’s campaign. “Everything was measurable, and we did a lot of polling to measure where we were,” he noted. “But polling nowadays, as we saw, everyone said Hillary Clinton was going to win by a landslide – is wrong, it’s absolutely wrong.”

“So what we’re seeing are data vendors like i360 that are out in the field and able to do person-to-person research,” Johnson continued. “They’re asking ‘who do you plan to vote for’ in a targeted universe, so we’re able to see that more accurately. The other thing they’re doing is they’re contacting people on a weekly, if not daily, basis, and refreshing all of their data models. Those data model refreshed on a daily basis to help us with our targeting. So, every day it’s changing – and the message is ever-evolving.”

Reaching the right people with the right messages

When you run ads or campaign messages online, it pays for campaigns to make messaging as personalized as possible. “The more personalized you can make it, it cuts through the clutter,” said Sean Duggan, Vice President of Advertising at Pandora Internet Radio. Especially with the amount of media constantly inundating people, it helps if the viewer can relate directly to the campaign message.

Richard Burr’s team sought to more effectively reach certain segments of their base, such as veterans or mothers. “We targeted veterans with geo-TV ads, where we had a veteran talking about why it was important to vote for Senator Burr,” said Alex Johnson. “[For] moms, we would have a mom with her kids talk about that.”

Thanks to the amount of data at their disposal, the Burr campaign was able to get very specific with their geo-targeting. “We took the list from our data vendor, took the various universes, gave them to Google and our digital vendor, and they targeted all those individuals accordingly with the various messages,” said Johnson. Easy as that.

“The real revolution we’re seeing in politics is all data,” Johnson continued. “We built custom data models where you’re taking thousands of consumer data points, matching it to a voter profile, and you’re able to tell where someone is on this issue, and if they’re likely to vote for the senator.”

But this research is only half the battle. Once the campaign knows who you are and how you feel, they still must craft the right messages to resonate with you and those in your ‘universe.’

“That’s really where the strategic part comes in,” said Johnson, “It’s creating the correct universes and targeted individuals with the right ads that will relate to them.”

Don’t forget about mobile – and all those other screens

The simultaneous use of multiple digital tools at once, known as “second screening” or “dual screening,” has changed the way voters around the world consume and discuss political information. Second screening can mean using your smartphone or tablet during a televised debate – you can follow along and share your thoughts on social media platforms like Twitter, or you may perform Google searches to fact-check, read commentary or to learn more about that candidate or topic.

Our propensity to engage with multiple screens at the same time, and the fact that the average American home now contains five connected devices, is no secret to these campaigns. The Ross campaign would simultaneously run the same ad content on both TV and digital platforms in order to maximize the effectiveness of that message.

“Some of the effectiveness of digital [content] was that people would be seeing it on TV, getting something in their mailbox, and then potentially seeing it digitally, as well, said Jonathan Bray.

The goal, Bray said, was to avoid fragmenting their message – to coordinate messages across platforms as much as possible. The campaign didn’t want a voter to hear one thing on TV and something totally different online.

One way the campaigns would try to master that “second screen” was to buy online search terms (like Google Ad Words) to accompany ads. Or, to take it a step further, the campaigns would set up an inconspicuous (non-branded) web page for users to land on that supports the ad’s message. The potential voter would see the ad on TV, and would then search Google for content related to that ad. Such was the practice for the Burr campaign.

“When we would cut an ad, we would then buy up all the search terms on Google that we would think would relate to that ad, explained Alex Johnson. “So when people are watching it on TV –  but they also have their phone or iPad or laptop while they’re watching– and people go and google whatever it is on that second device.”

Johnson gave an example of this.

“So, say we put up an ad about Deborah Ross and sex offenders. We would buy [the search terms] ‘Deborah Ross’ and ‘sex offender,’ and then there’s a couple things we would do. First, we created our own landing page, [but without] Richard Burr branding, to try and make it more believable. [On that page], we had all the sourcing about Deborah Ross’ opposition to the sex offender registry, with links to News & Observer articles about it; her democratic opponents calling her out for it.”

The goal, Johnson said, was to make sure that the ads were “believable” for the viewer – that they seemed true. “Especially with what we see now with fake news, it’s about making sure it’s real and authentic. Whatever you do, you want to make sure there’s evidence for it.”

Ross’ campaign employed a similar approach to providing “backup” information.

“When we launched our digital campaigns, our ads were always accompanied by a website, and the website would have the backup information on it for people,” explained Jonathon Bray.

Bray continued, “we would take our research that proved what we said in the ad was factual and true, and then turned that into a website where people watch it on Facebook, they click on it and it goes to this website and there’s more backup information.”

These sites providing such backup information are minimalist in terms of design, and for a reason. They merely consist of one page that can either completely fit on your computer screen, or require a minimum amount of scrolling, says Bray, “purely just to push that message out.”

As previously noted, these sites are not visually branded to match the campaign, which some may consider to be somewhat deceptive. That being said, they were always perfectly legal. When the campaigns created these pages, they always made sure that the page would contain the required FEC disclaimer, and a box at the bottom that said “Paid for by Deborah Ross for Senate” or “Paid for by Richard Burr for Senate.”

In reality, though, most people would not immediately recognize that the page was sponsored by the candidate’s opponent. And that’s kind of the whole point.

“If you lose on TV, you’re going to lose overall”

While digital strategy is becoming more and more important in delivering messages to voters, television continues to eat up the bulk of campaigns’ advertising budgets.

Even while many people are “cutting the cord,” and favoring digital content over traditional network and cable TV, 87% of Americans of voting age still watch traditional television, according to a 2015 report by Nielsen. This same report shows that television-watching adults spend a staggering 7.5 hours a day in front of a TV set. That’s far more time than people spend watching content on their computers, smartphones or tablets – which adds up to about 3.6 hours per day, combined.

So. while investment into digital content is clearly extremely important, TV still takes priority. The Ross campaign, for example, started out with very little cash, so they decided to skimped out on digital ads in order to keep up with Burr on the main stage – television.

“We should have invested in digital advertisements sooner,” said Jonathon Bray. We out-raised Richard Burr in first quarter, second quarter and I think the third quarter, as well, of the campaign. But he started with $5 million in the bank in the bank, and we started out with zero dollars.”

“So, a lot of our decisions,” Bray continued, “were on using our money best, and that meant trying to match on TV. Because if you lose on TV, you’re going to lose overall, so we didn’t invest as much into digital, which was maybe a few thousand a week.”

But technology is also helping politicians spend that TV money wisely, especially if campaigns are trying to reach older Americans (who are the most dependable voters and the most dependable TV-watchers). Campaigns are now able to make sure they reach these TV-watchers using “programmatic TV” to efficiently spend their cash. With programmatic TV, voters can be targeted either through certain television programs, or even as individuals.

Perhaps the greatest difference with TV in 2016 was that the content shown on television also came with a digital component – those “second screens.” The campaign’s messages on television were now supported by social media and website ads – and their digital and social strategy was largely based on what ads people were seeing on their television screens. TV was the main course, but the digital side dishes were an important complement.

#Goals: Setting social media objectives

The addition and advancement of new social media tools continually raises the bar on the extent of interactivity that political campaigns could and should involve. But when it comes to social media – platforms like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram – candidates and campaigns vary in terms of both their objectives and how they evaluate success.

According to Alex Johnson, the main objective of Richard Burr’s social media content was to “humanize” Senator Burr. To make him relatable. Real.

“Often people think of politicians as these wealthy, self-centered individuals. But the reality is, Senator Burr is one of the most authentic people you will ever meet,” said Johnson. And that’s exactly the statement they wanted make.

“For example, instead of going to big rallies and doing big things for earned media, [the Senator] and Mrs. Burr would get in his car and drive out to rural North Carolina and go talk to people in a grocery store.”

Authentic. Down-to-earth.

Another example that Johnson gave: “A tree fell [the Senator’s] yard, and we got a video of him cutting the tree down, chopping it up – you know, splitting wood. We wanted to show that side of him more than just putting out your generic ad or Facebook post.”

Burr’s Digital Media Coordinator, Elizabeth Minton, added that exposure – especially among younger voters – was another social media objective. [We wanted] to make sure that as many people knew who the Senator was, what he stood for, and why he’d be the right person to vote for,” said Minton.

“Twitter, especially is very good for people our age – younger people who might not necessarily know that much about local politics or who aren’t as skilled at researching both sides of things at that point in their life,” she added.

For the Ross campaign, social media objectives were slightly different.

“Initially, it was to raise my name recognition,” said Deborah Ross. “To have people be familiar with me, and have people support the campaign.”

Jonathon Bray said that one of the campaign’s overall social media objectives was “increasing overall engagement with supporters.” Another important function of social media was on the fundraising side.

While social media tools may not yet be a popular direct avenue for campaign donations, but they certainly help politicians with donor acquisition, which begins with gathering potential donor information. Rather than making people fill in a bunch of field forms to sign up for a campaign’s email list, they can just click once to register.

“We used social media to generate paid advertising, which would help us collect email addresses in order to raise money.” Facebook, it turns out, is especially useful in targeting ads, as the user network is easily matched to the voter file.

“Facebook makes it very easy,” said Bray. “You can put in people from the voter file – all the information you have about them – and then it matches them on the Facebook user network, and when you get toward the younger end of that scale, you can get to about 80% match, which is excellent. As people get a little older, that drops down, but even with 50- and 60-year-old voters, we were getting really great match rates.”

The campaign didn’t raise much money off of social media directly – “We’d get a couple donations from it, but not a lot,” said Ben Waldon. But through social media, they were able to collect thousands of email addresses and turn many of those email addresses into donors. Email, as you will read later, is still – by far – the top digital fundraising tool.

The final big objective of their social media messaging, Deborah Ross said, was to update supporters on milestones in the campaign. “Sometimes that was in association with fundraising, and sometimes it just was ‘hey, we moved up!‘ or ‘hey, these are the poll numbers,”’ or something like that, said Ross.

The candidates themselves also had varying levels of social media experience, and Deborah Ross seemed to understand and appreciate it more than her opponent. As a member of the state house, Deborah Ross managed her own social media accounts and digital presence. “I did it myself,” she said. “I didn’t have an expert do it for me.”

Senator Burr, on the other hand, is more old school. “Because he’s an older gentleman, he might not necessarily understand social all that well, but we did,” said Elizabeth Minton.

“Pivot and attack”

Studies have shown that a political candidate’s negative messaging about an opponent is more effective, in terms of mobilizing voters, than positive messaging about himself. A 2013 study of the Italian general election evaluated the impact of both positive and negative tweets, and found that when one party tweets out negative content attacking its rival, there is a positive effect on the tweeting party’s share of voting intentions – that is, attacking the rival party increases the support for the attacker. Conversely, their results revealed only a circumstantial effect of positive campaign messaging released via Twitter.

Burr’s social media strategy certainly supported that theory. At times, the Republican’s campaign team would put out some positive, happy messaging – but it just didn’t seem to have nearly the same effect as their ads attacking Deborah Ross.

“We started off our messaging campaign with two very positive ads about Senator Burr’s work – helping an inner-city school get funding, helping African-American children, helping families who have autistic kids save for their future. Great stories, very powerful – talking about amazing things he’s done – but the reality is: no one cares, which is a sad thing,” said Alex Johnson, Burr’s Director of Strategic Operations.

 

Johnson and his team realized that those positive stories about Burr’s record weren’t improving poll numbers. “So that’s when we switched to the Kelly Lowe ad, and we had that up for a really long time, because the numbers were moving and moving.” The Kelly Lowe ad features a military veteran and sexual assault survivor criticizing Deborah Ross’ opposition to the sex offender registry.

At the same time, Johnson said, Ross was attacking Burr – “and it was working.”

“You’ve got to be able to pivot and attack,” he said. “The one thing I will say is we don’t like to play defense. You just shouldn’t be playing defense. I think James Carville said it, ‘if you’re on defense, you’re losing.’

“At one point, Deborah Ross was accusing Senator Burr of being a millionaire because of his work in the Senate, but in realty, Mrs. Burr built a real estate company from the ground up, and is actually the breadwinner in the family,” said Johnson.

“And so our strategy changed – they’re attacking us on this, and we had a good opportunity to say ‘Hey, wait, no. This is not how it is. And here you are attacking a successful businesswoman.‘ And for that, our big target was independent suburban moms. How dare you attack a woman for being successful in this day and age? Again, that moved the needle a lot.”

Pivot and attack.

“In January 2016, we were ready with attack ads [about Ross’ support of Obamacare], because we knew the premiums would increase. So the day it came out, we just piled on. We knew that when we put that ad up, people would start searching ‘what’s happening?’ and everything that comes up – we didn’t even have to pay for it – was news article after news article that Obamacare is increasing North Carolinians’ premiums, and we’re sitting here telling everyone Deborah Ross wants that.”

Pivot and attack.

“Every day it was changing” said Johnson, “and that’s the one thing I tell anyone in politics – is if you’re not willing to change and adapt, you shouldn’t even bother getting into it.”

Guns blazing is a good way to describe it. In the 30 days leading up to the election, Richard Burr’s campaign Twitter account, @BurrforSenate tweeted 139 times directly attacking Deborah Ross. These messages, which would sometimes show up four or five times with only slight variations, made up 37% of the 373 total tweets @BurrforSenate sent out in that timespan. The majority of these tweets focused on four main themes:


Meanwhile, @DeborahRossNC was also attacking Burr on Twitter, but at a slightly lower rate. Of the 176 tweets released by Ross in the 30 days leading up to the election, 42 of them were attacking Burr (24%, compared to Burr’s 37% attacking Ross).

Ross’ attacks on Burr focused on two themes:

Snapchatting for the young voters (and the D.C. press)

Snapchat may have gotten off to a bit of a slow start, but by 2015, it was named the fastest growing social network of all time. With 41% of 18-34 year olds accessing the app daily, and with average users spending over 30 minutes on the app every day, it’s no wonder that politicians and brands alike are stepping into the world of Snap.

While both the Ross campaign and the Burr campaign utilized Snapchat, Burr’s approach strategy was quite aggressive, while Ross’ was much friendlier and laid back.

During the campaign, Jonathon Bray says, the Ross campaign would use Snapchat geofilters to publicize events or press.

” I don’t know the efficiency or efficacy of Snapchat – I don’t think it really had much of one. Once again, it was more about engagement.”

“So, we did a bit of that at the end – it was mostly fun stuff,” said Bray. “Using Bitmoji, things like that, to reach out to voters. Mostly younger voters, is what they say, or younger residents in North Carolina.”

Using Snapchat is apparently also a way to keep your candidate’s name in the D.C. press.

“D.C. press was always interested [in Snapchat],” said Bray. “In the morning tip-sheets, they were always interested when people did Snapchat filters and things like that. It would be a quick blurb in the morning tip sheets, which, not to persuade voters in North Carolina, but rather a tool to make sure you [were] present in what everyone reads in D.C.”

Burr’s campaign saw Snapchat much differently. Rather than doing “fun stuff” with the platform, Burr used Snapchat filters as a way to attack and discredit his opponent.

“Deborah Ross opposed legislation that would’ve banned burning the American flag, so on the Fourth of July, we targeted major fireworks celebrations, and designed our own Snapchat filter of Deborah Ross burning the American flag, said Alex Johnson.

“It was an earned media ploy to get that message out there in a new format, targeting people you may not be able to find on Facebook. As millennials are leaving Facebook and going to Instagram and Snapchat, we figured it was a good way to start to get to that demographic.”

In the summer of 2016, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) was actively pushing Republican Senate candidates toward Snapchat.

“Campaigns are historically awful at including new technologies in their strategies,” said NRSC executive director Ward Baker, who started pushing Snapchat on campaigns in 2014. “I think Snapchat is the future of voter contact.”

Baker got his way. Every GOP Senate campaign in 2016 adopted Snapchat, placing ads, creating geofilters and even curating their own Snap Stories. And for once, Republicans are happy to not be lagging behind their Democratic opponents in terms of technologies and social platforms.

Everyone wants to go viral – but no one wants to take the risk

The ultimate success for any digital campaign is “going viral” (if your content went viral for positive reasons, that is). But the “virus” that is fast-spreading digital content A. happens organically and B. doesn’t happen inside a communicator’s comfort zone. Online content goes viral because it is extreme in some way – because someone took a chance with it.

When asked if he would change anything about the campaign (except for the outcome), Ross’ Finance Director Ben Waldon responded:

“I stand behind everything digitally; I don’t think there’s a whole lot we could have done differently. The only thing is if you get something [to go] viral. When you launch, if you have a launch video that just goes viral, you get a lot of exposure, you get a lot of money, etcetera. But, being able to do that is difficult, and viral content is viral for a reason. Not everything can catch fire like that. We didn’t have anything that just went viral like that. I would have liked that.”

He gave the example of Jason Kander, who at the same time was running for U.S. Senate in Missouri. “There’s an ad of him blindfolded, putting together an assault rifle, like talking about his service in the military, and it’s awesome,” said Waldon.

“That went viral and he raised so much money off that, got national name ID. He actually lost, very narrowly, but that’s an example of his media firm knocked it out of the park on that ad, and it had fundraising implications, he got a bump in the polls – everything.”

(Note: It is awesome. Watch below)

But many campaigns will never gain this kind of attention because they are afraid to go off-script. This was especially apparent with Burr’s campaign.

“They were very strict on what kinds of things we could post,” said Burr’s Digital Media Coordinator Elizabeth Minton.

“Everything went through a very serious approval process, where everyone – Alex [Johnson] and the rest of the staff on the campaign would look at it, his official staff would look at it, so many people would look at it,” said Minton.

“So there were things that I was allowed to write about and things that I was not allowed to write about, and I had to keep those in mind, as well.”

I asked Minton if she was allowed to respond to users on social media from the @BurrforSenate account.

“No, not on Twitter. On Facebook, I had two responses that I was allowed to do. I was allowed to either say ‘thank you‘ for a nice response on Facebook – or, if somebody was using hate speech or threatening or something like that, I was allowed to remove them from the Facebook page and hide the comment.”

While the campaign was clearly just trying to play it safe, they were going against conventional wisdom from the social media “experts.” According to Katie Harbath, a public policy manager with Facebook, campaigns with an online presence should not ignore the “social” part of social media.

“We highly recommend that you encourage comments,” Harbath said. “I know that can be scary for a lot of campaigns. But [by] allowing a discussion to go on, you’re going to have a lot more traffic and vibrancy on the page than if you try to have it all just be positive content, or not really much discussion”

Those annoying fundraising emails really do work

When it comes to political fundraising, email is still the name of the game – on both sides of the aisle.

“Email was all about fundraising,” said Alex Johnson of the Burr campaign. “We did a lot of online fundraising – raised maybe three-quarters of a million dollars online, just in small-dollar donations. We focused a lot on that.”

Three-quarters of a million in small-dollar donations may sound impressive – until you see that Deborah Ross raised well over $6 million in small-dollar donations (<$200), almost ten times what Burr’s team raised at that level. And those digital donations, Finance Director Ben Waldon says, were almost exclusively coming from emails.

“I don’t know why it works, but it works. Those really annoying emails – a lot of people give money to them, said Waldon.

“The whole name of the game is to get peoples’ emails, introduce yourself like a brand, and continue to communicate with them, and just barrage them with fundraising requests.”

Waldon did admit that there was perhaps some point where this produced a diminishing return, but that was not something that they worried about.

“You can send too many times, you lose your trust, that sort of thing,” said Waldon. “But when I’m trying to elect someone to U.S. Senate, I care about pissing off that donor in the long term, but if we don’t win, does it really matter?”

Waldon continued “I always grapple with this ethically. I’m like ‘oh my God, we’re spamming these people. I don’t want to spam people.’ But nothing that I’ve seen indicates that we’re going to lose your vote from sending you too many fundraising emails. Digital was maybe a third of my revenue, and [in total], we raised almost $16 million dollars, so that’s quite a chunk of change you’re talking about.”

But for the candidate whose name was on the subject line, email needed to provide a little “give” to go with the “take.”

“I had a personal strong desire and a mandate from me to use email to thank people,” said Deborah Ross.

“I’m a big believer that you don’t just ask, ask, ask – you have to thank people, and let them know that their work or their donations have yielded some kind of result. So, frequently, we would communicate a ‘thank you’ with some kind of update about the campaign, so that people felt invested.”

 

Looking back: lessons learned

With hindsight being 20/20, I felt that I must ask the staffers, and Deborah herself, what they would have done differently if they could do it all again.

Deborah Ross wishes that they could have gone all-in on digital earlier on in the race.

“I think we should have been more aggressive earlier. We hired the wrong digital firm – a digital firm that was not as good [as Well & Lighthouse] – at the beginning. Then we had to change. I wish that we had made the right decision in the first place, and had done our homework better.”

Ross continued: “In hindsight, I would have tested a few more things, digitally, then we did. I would have taken a few more risks on testing some messages. But, that’s hindsight, and I think nobody saw what was going to be happening with the final way that the campaign turned out. So, whether or not testing those messages under a different circumstance would have worked, I don’t know.”

Jonathon Bray, her campaign manager, agreed that they should have been more aggressive with digital early on in the race. “When we did start investing heavily digitally in week 8, and then really ramped it up in week 4, we saw our favorability numbers with younger voters – voters under the age of 45 – rise at about an average of four points a week.”

“If we would have spent that money [on digital] a little earlier, we could have moved those numbers a little earlier, and I think we would have seen better polling earlier on, which may have had a beneficial effect down the road on the campaign,” said Bray.

On the Republican side, Alex Johnson would have liked to reach more groups of voters with specific, targeted messages.

“If we would have had more money it would have been great to go target new audiences and bring in different demographics,” said Johnson. “It would have been great to target African-Americans talking about Deborah Ross defending the KKK. Things like that would have been awesome.”

Looking ahead: the future of data, technology and digital media in politics

With many of their sights already set on 2020, I asked the members of both campaigns what the future of tech-savvy politics looked like to them.

Deborah Ross worries about the echo chambers we are creating around ourselves online.

“The thing that is changing the most is the confluence of this ability to super-target individual voters, and individual voters lack of effort to go beyond their curated world. It used to be that, just by living life, you were exposed to a lot of different things because you couldn’t customize your news feed a – you were just exposed to everything,” reflected Ross.

“Now, people don’t feel that they have time to read and see everything, and so what they do is they pick a narrower ideology – and campaigns are exploiting that. So, what you get is a narrower, more entrenched focus, rather than a broader view of things. And at the same time, people are self-selecting to be in that category. That’s unfortunate.”

Alex Johnson says campaigns will need to be creative to capture our shrinking attention spans.

“My whole thing is ‘keep it simple, stupid.’ If you can’t get your message out in 140 characters, just don’t bother.” He gave an example. “We discovered [that] using emoji in email subject lines is an awesome way to increase your open rates on emails. We would do ‘fundraising alert’ in the subject line and then have a couple of sirens.”

Ben Waldon sees a more measurable, data-driven political landscape.

“The whole industry of campaign fundraising is moving to have more measurable goals, and more data-driven decision making, said Waldon. “I think that’s the smartest thing we can do, is use data to make better decisions. If you were running a campaign in 1998, how you raised your money was probably hosting house parties, calling people. Now there’s all these different ways to do it.”

Elizabeth Minton pointed out that, because of social media, politicians are always “on camera.”

“I think the biggest thing that was made incredibly clear in this election that I think has not been all that clear in prior ones, is how everything you say and do is everywhere. You can’t hide. Everyone is talking about you on social and news stories hit instantly instead of in a matter of days,” said Minton.

“Now, more than ever, they’ll have to be aware of their surroundings. All it takes is one secret, undercover person from the other campaigns at one of your meetings, and you say something, and all it takes is them tweeting it out. And that’s a huge issue right there.”

And Jonathan Bray sees campaign staff who are all, in some ways, digital directors.

“I think that [digital] is going to be less its own special side-thing and become more integrated into the campaign, answered Bray.

“Most campaigns have a digital director who is separate from all of the different departments, that works in accordance with departments. But I think you’ll see a more digitally-native integration into each operation.”