In 2018, Democrats faced a tough map. There were 26 Democratic senators up for reelection, including 10 running in states that Donald Trump carried two years prior. The work of defending those incumbents — and raising the money to go on the offensive as well — fell to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). That challenge forced the organization’s internal teams to get creative and push for innovative solutions.
Matt Compton, Director of Advocacy and Engagement in our Washington, DC, office recently talked to Catherine Algeri, Director of Integrated Marketing at the DSCC during the 2018 midterm elections, about her path to the political world, what her experience with high-pressure campaigns has taught her, and what other organizations — both inside and outside of the political realm — can learn from the DSCC’s successes.
What follows is an edited and condensed version of Matt’s conversation with Catherine.
Tell me a little bit about your background. What made you gravitate toward digital?
I came to digital by way of direct mail, which may seem shocking, but there’s so much in direct mail that translates quite nicely to digital. After coming to DC after an internship, I ended up at a direct mail firm that helped a wide variety of nonprofits — that’s where I trained on copywriting, audience segmentation, and testing, testing, testing. It was funny watching folks discussing digital growth at conferences saying, “It turns out that audience segmentation makes a big difference!” And I said, “Well, the direct mail folks have been perfecting this for years.”
There’s a saying in the communications world: Reporters aren’t interested in stories about a dog chasing a cat; they’re interested in stories about a cat chasing a dog. They don’t always cover the efforts a given senator is making on issues their constituents care about if it’s not moving forward. The appeal of digital is that you don’t have to let the press decide what’s newsworthy: You can talk directly to the people who are connected to you. It creates an environment where people can participate in their democracy — and I love that.
I knew I had to create opportunities for myself to get into digital. When I joined the board of a volunteer-run nonprofit organization, I said, “I’ll take over all your social. I’ll rebuild your website.” I had never built a website before.
[Laughing] How’d that go?
It went really well! At first, it can be overwhelming. But some friends connected me to some friends of theirs who had built websites in a similar space, and they walked me through some things I needed to know. From there, it was all trial and error.
You’ve worked directly for campaigns, you’ve done it at the committee level, and you’ve done it for multiple cycles. What has stayed most consistent about your job running online and digital programs through all of those different experiences?
Our lists really love rapid response. The faster that you can get out there with accurate information — especially information that makes sense of what’s going on — the more likely your list is to respond. Also, people love polls!
The appeal of digital is that you don’t have to let the press decide what’s newsworthy: You can talk directly to the people who are connected to you.
Sure. They want to know where things stand!
Yeah. The thing that has changed the most — and has been the most fascinating to watch — has been the level that digital is integrated into the campaigns. When I started, it was really funny — everybody’s title was “New Media Director,” because that was the hip thing to call it. But really, we were Digital Directors, because we were overseeing the email programs and social media. I’ve watched digital go from sitting in a corner to being at the table. I’m really proud to have been part of that progression.
What was the biggest thing you and your team were able to accomplish in 2018?
I’m really proud of the Women’s Senate Network digital launch. The Women’s Senate Network, founded by Debbie Stabenow, has existed for nearly 20 years at the DSCC, helping us elect more women senators. This past cycle, we expanded our digital efforts around that, because we thought our audience had a real appetite for it. We developed a brand for it: a logo, artwork, colors, tone of voice. We saw tremendous success with that — I think the last I checked we’d raised $5.4 million through that new effort alone. I think that our Women Senate Network members within the DSCC can look to the election of Kyrsten Sinema and Jacky Rosen in this cycle and think, “Yes! I was a part of that!”
That’s wonderful. And pretty incredible results, too.
Yeah! And those were just the digital numbers. I don’t have the direct mail and telemarketing numbers handy, but it would only improve from there!
In addition to Women’s Senate Network, I’m really proud that we were able to get SMS off the ground this cycle. We didn’t want it to feel like this was just another avenue for asking for money. If you joined our mobile text messaging program, we wanted you to feel like you were going to get exclusive updates, that there were going to be opportunities for you that you couldn’t get from our emails, that you were going to walk away as a source of information for your friends and family.
What did you see Republicans test or try in 2018 that was most interesting to you or is most worth exploring for progressives and Democrats?
Two things come to mind: One, they really spent a lot of time developing video for social to attack, attack, attack our candidates, and they would come up with mini-campaigns using video. I hated it, but I appreciated the creativity behind it.
And there’s one other thing that they did — I think that they really understood the opportunity in persuasion digital advertising in a way that I would like to see Democrats across the board become more aggressive about.
I thought the exact same thing. It’s fascinating that one of the lessons that the Republicans seemed to internalize from the Trump victory was that they should be investing a lot more in online advertising. Some of that is about acquisition and growing their own supporter bases, but quite a bit of it is focused on persuasion. And you’re starting to see budgets shift on their side away from television and toward digital…
I worry we’re not adapting fast enough.
Yes. I would like to see us be a little less television-reliant. There are times when maybe putting those additional five points in TV isn’t worth what you could get out of that same amount of money online.
Let’s talk about how some of the things you’ve done could apply to other organizations looking to emulate the results you were able to achieve. What’s something a smaller campaign, a statewide campaign, or even a nonprofit could learn from what you and your team did in 2018?
My advice to those small teams: Stop taking the youngest person in the organization and saying, “You know how to use social media, you therefore are qualified to run the digital program.” I’m not saying that you can’t promote people, but don’t throw people into the deep end and expect the money to come pouring in. It’s a competitive digital environment, and you need to invest if you want to see dividends. Also, you have to have variety in your content — you should have somebody on your team who can do graphic design. Remember: Your audience is busy, so sometimes you just have to have a pretty way of breaking the information down really fast.
Have you learned anything from looking at nonprofits or brands and the way that they build communities that you’ve applied to your work in politics?
I keep the “always on” mentality of the commercial space in mind: establishing and reinforcing the brand at all times. We can’t just come to you at the end of the month and ask for money without taking steps along the way to remind you of who we are and what we do. We need to be always-on with our advertising about who we are, what we stand for, and why folks are proud to be a part of our cause.
How much of your strategy is rooted in what works right now — our industry’s best practices — versus figuring out what’s next — the innovations that will drive our work and business going forward?
We’re sitting down right now and looking at the opportunities to build on what we have — whether that means finding integrations that can maximize revenue across channels or in a particular channel, or where we can invest best now to get that return on investment.
We’re looking into image personalization, which would be a big step forward for us this cycle and something that we know resonated for the DNC last cycle.
It’s also important for us to make time to learn about new technology. There are so many different products, and not all of them are going to be beneficial for you — you need to be smart about identifying the right innovations to look into. If you don’t make time to keep learning, how are you going to know what’s next?
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