Scott Brown raised millions online, why can’t I?

Vincent Harris CEO, Harris Media
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“Is there a proven method to online fundraising?” I can’t tell you how often I get that question. Having worked on dozens of campaigns over the years, I feel confident that the answer is yes.

There were thousands of elections in 2009 and 2010 but very few incredible online fundraising success stories. Insiders are familiar with the ones that got press: Scott Brown, Doug Hoffman, Bob McDonnell and Sharon Angle. Having been involved with one of those campaigns, I know first-hand that the national media and nationwide attention that a race attracts plays a critical role in raising huge amounts of money online.

This should not come as a surprise. Back in 2007 when I was working on Governor Huckabee’s presidential campaign, I’d see a spike in money around national television appearances such as debates. My boss at the time, Chris Maiorana, did a fantastic job of capitalizing on these appearances. He worked the online activist audience with new graphics and targeted e-mail appeals to various regional and issue-oriented groups.

This phenomenon (which isn’t really much of a phenomenon when you think about raising money logically) was replicated in 2009 in the McDonnell race. During the latter half of the campaign, we used EngageDC’s iContribute system to track donations. Whenever McDonnell was on Hannity or another national show, donations would come in from out of state, often accompanied by comments about the importance of rebutting Obama. Bob McDonnell had the great benefit of being virtually alone on the national stage, with the conservative media caring deeply about his race. This helped the campaign raise money, both in and outside of Virginia.

Scott Brown and Doug Hoffman attracted the intense interest of the national media for brief periods of time, which allowed them to raise millions of dollars online.

The purpose of this article is not to diminish the fundraising work done by individuals on these campaigns. Each campaign mentioned above had a team in place to capitalize on the national media spotlight. However, it is important that politicos note that the handful of campaigns that have been able to raise millions online benefited from intense old-school media coverage, which is still absolutely priceless in terms of online fundraising.

Outside of intense media coverage, e-mail is still the key to raising money. My team used Piryx for the majority of our clients this cycle, which allowed us to create multiple unique contribution pages to track where online donations were coming from. What we found time and time again was that e-mail asks, specifically targeted, personalized, visually appealing e-mails sent to small, niche audiences that had opted into our e-mail list themselves, were the most successful.

Any campaign that spends its money wisely online can raise its money back, and most campaigns will be able to get a good return on investment from online spending. The problem in the campaign world is that everyone expects the R.O.I. to be instant, and while I have seen numerous instances where an effective online advertising campaign produced an instant R.O.I., in general, you have to invest time and effort earning the trust of potential donors before you can raise large sums of money.

So you have $2,000 and want to raise some money online. What do you do? Find an issue that will hit hard with a niche audience. Let’s take offshore drilling for example. Run offshore drilling ads on conservative sites pushing people to a landing page where they can give feedback on why they support the initiative. From there, redirect people to a contribution page where they can donate. You will make some of your money back initially, and you’ll collect e-mail addresses that you’ll be able to raise money off of for months to come.

Facebook and Twitter are generally less effective than e-mail at raising money. Yes, I have seen large donations come in through Facebook, and some small-dollar donations (as you’d expect) through Twitter, but by and large online fundraising still comes largely from e-mail and traffic driven to websites by old-school media or online ads.

Can national blog contacts, an aggressive online advertising campaign, and a great message help with fundraising online? Yes. Can it raise you the amount of money raised by Scott Brown? I don’t believe so. So my message to the average in-cycle campaign is not to look to the dozen campaigns that have had successful online fundraising spurred by intense media coverage, but instead to work slowly at cultivating your own list based on your own issues. It will take longer, but it will work.

Vincent Harris serves as Founder and CEO at Harris Media, a national media and communications firm based in Austin, Texas (www.harrismediallc.com). He previously ran day-to-day online operations for Governor Bob McDonnell.