Can the slight rewording of a “contribute” button on a political candidate’s website really lead more people to donate more money? Does asking for $5 instead of $10 actually increase the number of repeat donors? Surprisingly, seemingly minor marketing techniques such as those have proven successful for many political campaigns and other organizations. Anne Lewis Strategies, a digital marketing agency, has launched many of these innovations in online fundraising. Anne Lewis, the firm’s co-founder and CEO, and Todd Plants, chief technology officer, shared their thoughts on how their work has helped shape the modern electoral process.
Harvard Political Review: Anne Lewis Strategies has developed such innovations as the “$5 ask” and optimized button text on candidates’ websites. How are these creations unique and how did you determine their effectiveness?
Anne Lewis: Having raised hundreds of millions of dollars online, we have developed a pretty good appreciation and understanding of what motivates the person on the other end. We come up with these ideas because we are sitting around and brainstorming, and it feels like a good thing to test; it feels like it would be motivating. Something catches our eye, and we think of taking it to the next generation. Then we prove it with very careful rigorous tests.
Todd Plants: It starts out as an idea, as right-brained. What will get the person on the other end of the line motivated? But then to prove it, it becomes a very left-brained operation, a lot of spreadsheets carefully collecting data. There are plenty of technology tools that make collecting and analyzing the data easier. But then, it’s essentially an A-B test. You try it one way and you get a conversion rate of 17.4 percent, and you try it the other way and you get a conversion rate of 19.2 percent, until option B is two percentage points better. In the business, nothing stays unique very long. If you find something that works, other people will notice, and they will start doing it too. You’re probably going to replicate it, and other people will try it out, and they’ll replicate it. Chances are what works for you will work for them. It’s this constant stream of trying things out, seeing if they work, rolling out winners, constantly improving your baseline, and then coming up with a new thing next week to make your baseline even better.
HPR: Are there any new frontiers your company is exploring? What research seems most promising?
AL: Some of the things that we are looking at are nuanced ways of describing the dynamic of a political election. In a close, high profile campaign, there will almost always be a multitude of public polls from a very wide range of sources with significantly different sample sizes and sample universes. That means there is almost always a wide range of outcomes. You can have polls that have you five points up or two points down or tied within a week period. There might be five different polls with five different outcomes. It allows us to experiment: is it better to cite the poll that shows you were two points behind, or is it better to cite the poll that shows you were two points ahead? What is most motivating? We are in the process of studying that question. We don’t have full results yet, but in the next week or so, we should have full results compiled.
HPR: How have your clients, from the most to least well known, benefitted from your services? Are there any especially significant success stories that come to mind?
AL: Our very first client is in the non-profit space, an environmental organization called the Environmental Working Group. When we started working for them, they raised maybe $25,000 a year online, they had about 8,000 people on an email list, and they didn’t have a Facebook page. Now they have literally millions of people on their active email list, hundreds of thousands on Facebook, and they raise over $2 million a year in online money, which has dramatically expanded the organization.
Their bread and butter used to be what they called “skin deep,” which was their database of personal care products [where] you can look up and find out whether your shampoo has something toxic in it. Now they’ve produced major reports on clean drinking water, on radiation from cell phones, and their most recent one is their food database. The massive amount of money we have raised online has allowed them to take what was a very powerful model and expand it dramatically.
TP: We have been part of their growth trajectory. They’ve grown a lot in a short time. Last summer, when they released a report on sunscreen, they were on the front page of The New York Times. That is when you reach the mainstream audience. It is not just “concerned mothers of America” who are paying attention to your report on toxins. That is when you really break through.
HPR: Even though your company’s services are needed by almost everyone, your company sticks to helping Democrats, or at least in that case a liberal-leaning organization. Is financial gain secondary to supporting a political cause?
AL: We really believe in the idea that we can do good for the world. That doesn’t exclusively mean progressive. Many of our clients are environmental organizations or progressive organizations, but we also have plenty of organizations that simply don’t fall in the political spectrum. For instance, one of the clients that I care deeply about at the moment is a client called Us Against Alzheimer’s, which basically has its hair on fire trying to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. It is sort of the upstart in the world of Alzheimer’s advocacy because most other organizations are a little bit resigned to the reality that it is hard to tackle a major research challenge like this.
TP: We also see places where the right-left, progressive-conservative lines don’t fit. We work for the USO, for example, and we know that their audience is more conservative than most of the folks we work with. But, I don’t think anyone really thinks that either side of the aisle has a monopoly on supporting our troops and honoring the service they provide the country. We look for ways to connect their audience with ways that they can express they can express their gratitude.
HPR: Given the success of digital marketing, it appears that the future of politics lies in the data analysis and language research that you are doing. Do you feel this will be the case? Is there still room for the classic “town hall meeting”?
AL: The best politics is always the in-person, authentic, face-to-face, real connection a candidate can make with a voter. When digital is done right, it narrows that gap between the candidate and the voter. It brings a real authentic voice. Over and over again we see that the messages that are the best are the ones where we are showing somebody a real window into the way the candidate is thinking about something. Something that is much more real than you can imagine, that they would see on a TV add.
TP: The telephone was once considered the cold, sterile, technological way of interacting with somebody. Today, we think of that as the next thing you do with your grandmother on a Sunday evening. I think we will see the same shift, where sending an email or even a text will no longer be weird. There is a level where understanding what people respond to, makes you a more receptive and responsive public servant.
AL: There is also a level where the lightning speed with which you could communicate with someone in the digital realm is a vehicle for making those interactions much more genuine. One of my favorite examples is in 2008, when Hillary surprisingly won the New Hampshire primary. The first line of the email we sent out to her supporters that night was: “You and I surprised a lot of people tonight, didn’t we?” She signed it, “Thank you from the bottom of my heart.” It was so incredibly real. That sentiment captured exactly what she was feeling, and it spoke to a group of people who were feeling exactly the same thing. It was a moment where the Internet really closed the gap between the candidate and the supporter.
HPR: How has digital fundraising counter-balanced the billions of dollars in corporate money currently flooding many campaigns?
AL: I will give you two answers. Part one is: by lowering the barrier to political participation, digital fundraising has allowed many more people to participate with their $25. Before, you had to wait until somebody tele-marketed you or sent you a piece of direct mail before you could give. Today, you go online and you type in jeanneshaheen.org, her site comes up, you click “Contribute,” and you’re there. It’s very easy for people to participate, and the technology has gotten so much better, that actually making the contribution is easier than it’s ever been before. I think it has had a huge democratizing effect on political participation, which is a counter to Citizens United.
Part two is: take a page out of Econ 101. With these large super PACs that throw huge sums of money into races, there is diminishing marginal utility from those additional dollars. It is not the case that whoever has the most money wins. It is the case that in a race where both candidates have enough money, money doesn’t determine the outcome. What the Internet does is allow more candidates to have enough money, so that money does not determine the outcome. It is not quite right to look at it and say that the super PACs’ money is “drowning out” the little guy. What the Internet is doing is making sure that more candidates have the capacity to reach the point of diminishing returns.
TP: We have already seen a couple of our clients raise upwards of 40% of their entire budget online.
This interview has been edited and condensed.