The Digital Playbook: Top 5 strategies for political campaigns

Editor's note: We're excited to welcome Google's Elections and Issue Advocacy Team to the Public Policy Blog. Since 2007, they've worked with political candidates, consultants and advocates to build online advertising campaigns and fully integrate digital media into political strategy. This post marks the beginning of what we hope will be a regular series from the team. Follow the Digital Playbook label for future posts.

"So many people are living their lives through technology—how can we expect their interaction with politics to be the one exception?" This question, posed by Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, is more relevant now than ever. Hundreds of elections will be conducted this year in Congress, and no campaign can afford to ignore the Web.

On Google's Elections and Issue Advocacy team, we work with political campaigns of all stripes to help them use Google's online advertising platforms to build momentum, capture voter interest, steer debate and mobilize supporters. We've worked alongside candidates and issue groups on some of the top issues of the day—from health care reform and the Republican victories in November, to Scott Brown's upset in Massachusetts.

Today's electorate is hungry for political news and is eager to voice opinions online. This requires campaigns to adopt thoughtful and integrated strategies. And so as campaigns gear up for the November midterm elections over the coming months, we'll be sharing our thoughts on how they can take advantage of opportunities to do so. Today we are highlighting our top five strategies for using digital media to win:

1. Use search advertising to build your email list and raise money.
Everyone has seen the "Sponsored Links" on Google search results. These simple text ads, called AdWords, have been compared to direct mail because of their precise targeting and cost-effectiveness—you only pay when someone clicks on your ad. At the start of the campaign and throughout, running ads in your district on the names of your candidate and opponents, and on some of the key issues, can be a great way to capture voter interest. But rather than seeking a donation right away, put the email signup form front and center. It can help you build a bigger list, with greater potential for donations and engagement in the long run.

2. "Blast" the Google Network when you need to make a big splash.
The Google Content Network is made up of over a million websites that run Google ads as a way to make money, through a program we call AdSense. These ads can be simple text links, or video and image ads ("display" ads in industry lingo), tailored to your campaign's personal brand. When you want to dramatically raise the buzz level or increase momentum for your campaign—such as when you announce, or before Election Day—you can use a technique called the Google Network blast to blanket the Internet in your district or state with ads. Just about every election since 2008 has seen one or more Google Network blasts, including in Virginia and Massachusetts, and it's a great way to grab attention at crucial moments.

3. Join social networks to further amass and interact with your list of supporters.
Social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube represent massive gatherings of audiences, so they can't be ignored. Social networks allow supporters to "subscribe" or "follow" your campaign, and they're great for sharing information about your candidate and seeing that information passed on. Keep your free YouTube politician channel fresh with short videos that call out your supporters and show your candidate's human side. And don't hesitate to ask your followers to take action when needed.

4. Use data to inform your campaign decisions.
One of the most exciting aspects of campaigning online is access to real-time feedback, and many of the necessary tools are free. Google Insights for Search tracks searches for your candidate and the competition within your state. Google Analytics highlights what content on your website is catching fire—and what's not. Metrics like click-through rates in Google AdWords tell you which of your campaign messages is working best right now. For an even more data-driven campaign, use Google Website Optimizer to run controlled experiments on aspects of your site to see which variations help you, for example, gather the most donations.

5. Remember: Rapid response happens online, with or without you.
Americans go online when political news breaks (see: Joe Wilson). The chance to be a part of the conversation, shift perceptions, enlist support, and raise funds begins within minutes, and the window usually lasts less than three days. Bob McDonnell’s campaign deftly used search advertising to answer questions raised by his controversial thesis. Within hours of the story breaking, Virginians searching for "mcdonnell thesis" saw ads directing them to the campaign's official response.

We'll be posting further insights and best practices throughout the 2010 cycle, so keep an eye on this blog and on the Digital Playbook label. And let us know what you think—we'll be using your comments to help determine what we write about next.

Update: If you're a campaign or candidate looking for help on getting started with advertising on Google, don't hesitate to give us a shout. You can get started on AdWords yourself, though—all it takes is a credit card and a few moments to create your first ad.