Republican candidates and groups have boosted their digital campaign prowess since the 2008 election, but some worry the Republican National Committee's digital operation is nowhere near ready to take on the 2012 campaign season. Though the RNC plans to beef up its digital marketing and database operations staff, party insiders worry the Democratic National Committee and its powerful database - bolstered by the Organizing for America digital set-up - is too much for the GOP to overcome.
The RNC is seeking to hire an engineering project manager and a digital marketing director. According to its GOP.com site, the engineering manager would oversee development of custom applications and should be familiar with "very large databases."
While that person runs the backend data and technology infrastructure, the digital marketing director would be responsible for the online voter-facing stuff - the email marketing, the social media marketing, the web ads, the YouTube video content, and the GOP.com and other RNC web properties. The job description states that this person will manage an in-house digital team and "develop a new digital strategy for the Party." The engineering exec, on the other hand, would hire and manage outside development staff.
As the 2012 election approaches, the current lack of an in-house digital team is a concern for Republican new media strategists, said one who is close to the RNC. "At this point, they're pretty aware of what's going on and pretty bothered by it." The source is one of several close to the RNC who agreed to speak with ClickZ on condition of anonymity for this story.
As an example of the current state of digital affairs, the main link on GOP.com to "Our GOP," the party's web community, leads to an empty page.
A Committee-wide Sickness
One former RNC insider, who also asked to remain anonymous, believes the engineering position signals the party's plans to "scrap everything," referring to the data-driven digital systems and strategies in which the party has invested millions over recent campaign cycles.
In many cases, starting from scratch is the name of the game when party committees shed leaders. Former RNC Chairman Michael Steele was replaced by Reince Priebus in January. Many agree such a lack of continuity, potentially resulting in an institutional memory loss, could prove detrimental to the Republican Party. However, staff turnovers are typical with the arrival of new party committee leadership for Republicans and Democrats.
The RNC's recent director of new media, Todd Van Etten, has been at least one constant throughout the last few election cycles. However, people closely familiar with the committee's internal operations say Van Etten, who served in a deputy digital role in the past, is no longer working with the RNC, essentially leaving it without a digital team. The RNC did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.
The former RNC insider suggested the committee plans to "throw away millions of dollars spent on coding over the last couple of years." In that time, the committee developed technology that allowed it to connect online and email interaction data to its voter database - known as Voter Vault. That "social graph" data could be used to inform field operations, phone and email campaigns, and other efforts, bringing the system closer to the Democratic National Committee's model. The system helped measure voter engagement by tracking when people forwarded an email to a friend, donated, or clicked an ad, for example. Sources said a database that combined the Voter Vault with social graph data has been disabled.
"It's absolute madness to rebuild business infrastructure every two years," said one source. "It's committee-wide sickness."
When he left the RNC in March 2009, former E-campaign Manager Cyrus Krohn said the committee's database housed 12 million email addresses, up from 1.8 million when he started. Sources say the RNC Voter Vault still contains around 12 million email addresses.
"Absolutely nothing has been done to make that list healthy," said one source regarding the RNC email list.
In Krohn's goodbye blog post published by non-partisan research group E-Voter Institute, where he sits on the board, he touted the organization's online ad targeting efforts, which allowed "the party to advertise online directly to 40 million-plus voters." Both the Republican and Democratic parties have matched their massive national voter databases to the registration databases of Yahoo, AOL, and MSN to target specific people through Web ads on those sites.
Todd Herman replaced Krohn as the RNC chief digital strategist in March '09, and left the committee this January, according to his LinkedIn profile. "My team [led] the migration of the RNC's technologies from colloquial, static, and closed to API-driven, dynamic and interoperable," he states on his LinkedIn page. "We launched an entirely new technology platform, 27 state party sites, revamped the marketing and email system and increased the Committee's social media mobilization which we used to deliver a record-setting online fundraiser."
Democrat Database Envy
The fact that the RNC is in debt - reportedly $22 million deep after Steele left - doesn't help matters. "The biggest challenge for the RNC is being able to dedicate financial resources to the digital operation," said another source with insider knowledge of the RNC's digital setup who asked not to be named. One thing the committee needs to do, said the source, is address the fact that it has been dependent on garnering donations primarily through direct mail, and shift its emphasis to online fundraising.
"The problem is it's an aging file," said the source. "They need to start converting that file over into an online file." The fact that the RNC is strapped for cash could hamper action on that front, since it may be challenging for the committee to identify donors who will make the transition from mail to the web. However, the lower cost and typically-higher efficiency of digital marketing could result in higher return-on-investment for digital fundraising efforts compared to direct mail fundraising.
"The RNC could get out of debt a lot faster if they optimize their digital operations for more online contributions," said another source.
"There is no one with real digital experience in the finance division of the RNC," said a different source, adding, "Sending two [fundraising] emails a week doesn't constitute a digital experience."
Of course, a lot could change depending on whom Republicans nominate as their 2012 presidential candidate. It is standard practice for the nominee and the campaign team to assume control of the RNC and integrate campaign operations with the committee's. Candidates including Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty have shown a strong dedication to investment in digital operations.
For instance, while the DNC now houses Obama for America's coveted supporter database, now known as Organizing for America, Democrats and left-leaning groups supporting them rely on a data corporation - Catalist - to house a large Democratic database. Some Republicans want the RNC to allow a non-party organization similar to Catalist to operate the Voter Vault, as reported by Roll Call in March, and affirmed by ClickZ's sources.
Outsourcing database operations would allow Republican data to be shared with like-minded groups, said one source, and would allow the RNC to make predictable strategic decisions rather than starting from scratch and rebuilding data operations every couple of years. "It would be a major strategic benefit."
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Kate Kaye was Managing Editor at ClickZ News until October 2012. As a daily reporter and editor for the original news source, she covered beats including digital political campaigns and government regulation of the online ad industry. Kate is the author of Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media, the only book focused on the paid digital media efforts of the 2008 presidential campaigns. Kate created ClickZ's Politics & Advocacy section, and is the primary contributor to the one-of-a-kind section. She began reporting on the interactive ad industry in 1999 and has spoken at several events and in interviews for television, radio, print, and digital media outlets. You can follow Kate on Twitter at @LowbrowKate.
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