Brown’s Aggressive Web Buys Crushed Coakley, Drove Volunteers

ClickZ News - Politics & Advocacy Following a whirlwind campaign and an election upset in Massachusetts, Republican Senator Scott Brown’s digital strategist has finally sifted through the results of his online ad efforts. Two months after the election, Rob Willington’s takeaways aren’t far off from the things he stressed before the election: digital efforts like online ads and text messaging should push real world activism, and campaigns should be willing to cede some control to supporters.

According to Willington, ads targeting likely supporters in ten Massachusetts districts were key to driving volunteers to participate in a ground operation that was particularly important during a special election. As a result of the ads, on January 14, the campaign saw a 122 percent boost in signups from supporters interested in volunteering to get out the vote, compared to the daily average from the previous two weeks.

“We have to keep in mind those ads were saying ‘volunteer,’ so they had a higher barrier of entry,” Willington told ClickZ News. While many ads intended to generate e-mail signups for list building employ tactics like enticing people to sign a petition or give their opinion on an issue, he suggested that people clicking to provide contact information knew they were doing so in order to actually volunteer their time to the campaign.

“The vast majority of our ads were all geared for voter mobilization,” said Willington. During normal elections, there’s less concern about getting people to the polls since election day is more highly publicized. But special elections – like the one pitting Brown against Democrat Martha Coakley for the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s seat – are less so.

The Brown camp was the recipient of an online fundraising surge, propelled by the fact that if elected, the candidate could stop healthcare reform in its tracks by eliminating the Democrats’ supermajority in the Senate. What the campaign did differently than others generating donations online was, rather than turn around and spend it all on television ads, use some of the donation dollars to round up volunteers online – and fight Coakley’s supporters.

“Our models were all projected on a much smaller budget. The goal was not to really have money leftover in the bank account… I needed to think quickly,” explained Willington, who’s now formed consulting firm Swiftcurrent Strategies, along with Brown campaign political director Pete Fullerton.

Brown Camp Snuffs out Opponents on Boston Herald
When he spotted anti-Brown ads from the Service Employees International Union a few days before the election on, he went on the offensive. “I called up the Boston Herald and said, ‘I want to own'” The campaign did just that – owning the site’s homepage by filling all six ad slots there from January 17 through January 19.


The Brown camp also had 25 percent share of voice in the site’s news section, according to Jennifer Gallagher, VP of sales and operations for Herald Interactive. There, the team used in-banner video ads powered by Mixpo to extend a late campaign TV ad buy. The “Momentum” spot used in the ads featured Brown traipsing around Boston, shaking hands with voters.

“We were extending the reach of the television campaign,” said Willington. Calling the resulting ad dominance an “aggressive buy,” he said that, coupled with an onslaught of Boston Herald news stories reporting the neck-and-neck state of the race, “We were everywhere… It was just overwhelming.”

The campaign spent $36,000 for the CPM-based buy, according to Willington. In addition to that last-minute buy, a total of around $500,000 was spent throughout the election season on sites including and The Boston Globe’s, and on Google’s site and network. The $232,000 Google buy alone drove around 65 million impressions, nearly ten ads for each of The Bay State’s 6.6 million residents.

Mobile Fuels Talk Radio Callers and Door Knockers
Mobile came into play as well – in text message and app form. By the election, the campaign had collected over 7,500 cellphone numbers, and in keeping with its integrated approach, used those numbers to influence what took place in other media. The campaign sent its mobile list text messages every time Brown or his opponent were guests on talk radio, prompting them to click to easily call the shows and voice their support for Brown. During one show, the tactic resulted in Coakley herself claiming, “Every call that has come in is a Scott Brown call.”

As the campaign edged into its last days, a “massive wave” of volunteers flooded field offices, in part fueled by the Web ads. One of those was an app developer from California who helped by spending the Saturday before the election creating an iPhone application loaded with walking lists for door-knockers.

The approach was also displayed in the team’s response to a volunteer from Texas who offered to produce Web video for the campaign who ended up doing videos that Willington liked better than his own. The “biggest lesson is we’re not content consumers anymore… We’re content creators,” he said, suggesting that campaigns should recognize the expertise of supporters and be willing to take advantage of it.

Follow Kate Kaye on Twitter at @LowbrowKate.

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