GOP Gears Up Digital Team for Election Season

Still dogged by a lackluster digital and social media operation in 2008, the Republican National Committee has restructured its in-house digital staff over the past year. Execs hailing from corporate tech and digital services firms like ShareThis and Rockfish (formerly Rockfish Interactive) have joined the staff to help the party vet technologies, make smarter use of data, amplify messages online, and in general put their know-how to use for the communications, finance, and politics teams.

Results of the new arrangement are already evident, says the RNC. A Facebook-based Social Victory Center launching soon is intended to better coordinate online and in-person volunteering, and a recent rapid response-style campaign helped turn the so-called War on Moms controversy into online merchandise sales and donations for the party.

“This is the point in the year when the RNC begins to expand for a full-fledged operation,” said Tyler Brown, RNC director of digital strategy.

The idea is to build a digital team better organized to assist other departments, rather than merely operating as a separate entity. The mission is nothing new in the corporate world, as digital agencies and media firms have attempted to remove internal silos for the past decade. For the RNC, the decision to reorganize and enhance the team to take better advantage of digital expertise came in 2011, following the tenure of Chairman Michael Steele, when the party reevaluated its digital operation – and stared a record-breaking $20 million budget debt in the face.

Brown, who previously worked on the RNC’s rapid response team, is heading up the restructured group. Another member of the current outfit, Online Developer Jeremy Kenney, has worked with the RNC for several years, handling things like online game development and database administration.

Social Media Entrepreneur Shares Expertise

Others in the digital group are new to the RNC – some new to politics. Senior Advisor Tim Schigel came on board last year. The founder of social sharing platform ShareThis could be seen as a Republican answer to the hiring of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes by President Barack Obama’s ’08 campaign to develop its lauded social networking platform. Schigel played a key role in developing the RNC’s Facebook-based Social Victory Center, but the organization also aims to use his social media insights to understand how and why people share content such as web video.

The Social Victory Center – set to launch next week – will allow volunteers to connect through Facebook to find out about nearby events such as debate parties, as well as let them call potential voters from home, get talking points, and take other actions they might otherwise need to visit a local brick-and-mortar Republican Victory Center to accomplish.

Like Schigel, Patrick Kent, director of digital marketing, also has a non-political background. The former marketing exec joined from Rockfish, now owned by WPP, where he handled digital campaigns for brands. Another new addition, J.B. Britten, is the RNC’s new resident online ad guy. Britten, the RNC’s director of analytics, most recently served as director of digital strategy at Smart Media Group, where he handled digital media and advertising for GOP campaigns. He, too, has worked for a WPP firm – Mediacom.

“We’re bringing all these different pieces of experience together to find good products that will be helpful in the election,” said Brown. Since the team members have evaluated tech products and platforms in their corporate work, Brown said he hopes that background will benefit the RNC in its own vetting process.

Peter Pasi, EVP at Republican digital firm Emotive, suggested, “I think the major difference for the RNC between this cycle and last was while last cycle they focused on building infrastructure, this cycle they are really focusing on strategy and how the different pieces of the pie fit together.”

Still, despite the party’s arguable improvements, behind closed doors, some Republican digital consultants complain about the state of the RNC’s digital operation, including a lack of online advertising and targeting sophistication. It remains to be seen how eventual coordination with likely GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s team – recognized for its data-driven digital prowess – will affect the party’s capabilities.

“They’ve done all the preparation and infrastructure work and now the RNC is in a spot where they’ll have resources and be a major player in the election,” said Michael Beach, co-founder of Targeted Victory, a firm handling the Romney campaign’s online ad buys.

One change that should help the GOP compete with Obama and the Democrats is a transfer of its large voter database from in-house to a third party. Last year, the RNC began storing its data with The Data Trust. Effectively, this means that constantly refreshed and enhanced information gleaned by outside groups like Karl Rove-linked Super PAC American Crossroads can be fed back into the main database. The result should be more sophisticated use of the data for fundraising and voter outreach through direct mail and, presumably, digital platforms such as email.

Digital Facilitates Speedy News-Driven Fundraiser

The GOP applied its digital approach to drum up donations earlier this month. The Moms Do Work campaign seized on comments made by Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen, who claimed Mitt Romney’s wife Ann never worked, though she had raised five children. The fundraising effort launched the day after Rosen made the comment, and used Google and Twitter ads to promote volunteer sign-ups and sales of a Moms Do Work coffee mug in exchange for a $15 donation. The RNC said the launch day had been its “best merchandise day of the year.”

“That was a good example of the partnership between the communications department, the finance department and the digital team – a perfect example of an event that was moving very quickly,” said Brown. “We need to be able to turn around data and respond to that quickly, to make strategic decisions based on that,” he added.

Ex-RNC Digital Heads Form Tech Outfit

Hiring people from the corporate world is not exactly a new concept for the RNC. Cyrus Krohn, the organization’s former cyber strategist who inspired a “Change Anything But Cyrus Krohn” Facebook fan group when he left the RNC in March 2009, worked at Microsoft and Yahoo before heading to the RNC. Since leaving the RNC, he’s co-founded digital mobilization firm Crowdverb along with his RNC replacement, Todd Herman, who served as the party’s new media director from March 2009 to January 2011. Herman had also worked at Microsoft before his time at the RNC. Even Herman’s eventual replacement, Todd Van Etten, is now at Crowdverb after leaving the RNC earlier this year. The RNC said Van Etten’s departure is in line with its restructuring.

Crowdverb, which according to its web site counts Karl Rove-affiliated Super PAC American Crossroads among its clients, was acquired by WPP. The ad agency holding company also owns Blue State Digital, the consultancy that works on the left side of the aisle with clients including Obama for America 2008 and 2012.

Other members of the restructured RNC digital team are senior copywriter Leah Zipperstein, who handles email and mobile outreach, and Social Media Coordinator Brittany Cohan, who works on the party’s blogger outreach and social media management.

Related reading

Website landing page vector graphic