New Head of Digital for DNC Navigates Uncharted Territory

ClickZ News - Politics & AdvocacyThe Democratic National Committee is looking to build out its digital staff and bolster its social media, video and e-mail capabilities. Recently-hired New Media Director Natalie Foster is just getting settled into her new role, and all eyes are on her as she navigates uncharted territory.

Foster is charged with determining how the Obama campaign’s monster database will be employed to promote the party and the President’s goals. Meanwhile, her predecessor is enjoying a little breathing room in his new lower-pressure gig at a tried-and-true D.C. consulting firm.

“We’re building up a new media team of designers, video folks, e-mail writers, to continue to engage our Organizing for America supporters and…promote the President’s agenda,” Foster told ClickZ News. The DNC plans to hire a couple new staffers, she added.

It’s been months since the party took control of the Obama for America e-mail list, now known as Organizing for America. Yet it took some time before Foster came on board at the end of March, about a month after the DNC’s former Internet Director Josh McConaha had gone. During that interim period the remaining digital team worked on the transition from campaign to Organizing for America.

Insiders and observers say Foster was not the DNC’s first pick to replace McConaha. Indeed, as many as five people are said to have declined offers to take the digital reins. The fact is the job is just plain tough. Not only is there no precedent for maintaining such a large campaign database (it’s been reported to hold some 13 million addresses) and extending it for an entirely different post-campaign mission, there are countless critics on both sides of the aisle waiting for OFA to screw up.

“It’s sort of a no win situation,” said McConaha, now senior interactive account executive at MSHC Partners, a well-known Democratic direct mail consultancy that was one of the first traditional firms to develop a digital unit. “Everybody’s going to look back at the campaign and compare it to that,” he continued.

“It’s actually a little thrilling to have a work life balance back,” said McConaha, who had been with the DNC since 2004. “It was definitely time to [leave].” As for the difficult road ahead for Foster and the DNC, he suggested there are no benchmarks for how many staffers the team might need, or how much money the party might be able to raise through the list.

“It’s certainly a challenging thing; no one’s ever done it before,” said Foster, adding, “It certainly isn’t the election and so we have nothing to compare it with.” She most recently served as national director of online organizing at Sierra Club, one of the larger non-profits. Before that she worked with MoveOn.org Political Action as deputy organizing director.

The list is being used both to promote the Democratic party and to push the President’s agenda. Early on after the election, Obama supporters got a taste of what the post-campaign approach might look like when the transition team asked people to host house parties to discuss healthcare, supposedly to help inform how the administration will approach healthcare reform.

“We’re really watching closely to see what folks get excited about and that will be how we craft our program,” said Foster.

OFA’s first major use of the database centered on the President’s economic recovery plan. In February, people were asked to host “Economic Recovery House Meetings” to view a video about the legislation. “You can help restore confidence in our economy by making sure your friends, family, and neighbors understand how the recovery plan will impact your community,” said an e-mail promoting the initiative.

Some were critical of the party’s blurring of political campaigning and use of the presidential bully pulpit. Influential Democratic consultant Zephyr Teachout predicted in a January post to TechPresident.com that OFA will fail, in part because Obama as President doesn’t elicit the same conflict-driven emotion and engagement that Obama as candidate did. She suggested OFA make use of its data goldmine by providing support and resources for “ocal democratic parties and officials — to decentralize the data, and let local groups experiment.”

OFA doesn’t appear to be decentralizing the data; however, it is putting it to use to assist local party operations. It recently launched a series of in-person “listening tours” that are promoted online through the database. Some observers see the effort as a step toward expanding campaign volunteerism into party activism.

Foster and her growing team are helping local party organizations build their social media skills. “For us it’s really about cross-platform engaging and building that conversation with the Democratic Party supporters…and working with state parties,” she said. The DNC is planning an annual gathering of state party representatives to be held soon in Richmond during which training on things like online fundraising will take place, Foster added.

Thus far, in its dual mission of promoting party and presidential goals, the DNC has built up its e-mail program, and aims to boost its presence in social media spaces like Twitter, Facebook, and BlackPlanet, in conjunction with its internal Partybuilder online tool set.

In addition to its focus on social media, e-mail, and video, the DNC also plans to ramp up its online advertising both for OFA and the party itself, according to Foster. “The DNC hasn’t run online ads since the election, though we plan to get a program up and going soon,” she said. “That’s an important part to list growth and spreading the word and engaging new people online.” While it may have yet to run search or display advertising this year, the party did launch a video ad this week. The reality-show intro spoof pokes fun at Republican in-fighting, and likens GOP elite such as Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, and Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele to competitors in a season of Survivor.

As for next steps and issues the party will emphasize in the future, Foster said, “A lot of that’s up to the President. Right now we’re kind of in a listening and building phase.”

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