3/08/2008

Justine Lam on Ron Paul's Networked Campaign

Justine Lam, the internet director of the Ron Paul campaign, just gave a really interesting summary of how and why Ron Paul succeeded on- and off-line. I can't possibly live-blog every speaker or session at Politics Online, but here are my notes on her talk. These are close to accurate quotations but best to treat them as paraphrases.

Three reasons for Paul's online success:

1. His message was unique to the Republican field, and tapped into various constituencies that were otherwise unaddressed, at least on the Republican side. Duh.

2. We decided early on not to create a central social network on the campaign site, but instead saw the site as a hub pointing to other networks. We tried to make clear that it was up to them, campaign supporters, to organize themselves. They listened and it took off from there, people creating their own websites, blogs. There were so many things that happened, I don't even know all the things that were created on behalf of the campaign.

3. We were also open with our fundraising efforts. This didn't happen right away, not for the first three quarters of 2007. How we decided to open up our fundraising -- it was a very scary thing. I don't think any campaign has ever opened up its fundraising in real time.

We saw how our grassroots was filling niches everywhere online, swarming polls or Digg. We didn't coordinate that at all. I noticed over the summer an increasing number of grassroots videos created online, which started after the debate where Paul and Giuliani debated the roots of 9-11. All of this sort of built up to what was happening in the fall.

In August, we started experimenting with online fundraising. We noticed that we had all these Meetup groups, about 1000 of them. So we decided to have a contest to see who could raise the most. And we raised about $500,000. But the smaller groups felt the contest was unfair, since they could never compete with the larger groups. So we knew we had to figure something else out.

In September, we started doing trial runs, releasing our donor numbers to the public by showing how much they filled up the image of a quill pen on the website. If we received 1,776 donors, it would fill the quill up and we'd have to start a new one. We noticed people talking on the blogs, and how energized they got, having to go thru three quills in one week.

At the end of the September, to boost our fundraising, we put up a thermometer. Not sure it would work. we didn't believe we could raise $500,000 in a week. Again the grassroots started talking with each other and encouraging each other. And they saw their names show up on the screen, which just encouraged them more. We had to increase the target to $1 million, lo and behold, and ended up raising a bit more than that.

So we decided to open it all up for the fourth quarter and set a very high goal, $12 million. That was the tipping point. When the grass-roots saw that they were making a difference in our campaign, they got even more excited. We created a graphic of the Statue of Liberty in which it was harder to see your individual impact. So supporters started complaining about that, but it also got them motivated to come up with ways to have an impact. One supporter from Huntington Beach, suggested on a message board somewhere the idea doing a money bomb on November 5, and made a video for it. Trevor Lyman from Florida made a website for it, and others joined in voicing support, making their own videos pushing it and so on. They were used to making videos by now, since the summer. We had no idea what to expect on Nov 5, and we were astounded, watching the ticker go up.

Were there pitfalls to this approach? Yes, we were mega-dependent on these mega-days for cash flow, which made it harder for us to plan, or buy ads. This energized the grassroots, and they even came up with the idea of raising money for a blimp, which wasn't our idea. We would have rather spent the money on TV and radio advertisements. But the advantages were obvious: This approach gave tremendous motivation to our supporters, and it spread all over the internet.

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