At PowerThru, we’ve helped a lot of political candidates launch their campaigns, or Executive Directors launch or re-launch their non-profits. For first-time candidates or folks who are not used to online tools, we find ourselves telling them the same things on how to successfully run for office or start a new organization.
So how do you get started when you’re running for office for the first time or launching a brand-new non-profit organization? Here’s our list to help guide candidates, would-be candidates and future executive directors during the crucial phase between “thinking about it” and launching. What you do now can give you the boost you need for a successful launch, and get you on track to succeed.
1. Your list is the heart muscle of your campaign or organization. So strengthen and build it as much as you can before you launch.
I’m talking about your list of donors, prospects, volunteers and supporters.
Even if you’re starting from scratch, you have a list: your friends, family, coworkers etc. Now is the time to be combing through stacks of business cards and inputting the info, getting your personal email address book, work email address book, and your cellphone contacts all synched. You’ll wind up using this list for your announcement email, and also for your initial fundraising calls if you’re a candidate.
If you’re not on LinkedIn, get on there and start building your professional network. It’s a great way to get current contact info from people you may have worked with years ago but lost touch with. (And, pssst, you can download your contacts’ email addresses via LinkedIn, which you cannot really do with Twitter or Facebook. Note that you can download name/email/company via LinkedIn but you cannot mass download phone #s and addresses – you’ll need to spend some time on LinkedIn copying that info down by hand, just like with Facebook.)
Also reach out to people who support you, who may have access to lists. If you’re running for an office held by a Republican, try to get the supporter list of the last Democrat who ran for that seat. Other previous campaigns for city, county or congressional office can be cobbled together to cover a larger district (especially the parts that have strong Democratic preference). And of course the state party may be able to help you if there’s no primary (if there is, it’s even more important to make friends with other local Democrats who have run and won elections in your district – ask for their endorsement and their list). Take advantage of this by reaching out before you launch to see what resources are available.
If you’re running a new non-profit, reach out to sympathetic organizations. Maybe they will be willing to give you a boost by emailing their list about you. If you’re resuscitating a former org, try to reactivate any old digital properties or lists that were around previously. You can also use petition tools like MoveOn’s to reach out to potential supporters on your issue now — you won’t be able to download those names, but you will be able to use their tools to email them again. Once you’ve formalized your organization, you can sign up as a progressive partner and download lists directly.
Now is also the time to get on Twitter and Facebook, if you are not yet already, and get active to build out your social media contacts. If you’re running for office and all-in, it’s possible to convert a personal Facebook profile into a page. This will give you a jumpstart in fans and also erase any past (potentially embarrassing) content. If you choose to maintain a separate personal account for friends and family, a page will still give you another way besides email to reach out to your circle. For non-profits, you’ll definitely want distinct social media accounts for the organization, as opposed to yourself. More from our getting started on social media guide.
Also here’s some more ideas to build your email list from our list building guide for campaigns and non-profits.
2. Claim your name online. Buy your domain names now. If you wait till rumors are out there that you’re running for office or your non-profit is already in existence, squatters could grab your domain and refuse to give it back unless you pay expensive prices. Or your opponents could buy it, which is worse. So buy those names now.
What domains should you get? For a campaign, every combination of your first and last name, including nicknames (jim, jimmy, james, etc) might be useful, and be sure to purchase the trifecta of common urls: .com/net/org. Domains are cheap but not buying a domain can be costly. The last thing you want is to save $10 by not buying a jimmy.com, because you go by James, only to have your opponent put up an attack-site a few weeks later at “jimmy.com” that spreads all kinds of lies and falsehoods about your past, which now you have to spend thousands of earned media dollars to rebut.
Defense aside, what domain should the campaign use? I highly recommend making sure your full name is in your domain, because this will help with search engines. Read more from our search engine optimization guide for political campaigns and non-profits. Hopefully your name is easy to spell. If it isn’t, be sure to buy misspellings. And perhaps use a simplified URL when you’re giving speeches.
For an organization, think about what combination of issues people will be searching on. Don’t forget about synonyms. Domains are relatively cheap, you can always redirect some of them to your main domain.
In terms of social media and naming, while it may be possible to make a 1-time change of your URL or page title on Facebook and unlimited changes of your Twitter username – don’t assume you can do this. The internet is littered with one-time-use campaign social media profiles. If you’re under 90 years old (or heck, even if you are 90), choose a Facebook page title and URL (aka username) that won’t tie you down to running for a specific office in a specific year – we all know that politics is about the long game. And some of the most successful politicians in history had to run more than once before they got elected to office. So if you’re a candidate be sure to use your name, your full name, this will help with search engine work in a few days and it might help your career in public service for years to come.
3. Get professional head shots (for candidates). These are the pictures that will be going on the website, social media, newspapers may be running it in their stories, they could wind up on your mail pieces etc. Now, while you have the time, get good pictures. Trusting a friend to snap something flattering on an iphone just isn’t going to hold up.
4. Get a professional logo. Get it done right, at the beginning, and it will help with branding and last you throughout the campaign or the first few years (or forever) for your non-profit. Make sure to get high res and vector versions you can use for print ads, TV etc. It’s worth investing in the thing people will most associate with your organization, other than your name.
5. Get set up to accept online donations. Lots of options here from ActBlue to even PayPal that are free, or use a full CRM like NGP VAN, Salsa, BSD, NationBuilder, Action Network. But you must have a way to process credit cards online when you launch.
When you’re ready, read our guide on how to get started with online fundraising and our guide to online fundraising principles and best practices.
6. Get set up with mass email software. You need a way to email the hundreds (hopefully thousands or tens of thousands) of people in your network about the campaign or organization. If you have no money, look at MailChimp or Action Network– if you have some money, the CRMs under #5 above. They are systems built specifically for political organizing, something cobbled together built for private industry is just not going to work as well for your unique needs. Prices are affordable and there are deals for candidates available through the DCCC, DLCC etc. This tool is going to be like your car – it will work every single day to get you where you need to go: talking to voters, raising money, meeting the people you need to win your race or talking to your members on the issues or around advocacy goals. It’s worth kicking the tires on a few and picking something reliable that will see you through the busy weeks ahead..
7. Have a simple splash page up on your website at a minimum when you launch. it should say a little bit about you the candidate or organization, have a donate button (see #5), email sign up (see #6), and social media links (see the end of #1). That’s enough to get you started and you can work on a full website later, when your campaign or non-profit has money and you have a sense of how it’s going. When you’re ready for that, check out our guide to a successful website for campaigns and non-profits!
8. Get ready for launch day.
You want to be able to pull the trigger on all this stuff more or less simultaneously on launch day, with no dropped balls. So it will take some prep work beforehand.
You need to have your social media accounts set up (make sure they’re private until launch day), have your website or splash page ready (but not public) and donation processing set up.
You should write your announcement email and have it ready to send to your full list the hour you kick off.
You need to get your press release ready, and build your list of press contacts ahead of time so you have somebody to send it to.
Don’t forget outreach to state and local bloggers, and online personalities in your district with large social media followings or national bloggers that follow your issues!
Good luck! Having all the pieces together will mean a smooth launch, lots of money and supporters raised, and good press — NOT bad for a first day.
Need help with getting your campaign launched online? Contact PowerThru. We can help with everything on your checklist, and connect you to the other people who can help too. We offer digital strategy, best political website design for Democratic campaigns (our websites won four Reed awards and two Pollies, including “Best Congressional Website” for both), social media consulting, and online fundraising consulting for Democratic campaigns and more!
If this is your first time as a candidate, check out the affordable candidate trainings offered by Wellstone, DFA, EMILY’s List (for pro-choice women) Emerge (for women, only in some states), and Victory Fund (for LGBT). Progressive Majority has a great campaign manual available on their website too!