Running for office or starting a new non-profit? How to successfully launch online

Running for office or starting a new non-profit? How to successfully launch online

At PowerThru, we’ve helped a lot of political candidates launch their campaigns, or Executive Directors launch or re-launch their non-profits. It’s a fun and hectic time before you’re official – lots of late nights and talking, brainstorming names and reaching out to people for potential support, sketching out logos and so on. Remember though, that your announcement day (for a campaign at least) might be the biggest press day of your entire campaign, so it’s important to have everything in place and functioning so your first fundraising email goes smoothly, reporters can get what they need to write good stories and so on. It’s important to have done the prep work beforehand so your launch goes as smoothly and successfully as possible. Whether you’re a first-time candidate running for office or a first-time executive director with an idea for a brand new organization, or a seasoned elected official running for re-election in the new digital era, here’s what you need to know to get started.

Your list is the heart muscle of your campaign or organization. So strengthen and build it as much as you can before you launch.

Even if you’re starting from scratch, your leader (the candidate or executive director) should have a personal 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 synced. Those email addresses are gold, because they’re people who know you and want to hear from you. 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 are a staffer and not the candidate or leader, this means you’ll need to sit down and work with them to compile their starting list.

If you are not on LinkedIn, start there.

Create your account and start building your professional network. It’s a great way to get current contact information from people you may have worked or gone to school with years ago but lost touch with. Also 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 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.)

Reach out to people who support you or your issue, who may have access to lists.

If you’re running for an office held by the opposing party, try to get access to the supporter list of the last candidate who ran for that seat. Other previous campaigns for city, county or congressional office can be cobbled together to cover a larger district. 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 candidates who have run and won elections in your district – ask for their endorsement and access to their list). Take advantage of this time below the radar 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 organization, try to reactivate any old digital properties or lists that were around previously. For progressive non-profits, you can also use online 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.

It’s great to start doing this before you’re a candidate, so that you can start building relationships now, and also you’ll have a base of support and look more credible when you launch.

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 create a new separate entity from your personal account. If you use Facebook a lot, you may choose to keep your personal account and your page active – but if you are not much of a Facebook fan, you could switch over to the page entirely and disable your personal account (which also removes any questionable posts you may have made in the past). 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.

For non-profits, you’ll want distinct social media accounts for the organization, as opposed to yourself as the leader. Running your organizational social media out of your personal accounts makes it look more like a hobby, less like a thriving non-profit. But luckily the number of followers or fans you start with is less important, because most people will not be immediately judging your credibility on launch day.

Claim your name online. Buy your domain names now. If you wait until 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. Also thinking through the domain names and seeing what’s available may help you name your non-profit in the first place.

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 earned media dollars to rebut.

Defense aside, what domain should a 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 and keywords 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. You may run into problems in finding a domain with common words that’s still on the market (and social media handles too) – be sure to do some preliminary searching before getting your heart set on a name for your organization.

In terms of social media and naming, while it may be possible to change your URL or page title on Facebook and your Twitter username in the future – don’t assume you can do this. The platforms change their rules all the time, and you don’t want to get stuck with a clunky name or URL.

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 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.

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.

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 maybe forever) for your non-profit. Make sure to get high resolution and vector versions you can use for digital, print ads, TV etc. It’s worth investing in the thing people will most associate with your organization, other than your name.

Get set up to accept online donations. There are many options for online donation processing only – from ActBlue (501c3/c4/Democratic campaigns only) to even PayPal that are free. Or you can use a full CRM like ActionKit, Action Network, BSD, Convio, EveryAction, NationBuilder, Salsa, or Salesforce for non-profits, or Action Network, Aristotle, Blue Utopia, BSD, NationBuilder, or NGP VAN for campaigns. But you must have a way to process credit cards online when you launch.

A full CRM will allow you to collect online donations, send mass emails, launch online actions such as petitions, do reporting, may integrate a voter file, may integrate social media monitoring and more. The costs and functionality vary, so I recommend you scout out a couple options to figure out what is the best use for you. Keep in mind that you may not be the only user – who else at your organization or campaign will need to use it, and what are they familiar with?

You’ll want to make sure that whatever software you’re using will capture all the donor information you need legally — depending on your type of campaign or non-profit, you’ll have legal compliance reporting obligations to take care of later. NGP VAN is the standard in Democratic federal races, which is why most large campaigns use it for compliance even if they use different options for mass email or the actual online donation processing.

If you’re just getting started, you may want to consider crowd-funding options for your campaign or non-profit. There are several possibilities out there. For potential candidates, ActBlue offers draft funding options for some federal campaigns. (pricing here – 3.95% transaction fee). Crowdpac offers candidate and issue campaign funding options (pricing here). One of the main advantages of ActBlue is the built-in user base of progressives: you can use 1-click donation links in your email and raise more money that way. Crowdpac is non-partisan, and does not have a progressive user base to draw from. There are many commercial crowd-funding sites out there too, from GoFundMe to Indiegogo to YouCaring and Razoo. You’ll want to compare pricing and functionality carefully: what happens if your goal isn’t met. Do you still receive partial funds? Note that for whatever site you go with, you’ll need to do the legwork of asking friends and family to donate and share.

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.

Get set up with mass email software. You’ll need a way to email the hundreds (hopefully thousands or tens of thousands!) of people on the lists you’ve gathered AND the list you’re going to build around the campaign or organization. A personal email account does not scale up when you have more than a handful of supporters.

If you have no money, look at MailChimp or Action Network (progressive only)– if you have some money, the CRMs above. Note that MailChimp is free for accounts with less than 2,000 email addresses. They are systems built specifically for campaigns, 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 often deals available from federal campaign committees or large endorsing committees like EMILY’s List. 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 supporters, 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. Also if your organization is starting out small but could develop into a chapter-based system, consider that when picking out your tool. Action Network has robust chapter features, which is why it’s the toolset behind the AFL-CIO and other unions, Indivisible, and Women’s March.

Have a simple splash page up on your website at a minimum when you launch. It should say a little bit about you and what you’re trying to do, have a donate button, email sign up, and social media links. That’s enough to get you started and you can work on a full website later, when your campaign or organization has money and you have a sense of how the campaign is going. If you’re a downballot Democratic campaign, check out our new DemCampaignSites product, which is a basic website for smaller campaigns at a $499 price point. If you’re looking for a custom site for your campaign or non-profit, check out our guide to a successful website for campaigns and non-profits!

Get ready for launch day. Or launch while in motion!

Assuming this is a planned campaign, you’ll 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. But if you’re building this ad-hoc, don’t wait for the perfect moment: if you’re in the spotlight right now, roll out your organizational name, website with email signup, donation link as soon as you have it. You cannot assume your cause will still be on the stage in a month or so when you have everything perfected.

You should hopefully have your social media accounts set up ahead of time, if possible (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 social media posts ahead of time too, if you can, and have it ready to send to your full list/post online the hour you kick off. This means your lists will need to be collected and uploaded ahead of time.

What should this announcement say? Talk about yourself, your organization/campaign, why you’re doing this, why they’re hearing from you, and how they can help. Tell your story in a compelling way, to get them on board and motivate them to share. This is why you need to make sure your donation processing or crowd-funding pledge site is ready to go, and also the email signup piece on your website. When word spreads, you want to be able to collect as many donations and email signups as people are motivated to give you. A pledge is nice; a credit card donation is better.

You also 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. Make sure that press release has your website URL on it, because you want every press article to include it. (That’s how readers will be able to find out more & sign up.) Note if this is happening on the fly, press will be coming to you. It can be kind of overwhelming, but be sure to track the names and contact information of reporters so you can keep in touch with them after the initial moment has passed. It’s a good idea to follow them on Twitter too, hopefully they will follow back and keep tabs on your work that way.

Don’t forget outreach to state and local progressive bloggers or national bloggers on your issues, and online personalities in your district with large social media followings! If you have them on board early, you can give them a heads-up to share and retweet your content after it goes up, reaching exponentially more people.

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 resources at Run for Something (including the book!), Run For Office, and the affordable candidate trainings offered by National Democratic Training Committee, PCCC/Our Revolution, Wellstone, DFA, EMILY’s List (for pro-choice women — also check out their new online training center for candidates) Emerge (for women, only in some states), and Victory Fund (for LGBT). Wellstone has a great campaign manual available on their website and through booksellers too!

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