Is Hillary Clinton running for President? I don't know -- but if she is, I know what she should be doing right now.
From an online organizer's point of view, the answer is simple: The essential first task for every political campaign is to build an email list. Why? A supporter list is a grassroots campaign's most important single resource, a source of money and on-the-ground activity from the first days of the race through the final Get Out The Vote push. And when I spoke with experienced digital campaign staff about early preparation for 2014 races for an article last summer, this was the kind of advice I heard in again and again, and always in the context of email:
The money you invest now in list-building, identifying supporters and donors "will pay off in spades when it comes to election time," said DSPolitical's Chris Massicotte. "They'll be your precinct captains, your organizers and your last-minute donors."
As a campaign builds, it'll go back to its list again and again: to ask for money, to highlight volunteer opportunities, to ask people to share campaign content on Facebook and Twitter, to generate turnout at rallies, and much more. But why email, when Twitter and Facebook command so much attention? For a very practical reason: it works. As I put it in the new ebook, How to Use the Internet to Win in 2014:
Email reaches many people who still haven't joined the social web, for one thing, but it also turns out in practice to have a much higher response rate than other channels, sometimes by a factor of 10 or more (in part because you can open an email any time, but you pretty much have to be on Facebook or Twitter when someone posts an update to see it).
As important as Facebook and Twitter can be for recruiting, messaging and mobilization, the majority of the grassroots time and money that flowed into Barack Obama's 2008 and 2012 campaigns came in because the campaign asked for them via email. The dynamic in 2016 is likely to be similar, but even if the world does shift between now and then and Facebook completely eclipses email, it won't happen overnight -- a hypothetical Clinton operation would have plenty of time to ask list members to switch channels.
In fact, her initial social following is likely to come from her email list, since a single email to early supporters could populate a Facebook page or a Twitter following with thousands of enthusiastic activists. A campaign-in-waiting may even want to to delay a really serious social-media push until the actual race is much closer -- asking social supporters to be too active too early can burn them out before the real fight starts.
But why the importance of email recruiting right now? For one thing, since email list growth is incremental, even a few weeks can make a big difference for a campaign's ultimate list size. The 2016 election is far enough away that a month won't matter as much as to most campaigns, but why miss an opportunity to turn a potential supporter's brief burst of interest into a long-term connection? Plus, list-growth can be exponential, to the extent that supporters act as recruiters, and a Hillary-In-2016 operation should want to bend that growth curve as soon as they can.
But how do you build that list? Where do those supporters come from? Once a campaign's out in public, and again returning to How to Use the Internet to Win in 2014, the answer is, "everywhere voters can encounter you." Of course, while a full-bore Hillary 2016 operation can recruit via in-person rallies and events, door-to-door field organizing, online advertising, social media, etc., a campaign-in-waiting can't be as aggressive. Enter "Ready for Hillary," an outside group that's publicly laying the groundwork for a Clinton campaign in 2016. According to a Politico article, they're building an email list and more:
Besides the email list, Ready for Hillary is building a massive, 50-state direct-mail and voter targeting program. In a sign of cooperation, the group rented Clinton's supporter list from her old PAC. It also brought on Obama's field gurus, Mitch Stewart and Jeremy Bird, to help build up its efforts, including by supporting local candidates who Clinton backs in this year's midterm elections.
But though I bet a Clinton campaign would happily take the email list, they may not want everything "Ready for Hillary" has on its plate. Politico reported:
It's far from certain the outside group's voter data would be welcomed by a Clinton campaign; it will likely prefer to compile its own. Or, some Clinton associates say, it could choose from any number of outside campaign data firms, including two launched by Obama 2012 veterans after his reelection.
In any case, someone is on the job -- assuming everything works well, a 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign should be able to step in and take over a sizable email list on Day One. And if they're smart, they'll also take advantage of the vast pool of grassroots-organizing and outreach-targeting talent that's built up on the Left since she last ran for office.
But what about your campaign? What's your strategy to find supporters, put them to work... and win?
Colin Delany is a digital strategist for politics and advocacy and the founder and editor of Epolitics.com. His ebook, 'How to Use the Internet to Win in 2014,' is available in the Amazon Store for Kindle and at Epolitics.com.