Lessons Learned from the 2016 Elections

As a politics and technology nerd, I couldn’t help but attend the panel discussion New Tools from the 2016 Elections That Nonprofit Techies Need to Know About at this year’s Nonprofit Technology Conference. While I went into the session expecting to hear about a few new tools to keep in mind for future resources, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the real lesson to learn from the election wasn’t some killer app, but instead to make the most use of the tools you already have on hand.

The panelists discussed several different technologies and communication methods—some newer, some tried-and-true—but made sure to stress the importance of planning and strategy over any particular tool, valuable advice for both campaigns and nonprofits. Here are some of the areas they discussed.

Broadcast Email

In the 2016 election, broadcast email continued to be the most important way to energize supporters and fundraise. However, the panelists advised nonprofits not to focus too much on growing the size of a list. Targeting your most engaged supporters—those who open the most emails, click-through on links, and participate in action items—will yield better results than repeatedly blasting your entire list.

Of course, you will need technology to find those engaged supporters. Instead of searching for one killer broadcast email tool, look again at what your current tool provides. Chances are you already have delivery statistics and reports that can tell you how many emails bounced, how many people opened emails, and who clicked-through on the links. Use those features.

Beyond email stats, you’ll want to see which supporters donate most frequently, who signs more pledges or petitions, who attends events, and who volunteers. To find that information, you’ll need to get your fundraising database and communication channels (including email, social media, text messaging, etc.) talking to each other, and keep those records up to date. You might not need a whole new CRM to accomplish this—check with your vendor or a consultant to explore what integrations are already available or how you can build out the connections you need. (It’s worth checking our newly-updated Consumers Guide to Low-Cost Donor Management Systems to see what solutions already integrate these functions.)

Text Messaging

Email wasn’t the only tool that saw success in supporting political campaigns in 2016. Text messaging, or SMS, was mentioned as a particularly useful tool for facilitating personal, one-on-one discussions with supporters. The panelists especially liked one particular tool: Hustle. The app allows you to send texts from your computer or mobile phone to groups of 16, which is particularly useful for activists and organizers who need to make last-minute plans or send a very specific request to a small group of people.

Social Media

Another medium that saw lots of use during the election was social media—especially Twitter and Facebook. Like texting, campaigns used social media to reach supporters on a more personal level and voice their positions in a timely and responsive way. One interesting approach that the panelists discussed was using Facebook’s targeted ads to help reactivate and energize less-engaged or lapsed supporters. By segmenting out the list of lapsed supporters from your mailing list, and targeting ads to those people, campaigns were able to engage those supporters.

Overall, effective messaging—no matter what medium—was a common theme. The panelists stressed that good messaging allows you to rapidly capitalize on a moment in the campaign. While nonprofits may not have the manufactured timeliness of an election cycle, or the wealth of gaffes and soundbites to leverage, they can still find moments to build on to add a sense of urgency to a fundraising campaign.

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