How Scott Brown LOLed All the Way to his Senate Seat
The swearing-in this week of Republican Scott Brown as the junior U.S. Senator from Massachusetts caps a dramatic, come-from-way-behind election campaign that owes much, though not everything, to a shrewd use of online information technology and social networking.
Brown himself, even in his campaigns as a state senator from Wrentham, was an early and enthusiastic adopter of online campaigning, as opposed to merely using the Internet as an electronic brochure or an e-commerce channel for contributions. In doing so, his lieutenants borrowed much from the example of Barrack Obama's successful presidential online organization.
For his run to fill a U.S. Senate seat held by Kennedy for decades, in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 3 to 1, Brown invested early in an online campaign that drew supporters, turned them into active volunteers, contributors and advocates, and laid the foundation to exploit a tidal wave of excitement and enthusiasm that rose unexpectedly in the last weeks of the campaign. The image of Brown taking time to shake hands with every single supporter who showed up at his victory celebration the night of the election is an image of how he sees the online campaign: as a way of meeting and connecting with people who want to be involved.
Brown, then a state senator from the small town of Wrentham, about 40 miles southwest of Boston, had been considering a run for the Massachusetts governorship, but Kennedy's death on Aug. 26 put the U.S. senate seat in play. The obstacles were formidable: Brown, with very limited name recognition, had to first win a primary, and then mount a six-week election campaign in a state where Republicans are as rare as New York Yankees fans. His likely Democratic opponent was state Attorney General Martha Coakley, whom polls showed comfortably leading the pack of lesser-known Democratic candidates as early as September.
Brown declared his candidacy on Sept. 12. His chief of new media, Canadian native Rob Willington, with a background in Mitt Romney's presidential bid in 2008, promptly called on a new media consulting firm for Republican candidates, Prosper Group. (Willington didn't respond to requests for an interview for this story.) Its job was to put together a campaign Web site and do it fast, says Kurt Luidhardt, a Prosper founder and principal.
Key to Success: Online Organization
Brownforussenate.com was ready in less than a week, and it was designed with specific goals in mind, says Luidhardt, who provides his own glimpse inside the new media efforts here, and details of the "moneybomb" online fundraising project here.
"Rob and I both understood if Scott was going to be successful, he was going to have to organize effectively online," he says. With an initial budget of just $1 million for the entire campaign, "they wouldn't win via a TV ad blitz."
But Brown had a different kind of capital. "Scott had [already] invested in online media," Luidhardt says. "He had about 4,000 Facebook fans and a decent-sized e-mail list already."
That was the foundation. "We made a conscious effort to focus on building up his social media following and the 'Brown Brigade,' a new social networking organization," Luidhardt says. The Brown Brigade was created on the Ning social network platform, which provided a key way for volunteers to come together, coordinate and organize, entirely on their own.
The campaign Web site was designed for these kinds of people, those already favorably disposed toward Brown, and for the purpose of turning favorability into footwork. "We didn't try to explain the policy positions or try to win over undecided voters. It was about building up the online supporters," Luidhardt says.
Turning Enthusiasm into Action
And turning them into frontline organizers. There simply wasn't enough time, or money, for traditional, on-the-ground, town-by-town organizing, Luidhardt says. The goal was to support his online supporters in organizing themselves, and recruiting them for specific, key campaign operations such as VoIP-based phone banks, including an innovative technique that let volunteers make VoIP calls from their own homes to targeted voters, with scripts, hints, follow-up details all captured by software.
Prosper Group's software was loaded onto a server, creating instant phone banks for hundreds of volunteers at a rented hotel conference room, or via home broadband connection. Display-screen phones ran customized call scripts, had the ability to track online metadata about the calls and features to minimize some of the tediousness of constant calling. The techniques were used in last year's Republican gubernatorial victories in Virginia and New Jersey.
Too often, Luidhardt says, candidates see and treat their Web site as an online brochure, with position papers, policy statements and photographs. "My experience is that the single most common characteristic of anyone visiting the campaign Web site is that they are supporters: they go because they want find out how to help or how to contribute. A lot of candidates waste way too much [Web] real estate trying to win over people who aren't even coming to the Web site," he says.
The Brown online resources were designed to move visitors to find a local campaign office; join the candidate on Facebook; join the Brown Brigade; contribute or volunteer for a phone bank; tweet their followers; or post in their blog. The target audience for the Brown online campaign was the relatively small number of activists "who put in all the hours and work and contributions to fuel a campaign," Luidhardt says.
About 1 million visitors found their way to the Web site. The Brown Brigade grew to 7,000 volunteers willing to work, friend, tweet, blog, phone and contribute. Ten thousand people volunteered for the "Phone from Home" campaign, who called at least one other prospective vote on Brown's behalf.
The Viral Campaign: People "Just Ran with It"
The official Brown online presence spawned independent online activity. "What was missing is that they were getting local supporters but there was no [broader] visibility," says John LaRosa, an independent Boston-area business and political consultant, and a Brown supporter. LaRosa began his own active Brown tweeting, as @jslconsulting, creating the Twitter hashtag #41stvote, a reference to the fact that Brown's election would break the Democrats' 60-vote filibuster-proof Senate majority.
"The 41stvotew hashtag crystallized things, I think, nationally," LaRosa says. "That created urgency. Without urgency, you have no sale." A Tweetstats analysis of @scottbrownma, shows that 41stvote was one of the top five words in that tweetcloud and one of the top five hashtags.
LaRosa also began leveraging his own online connections and networks on behalf of the Brown campaign. "I had personally followed some conservative bloggers, and I started commenting on their blogs, pitching the idea that Brown is the '41st vote,'" he says. "Several of them, with big [online] followings began blogging and tweeting." They also contacted mainstream media, such as conservative radio talkshow host Laura Ingraham
"I did not have interaction with the campaign staff," LaRosa says. "I just ran with it. Lots of people like me just ran with it."
In early January, several events crystallized Brown's candidacy and brought national attention. On Jan. 5, a Rasmussen poll of likely voters found Brown trailing Coakley by only nine points, an unexpectedly narrow margin. "Rasmussen is on Twitter and that poll got spread by everybody who follows politics," LaRosa says. "Every political junkie said 'wow, this guy has a chance in the most liberal state.' They all became reporters."
On Jan. 9, Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-affiliated polling firm, reported that Brown was leading Coakley by one point. On Jan. 11, the Brown campaign launched a one-day effort to raise $500,000 online, a project dubbed the moneybomb.
The "Moneybomb" Detonates
Campaign workers tracked the contributions, reaching the goal by noon, and then topping $750,000 by late afternoon. "We were kind of watching on Twitter, and Facebook, and the blogs, and the volunteers were saying, 'I think we can go to a million,'" Luidhardt recalls. In response, the campaign chiefs set a new goal of $1 million. By midnight, the total was over $1.3 million. The next day, the campaign raised the same amount again, and nearly $1.7 million the day after that.
"You can't say social media made this happen," LaRosa says. "But without it, it couldn't have happened….It was the network set-up online that responded."
Over the entire campaign, more than $12 million was raised, with Twitter being one of the largest fund-raising channels, according to Luidhardt. The influx of funds made it possible to pour a flood of money in the campaign's last 10 days on conventional campaign tools such as TV, newspaper and radio ads.
But the money also went into Google ads, targeted at Republican-leaning districts close by the campaign's 10 regional offices. Willington called these "Google blasts" and they asked people to volunteer for the final weekend of the campaign. The offices were flooded with more volunteers than they could handle for the phone banks. Willington quickly had simple cell phone applications created. Volunteers downloaded them to get lists of targeted voters whom they could call with their cell phones.
The poll results and the over-the-top donations electrified the state and the nation. In just two days, for example, Twitter followers of @scottbrownma soared from 11,000 to more than 16,000, according to Twittergrader. The existing online campaign infrastructure was able to leverage that attention, with the local race fueling national commentary, blogging, Facebook activity and tweeting, feeding back through conventional media outlets and a web of interconnected social networks to local voters in Massachusetts.
Brown himself was part of this interconnectedness, Luidhardt says. "My pet peeve is that many candidates use Twitter as a press release distribution system. Scott's tendency was to reply to posts….This played into the broad them of 'the guy from Wrentham driving a truck,' the guy next door, the fact that Brown was willing to interact." Even before the U.S. Senate campaign, if Brown got a birthday announcement from one of his Facebook friends, he'd send a greeting in reply.
(Brown campaign manager Eric Fehrnstrom was quoted as saying that on election day, Brown was "calling through a list of hundreds of friends and neighbors to ask them to get out and vote.")
Social Media: "Word of Mouth, on Steroids"
That interaction, even though necessarily limited given Brown's grueling, indefatigable campaign schedule, critically involved Brown volunteers and supporters, on the Brown Bridage site, for example, interacting with each other, Luidhardt says. "We weren't just sending them an e-mail and they were reading it. They talked among themselves, tweeted among themselves. They took a role.
"The best form of advertising is word of mouth," LaRosa says. "This [social media] is word of mouth on steroids."
The morning before election day, by one account, @scottbrownma had 10,214 Twitter follower compared to 3,520 for @marthacoakley; Brown had 76,700 Facebook fans compared to Coakley's 14,487, a figure which almost sums up what happened the next day: Coakley was in effect left alone, while voters flocked to Brown.
Social networks are another way for you to interact with other people, he says. "There's more to Twitter than tweeting. Most of the business of Twitter happens behind the scenes, and on phone calls like this one."
"An engaged following is more likely to retweet, to comment on blogs, to respond to unfounded criticism," LaRosa says. "They become connected to you and they feel it is in their interest to act. Some bloggers spend hours online posting links and blogging. It became a movement and it just fed on itself. It's very hard to create that."
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