Technology

Democrats see a digital breakthrough in Virginia wins

Groups combine to modernize party's digital ads

WASHINGTON (CNN) - Democrats see Ralph Northam's big win in the Virginia governor's race as a breakthrough moment for the left's digital efforts.

A year after Republicans leapfrogged the Democrats' digital capacities on the way to President Donald Trump's election, progressive groups combined spent nearly $3 million on an innovative effort to modernize the party's digital advertising.

The effort, organized by Planned Parenthood and coordinated by veteran Democratic digital strategist Tara McGowan, reached 2.4 million Virginia voters without Northam's campaign having to spend any money at all on digital advertising.

"It wasn't just talking, sharing what plans were -- it was really the nitty-gritty details of putting together a program we all felt really good about," said McGowan, the head of the new digital firm ACRONYM.

Coordination is standard in politics when several outside groups are working to aid the same candidate. But Virginia's laws allow campaigns and outside organizations to share plans and strategies -- which opened the door for what became the Democratic Party's best-coordinated joint digital effort yet.

Now progressive groups say they want to use similar tactics across the 2018 midterm map.

"There's a lot of groups that are looking to invest more in digital right now, and I think everybody knows that we have to. That wasn't the case two or four years ago necessarily," McGowan said.

Of Democrats' catch-up efforts ahead of the 2018 midterms, she added: "If you had asked me this six months ago, I would not have felt nearly as confident."

McGowan led weekly conference calls that were kicked off with a summary of the Northam campaign's messaging strategy from Northam digital director Alex Witt. The groups involved also kept up a running conversation on strategy and tactics on a Slack channel.

The list of groups participating included the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer's NextGen America, the Virginia League of Conservation Voters PAC, the Eric Holder-led National Democratic Redistricting Committee, Progress Virginia and Black PAC. They were organized by Planned Parenthood -- which was also the biggest spender. They combined for a budget of $2.9 million.

The groups' coordination included sharing creative resources -- that is, the ads themselves, and the content that went into them -- as well as voter targeting and audience information and data that detailed how effective each ad had been.

Rather than simply placing TV ads online, the groups developed vertical content -- which is consumed much more easily on mobile phones on platforms like Facebook, Snapchat ads and Instagram stories.

On Facebook, in particular, the groups took a new -- and more complicated -- approach to delivering their ads.

Facebook allows advertisers to deliver a second spot to users who engage with the first one -- and a third to those who engage with the second one. Most campaigns don't do that, because it's much more time-consuming than delivering a single, effective spot over and over, and because it's more expensive to produce the extra ads such a strategy requires. The progressive groups did, though.

The groups poured late energy into targeting demographic groups that could sway the election. Planned Parenthood found that messages focused on women's health care moved black voters by about 20 percentage points -- so it created more ads focused on that issue.

Meanwhile, the groups saved money by making sure to target different audiences. Facebook determines ads' cost through an "auction" process. By gearing their ads for different demographics, the groups avoided bidding against each other.

"This effort will set the precedent for coordinated investment and execution of a digital media program to reach, persuade and mobilize voters in a statewide race," said Jennifer Allen, CEO of Planned Parenthood Virginia PAC.

The win in Virginia showed that "building a robust digital infrastructure to break through echo chambers and reach voters online is more vital than ever, and Priorities will be working to replicate our success in races around the country in 2018," said Priorities USA Chairman Guy Cecil.


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