Political Fundraising in the Social Media Era – How Does it Work?

Not too long ago, public collections and Main Street “donation plates” were the exclusive domain of small or independent initiatives. However, as the average voter becomes more informed about the strings behind big lobby groups, even large-scale political campaigns now resort to grassroots fundraising.

Partly, this is driven by the ever-increasing cost of running a political race. But there are many other factors: first, public opinion is wary of “big ticket” donors.  Likewise, turning voters into donors isn’t just a matter of money. It also goes a long way into cementing a person’s commitment: despite dwindling turnout numbers, today’s donor is more likely to be tomorrow’s voter and next week’s volunteer.

With all this in mind, it should come as no surprise that grassroots fundraising is now at the core of every political campaign – and according to a report by the Center for Campaign Innovation, the main fundraising arena is now on the internet.

How Online Fundraising Works

In the online fundraising world, strategies revolve around two key terms: customization and conversion.

Both goals are united using social media ads, primarily on Facebook: according to the CCI’s report, 46% of all registered Republicans now use Facebook daily. Its closest competitor, YouTube, is only used daily by 28% of voters – while Instagram and TikTok trail way behind, at 19% and 6% respectively.

But Facebook can be a crowded arena, with feeds that get updated every few seconds. How do you turn a post or image into cold, hard cash?

According to industry experts, the secret to this is to target each post carefully. A voter’s first point of contact should feel personal and touch upon an issue that lies close to the voter’s heart. Past the initial view, the sales funnel will need to keep its message urgent, without feeling “needy.”

The delicate balance between engagement and money

With pretty much every candidate and movement now using Facebook to attract grassroots donors, campaign strategists are now worried about the “dragnet” – thousands of views that only manage to catch a handful of donors.

Here, market oversaturation is partially to blame. In feeds full of political content, it is now easier for voters to keep scrolling. For a campaign, this will deliver no benefit beyond the initial engagement. However, by being too upfront about money requests, an ad may antagonize its target audience.

For example, according to a recent poll, one-third of voters listed “not being asked for money” as a reason to sign up for a candidate’s updates. Several industry statistics show that at least 50% of voters who received requests for donations were unwilling to consider an actual donation. On the other end of the spectrum, many donors give to more than one candidate for the same election cycle, and over a third donated to candidates outside their electoral district.

 Accurate targeting: The Next Challenge to Come to

The campaign strategy field is ever-changing, adapting itself to both the preferences of current voters and the tools at its disposal. For the 2022 midterm elections, one of the biggest shakes to the industry came from tech companies, rather than shifting public attitudes.

These game-changing developments were spurred by a controversial iPhone update, which actively asked users if they wanted their online behavior to be tracked across several apps. This immediately made it harder to:

  • Oversee conversion funnels, and detect which campaigns or slogans were working better
  • Access information about a voter’s positions and values, and therefore target “pain points” accurately

Although initially confined to iPhone users, these changes are part of a larger trend that privileges personal privacy – even if it allegedly “broke the Facebook ad machine.”  For fundraising experts, it is now time to go back to the drawing table and start exploring new options.

Currently, there are promising paths: one, to take a page from the latest batch of independent content creators and move towards a Patreon-like system. Here, voters who are willing to donate can take a more proactive role in their favorite candidate’s progress, gaining exclusive access and input in exchange for smaller regular donations.

The second one is to return to an “old school”, and perhaps more familiar approach. E-mail newsletters and SMS can all be used for quick updates and reminders, while still bypassing the new restrictions posed by social media.

Final Thoughts

No matter which strategy is chosen, one overall trend is now quite clear. Grassroots fundraising needs to feel more like a two-way street, where donors can feel the effect of their contributions more tangibly. Updates, polls, and opportunities to connect need to be at the front and center of every communication – while big red “Donate” buttons need to take a step back.

Grassroots Pulse covers public policy and political issues aimed at engaging highly-active policy makers, donors, and grassroots leaders at the forefront of the political process in America today.

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