How to Use Digital to Stand Out In a Crowded Primary

Originally published on Campaigns & Elections
Close up image of an iphone with a finger hovering above the apps Clubhouse, Instagram, and Facebook

By Cheryl Hori

Between term limits, retirements, redistricting, open seats and a solidly dissatisfied voter base, crowded primaries are likely here to stay for a while. 

Often in a crowded primary there are a combination of campaign veterans, who currently hold other seats, and first timers such as local business owners, activists and so on, all fighting to secure the most votes on Primary Day. 

Below are three digital strategies we used to successfully help a first-time candidate with no campaign experience and no institutional/organizational ties defy the odds and beat out a field of 12 candidates on Primary Day.

Know your campaign and be honest with where you stand.

When Bernie Sanders ran for president in 2020, one of his biggest advantages was his name recognition from his 2016 campaign. While other candidates were spending 6-figures on explaining who they were and what they stood for, Bernie was able to skip the brand education and jump right into online fundraising. 

For the other candidates, including senators and members of Congress, direct fundraising or persuasion efforts outside of their base would fall flat without a significant investment in brand awareness. Even then, the average voter couldn’t identify a significant number of the 20-plus candidates who ran in the Democratic Primary. 

Similarly, for our candidate, we had to be honest with where we stood in the field. We knew that she had little-to-no name recognition and that the frontrunners had the backing of other electeds, labor groups, and organizations who would share their endorsements. 

That’s why we spent the first several months doing nothing but pushing out ads that built the candidate’s name recognition and brand awareness: who our candidate was, what she stood for, why she was running, etc. There was no ask to donate or sign up to join the campaign. Simply, if our ads resonated with our audience, they could click to “learn more.”

Know what your opponents are doing.

While most digital advertisers are nonplussed about the changes to advertising infrastructure (targeting restrictions, platform bans, constantly-changing verification processes, etc.), one of the positive changes we’ve seen is more transparency. 

With our candidate, we knew from reporting that her opponents were spending big money on their digital consultants. This meant either they were spending big on digital ads, they were spending big on digital “consulting,” or a combination of the two. 

Thanks to the Facebook and Google ad libraries, we were able to see who was spending where, how much, and what those ads looked like. 

Most of her opponents weren’t spending, or spending very little, on either platform. Some were only pushing “endorsement” messaging and others were spending outside the state, potentially a targeting issue. Knowing this information was crucial to our strategy. 

For the frontrunners who were spending little-to-nothing on Facebook and Google, we were able to make some assumptions about where they were likely spending their money — display, programmatic, etc. 

And while these platforms can be effective, we know that a multi-channel approach is the most effective way to reach and resonate with voters. We also knew our audience was diverse, tech-savvy, and typically under 45. Additionally, many were first- or second-generation Americans.

Knowing which platforms our opponents were going up on and who our audience was, we were able to fill the gaps and reach our voters on channels our opponents weren’t using. 

Knowing our audience was relatively close to their immigration story, we knew WhatsApp was a key tool that many of our target audience used to talk to family overseas. Knowing our audience skewed younger, we knew that Instagram and seemingly user-generated content would perform best in trust-building. And knowing they tended to be more tech savvy, we focused on issues like universal internet access. 

Go on the offensive.

Winning in a crowded primary is all about capturing market share. There are only going to be so many people interested in your election, and campaigns should think about how they can go on the offensive beyond negative ads and oppo messaging. 

Not only did we run search ads for our candidate’s name and campaign, but we also outbid all of her opponents on their names, their campaigns, and keywords surrounding the election in that district. 

Individuals who are searching for candidates’ names or keywords around the election are some of the most valuable. Unlike ads on Facebook that force a user to think about the campaign/election, search users are already thinking about you/the election and just need a little nudge toward your site.

In this instance, we were controlling the narrative around our candidate by ensuring that our ads would come up before an arbitrary news article or Wikipedia page. At the same time, we were forcing users who were searching for her opponents to at least see ads for our candidate first.