How the DNC reaches Democrats online
Democratic National Committee CMO Patrick Stevenson on social engagement and grassroots fundraising
The Democratic National Committee is a lot of different things to a lot of people. At the end of the day, the committee is responsible for providing tech, data, and fundraising infrastructure to state parties and candidates running across the country. That’s why we were excited to speak with Patrick Stevenson, Chief Mobilization Officer at the DNC, about how his team approaches online engagement. How does the DNC’s work change cycle after cycle? What are the key drivers of their online growth?
Read on for that and more…
Q&A with Patrick Stevenson, CMO at the DNC
Campaigner: Thanks for agreeing to chat! You currently lead the mobilization team at the Democratic National Committee. Talk a little about your role, how your team is structured, and what your day-to-day is like?
Patrick Stevenson: The team is about 50 people – the biggest midterm digital team at a party committee that I'm aware of. We’re almost evenly split between two groups: grassroots fundraising, and content & creative.
The grassroots fundraising team, which is led by Lauren Williams, includes email, SMS, ads, the online store, direct marketing, and a donor cultivation team. That team has raised close to two-thirds of the DNC's overall fundraising this cycle. People don’t necessarily think of the DNC as a grassroots-funded organization – but it is!
Part of the reason for that fundraising success is we've built a robust program over the years with a much stronger foundation than we’ve had in the past. Much of that is built on the assets we inherited from the Biden campaign, as well as the legacy DNC programs. For example, our team oversees direct mail, which is obviously *not digital.* (laughs) However, mail still raises close to a third of all DNC revenue. Many of our donors are older and have been donating to the DNC since the early nineties. Many of them just want to write a check and mail it in, and we don't want to disrupt those donor behaviors too much. If someone wants to write a check, that’s A-OK.
Mail has been fun to learn about and integrate into our overall program – it’s a smooth fit, as mail is just another channel in the way that email or texting is another channel. Playing all of those channels off of each other is a cool way to engage people.
The other half of my house is the content & creative team, which is led by Shelby Cole, who came over from VP Harris’ political operation early last year. Her remit includes the social platforms team, which handles all the publishing for our various accounts, the digital rapid response team, the digital partnerships team, the design team, and the video team.
Campaigner: We’ll come back to the content side of things - but on the fundraising front, you mentioned direct mail success. What other channels have been the biggest drivers of your fundraising success?
Patrick Stevenson: When I was at the DNC back during the 2014 cycle as the Email Director, we had no serious texting program - maybe we actually figured out how to send a text or two on Election Day - but it was not a thing we thought of as a fundraising channel in any way, shape or form. Compare that to this cycle: we actually changed the title of the email team to the “email and SMS” team to formally reflect what that program is right now. Texting, especially broadcast texting, is just as critical—if not more critical—than email. It has become a bedrock part of our grassroots fundraising outreach in a way that it was simply not three or four years ago.
A huge driver of our success on the digital ads front has been to in-house as much of our program as we can. We don't have a digital ad agency, we have an in-house team that produces and places all of our fundraising and acquisition ads and creative. That's been successful and also fun. It has helped us save us gobs of money in agency fees – having a team of people sit down all day every day thinking about the DNC's digital advertising program allows us to build and cultivate a talent pipeline outside of the for-profit agency space.
There’s not enough of a digital talent pipeline for how rapidly our discipline continues to grow. That’s something we feel very strongly about in our team: in-housing more of our program allows us to build and grow talent for the broader ecosystem.
Campaigner: Shifting to the content side of your team’s work: you all have gotten a lot of attention recently for joining TikTok and achieving some notable success there. What’s the response been, and what have you seen drive engagement and growth there?
Patrick Stevenson: Our TikTok is one of the parts of our work I’m most proud of from this cycle. We're in a moment where people are paying attention to the DNC TikTok account, and have gotten 15 million video views since joining the platform three months ago. There are so many voters we need to talk to on that platform – TikTok has roughly 80 million active users in the U.S., and something like 60% of them are Gen Z.
For what it’s worth, having a TikTok strategy doesn't necessarily mean you have to have an organizational TikTok account. I think the White House has been doing some super interesting stuff talking to influencers and creators, and it’s a platform Democrats especially need to take seriously – it’s where young voters get a significant amount of their news.
I give my colleague Shelby Cole a ton of credit for leading the DNC TikTok strategy – it was one of her main priorities when she joined the team, and she did a ton of work on everything from figuring out appropriate security measures to making sure that we build out an authentic, authoritative voice. It would be so easy for the DNC's TikTok presence to be like the “How do you do fellow kids” meme. But by hiring dedicated staff who are platform-native, we've been able to engage with that platform pretty competently. We actually just had Rep. Katie Porter come into the studio and film some dedicated TikTok content for us and some dedicated YouTube content for us, which has been performing great.
Campaigner: What other platforms have been your bread and butter? Instagram? Facebook? YouTube?
Patrick Stevenson: I'm proud of the work we've done on Instagram in the past year. We’ve grown our following by about a third in 2022 alone. The team produces a tremendous amount of platform-specific content there. On the Joe Biden and Kamala Harris accounts that we manage, most of the things that perform well are great photographs of them, because it can seem so personal – and our team is great at pairing up good photos of them with message-specific captions. We produce a ton of video clips and design carousel and Reel content for the DNC account. Instagram is giving away engagement for free with Reel content and we've leaned into that and that's really worked.
Campaigner: You were at the DNC before Joe Biden took office when Trump was in power. How have you seen engagement change since Democrats took over Washington? Is it easier or harder to produce content and consistently rack up views and engagement?
Patrick Stevenson: The biggest difference running this program in 2020 versus now is that as soon as the president was inaugurated, we got the keys to all of the campaign’s social media accounts - @JoeBiden, @KamalaHarris - everything. The combined social following our team manages went from 5 million to over a hundred million overnight. That’s a fundamental change in the amount of resources you need to throw at a program, and I’m proud of the work we’ve been able to do with all those accounts – we have a good working relationship with Rob Flaherty in the Office of Digital Strategy, as well as the VP's team.
Campaigner: Stepping back a bit, what is something you think people in politics don’t pay attention to enough?
Patrick Stevenson: Dan Pfeiffer had a perfect quote in his new book: "Democrats spend 99% of their time worrying about what they should say and only 1% ﬁguring out how to get people to hear what they are saying."
One thing everyone on my team has in common - whether that's the direct mail team or the video producers - is that we spend most of our time thinking about how to get the right content to the right people. We do a tremendous amount of below-the-surface work in terms of audience modeling, targeting, re-engagement, platform optimization, etc. That stuff is so much more important than people who don’t do it all day every day realize.
Google will tell you that the success of an ad on their platform is 70% about the creative and 30% about the targeting - to me, that feels about right for all political messaging. It’s 70% about having a good message, and 30% about having good distribution mechanics. Having a good message is still the most important thing, but in today’s media environment, any political communicator needs to be seriously thinking and working on content distribution strategy.
That's a place where digital staff can carve out a role for themselves and establish a seat at the table. If you're just another person arguing about messaging, well...campaigns don’t lack for messaging opinions. But if you can demonstrate that you’re the expert on how to make a message perform well on social media, and base that in data, that’s a unique value-add and will get you a seat at the table.
Campaigner: Alright - one last question: what’s your advice for folks that want to break into digital work or politics more generally?
Patrick Stevenson: Literally no one has too many good writers or proofreaders, whether that's video scripting or email writing or editing a speech or proofreading an email to a boss. Everyone desperately needs people they trust to give something a good proofread – I have seen people build successful careers on this core competency!
One of the things I’m most proud of at the DNC is that we have a pretty tremendous level of staffing stability on the fundraising front. Three of the key leaders of our fundraising team – Lauren Williams, Erin Conway, and Jessica Porter – have been here for over four years each. And I’ve been here for almost five! We’ve all come in a bit lower on the org chart, shown we can raise money while running a good program, and been rewarded for that.
The DNC isn’t an easy place to work, but I’ve been lucky to work with and for some folks who have shown a lot of mutual loyalty. That is not something I take for granted, and I know it’s not something everyone in our space is lucky enough to get. But I do see some smart and talented people in our space bounce around from job to job pretty quickly, and I’m not sure that’s always the right move for folks over the long haul.
In my experience, the best thing I did for my career was to find a place where I felt well-supported by a good mentor or two (extreme shout out to my predecessor Caitlin Mitchell, with whom I’ve now worked with at four separate jobs), and then I dug in and built something. I’m really lucky to have gotten that opportunity – in a world where campaigns begin and end every eight months, institutional knowledge and expertise can set you apart.
One last thing from Arena…
On Monday, portions of Arena Summit Texas were featured on CSPAN! 🇺🇸You can now view + share the recordings online: Watch our panel with Run for Something about winning locally here», View Wendy Davis’ speech here», Listen to Cecile Richards’ here», and learn about investing in the long term here»
These interviews are meant to highlight different voices from across the campaign ecosystem. The views expressed therein are not necessarily reflective of the views of Arena or FWIW Media