Political virtual events aren’t going anywhere
Hovercast’s Jordan Newman shares why virtual events are a critical part of a campaign’s digital toolbox moving forward
The COVID-19 pandemic introduced many of us into a new world of endless Zoom events and virtual hang outs, and political campaigns had to adapt their event strategies too. Now, even though campaigns and organizations feel more comfortable throwing events in-person, virtual and “hybrid” options may be here to stay. For this week’s Campaigner, we spoke with Hovercast’s Jordan Newman about how campaigns can level up their streaming and virtual event strategies, and what we should expect from more sophisticated campaigns in the future.
Q&A with Jordan Newman, Hovercast
Campaigner: How’d you get your start in politics?
Jordan Newman: So, I got started right at the moment that digital was becoming a thing. In 2004, I was attending Boston University and I volunteered for the Kerry campaign. I was there in person on election night in Copley Square when they lost. Bon Jovi came out, he played the sad acoustic version of “Living on a Prayer.” It was terrible. (laughs)
That experience made me fired up for the 2006 midterm elections, and I guess because I was a fan of the West Wing, I thought I wanted to work in communications. I got an internship with Sen. Ted Kennedy in his press office, literally pulling together the daily clips by cutting up newspapers. We used so much paper. But, they had this one person on the staff who managed the website, and she let me tag along on strategy meetings for their email program. It just blew my mind - it was like going from the Flintstones to the Jetsons.
So, after that, I kind of made it my goal wherever I went to be the person who knew how to edit the website, who knew how to send an email, to be the Photoshop expert. I eventually learned all of the things that came after, like social media, social ads, video, and then, fast-forwarding to now, to live streaming and virtual events.
Campaigner: That’s amazing. You later ended up on the Bloomberg presidential campaign and made the move into tech to work at Hovercast. What made you want to move to the platform side of things?
Jordan Newman: I wanted to feel more of that spark, that feeling of innovation that hooked me in the first place. And I saw that with Hovercast.
Before that, some of my favorite moments on campaigns were working with tech vendors to learn their tools inside and out. I always got a rush when you could identify a problem, and then a solution would end up on the roadmap that makes it easier to do your job. Like you said, I did that on the Bloomberg campaign with the relational tool we used, Impactive. Shout out to their team.
When I started at Hovercast in 2020, they were already working with the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, helping to broadcast his in-person rallies.
During the early days of the primary, Bernie did this big concert with The Strokes, and Hovercast enabled the stream to have graphics like a fundraising meter that kept filling up and a ticker of the most recent donors in real-time. It also had these featured chats that felt kind of like virtual crowd noise. All of that together brought so much energy and ended up raising a lot of money.
Then, when the pandemic hit, because their campaign was already used to live streaming, they were able to pivot really, really quickly. They held unplugged concerts and fireside chats and stuff. That was the moment that I was seeing that this wasn't just a novel technology - It was actually something that could help campaigns navigate their work in a really difficult time.
Campaigner: What is Hovercast and how do campaigns use it for virtual events?
Jordan Newman: It’s essentially a production platform that lets you create on-screen graphics that respond to audience participation. You can connect the chat from wherever you're streaming and you can connect (donation portal) ActBlue and then represent donations on screen in a fundraising meter, ticker, or leaderboard. And you can do other stuff like run polls and do Q&A to boost engagement. It’s basically a way for campaigns to convert eyeballs to action.
Campaigner: People have referred to virtual events as “the future of political fundraising,” Is fundraising the biggest use case for virtual events and live streams these days?
Jordan Newman: That’s a good question. I think fundraising has been the primary driver over the past few years. Campaigns want to make sure that there's a return on their investments. So if you're going to have someone learn how to stream an event, or hire a vendor to stream it, you want to recoup that cost, time and effort.
That said, there have been some amazing use cases where virtual events are not necessarily fundraising-based. Before Bernie Sanders, Hovercast was working with Tom Steyer’s campaign, which wasn’t as focused on money. He connected the on-screen graphics during his event to his CRM, so they were gamifying email signups with a thermometer, which was really cool.
Campaigns can do stuff like that. They can also hold town hall as a live-stream or virtual event, and the advantage there is you can curate which questions end up on screen to make sure they’re productive. It’s a lot harder to do that when you’re taking questions from the in-person audience.
Campaigner: Clearly during 2020 virtual events were the whole ball game due to lockdowns and in-person gathering restrictions. Have you seen that there’s more fatigue with virtual events this cycle? Or has it become a new best practice for campaigns moving forward?
Jordan Newman: I think the way forward is more often through hybrid events. It’s going back to those roots of how Bernie Sanders was streaming his rallies. If you have a big surrogate who's coming to campaign for you (like the Obamas, for example), other people want to see and watch that too. Don't just limit your audience to whoever can fit inside your auditorium or your arena - broadcast that out, and then take advantage of the fact that people are tuning in to get them involved in the campaign.
Campaigner: Are most campaigns that host these kinds of virtual events federal or statewide campaigns? Or have you seen down-ballot candidates take advantage too?
Jordan Newman: Generally speaking, you need to be able to draw people into a stream and you need to be able to build a crowd. Usually, the kind of threshold for that is congressional races or larger, but that’s not always the case. If you have an event with a high-level surrogate, that's a situation where you can build a crowd and raise lots of money in one go. We recently powered an event for an LA city council candidate who got the cast of Parks and Recreation to do a fundraiser for her, and it was really successful.
Those kinds of events are worth upping your game from just doing a Zoom. If all your team can afford is a Zoom, that's totally fine. But if you can eke out a little bit more production value or host the event on a branded event page, it's going to make your event not feel like it's another conference call. I think people are Zoomed out.
Campaigner: What other campaigns or organizations have you seen hold virtual events really successfully?
Jordan Newman: The Wisconsin Democratic Party hosted a Princess Bride (cult film) reunion that kind of set the world on fire. (That event has its own Wikipedia page!) It was wild. They were nominated for Ad Week’s advertiser of the year award just for that event. In short, they got the original cast of the film together for a table read, and it was so great. They raised over $4 million. It was this revelation that if you have a celebrity surrogate in your pocket, just set them loose and let them do whatever they're really good at. Don't make an actor give a political speech, don't make a musician give a speech, just give them time to perform. I feel like that one event created this sort of template for all these other events.
We’ve seen that replicated with the Georgia Democrats doing an event with the cast of Hamilton that Hovercast produced. The interesting thing is how much more money you can raise during a ticketed event from people giving again. If you set an event goal, and then give people an incentive of something fun that's gonna happen if you hit the goal, the audience will want to make that happen. With the cast of Hamilton, the two emcees - it was Jonathan Groff and Sasha Hutchings - were dressed in their original costumes. And they said, “if we hit our goal, we'll switch outfits.” They did, and the audience loved it. It was a really fun moment, and it just kept the fundraising going to the level of another couple *hundred thousand dollars.*
The teams that were on the ground in Georgia and Wisconsin that pulled off these events together were incredible. They cultivated these relationships with their talent, and they also did crowd building like I've never seen before.
They would have these really smart digital ad campaigns to make sure that they were bringing people in the door. Virtual events require a lot of the same tactics that you would do for in-person events. You shouldn't treat it like Field of Dreams, where “If you build it, they will come.” You really do need to work your butt off to get people to attend these things. That's from your list of supporters, and it's from other people with affinities where they would be interested in those events too.
Campaigner: That gets me thinking: Who on campaign staff is responsible for throwing these kinds of events? Is it the finance team? The digital team? Advance?
Jordan Newman: That's like *the* question right now. It really depends on every single campaign. In some cases I’ve seen the finance team take the lead. In others, it’s the digital team. For some, especially if it's a hybrid event, you're working with the advance team. The lines start to blur when you’re talking about something happening on screens. This is getting theoretical, but like, what is “digital” when almost everything’s digital?
Campaigner: That’s really interesting because I feel like with the changing campaign landscape, the role of the digital team is growing enormously. Digital events seem like a new part of a campaign’s toolbox, and will probably require some major structural staffing changes in future cycles, right?
Jordan Newman: That is 100% the case. A lot of times, nobody thinks it's their job, so it doesn’t feel like there’s capacity.
Campaign leadership has to have someone to prioritize virtual events or live streaming as an essential tactic that's going to help you get people in the door and convert them to donors. Or if it's not needed for fundraising, it’s needed to engage volunteers in other ways or get your message across. Those are really important things to a campaign, and should be prioritized moving forward.
Most of the time, it’s been a collaboration between a lot of different departments, but there isn't necessarily one title for someone who handles a virtual event. In the past, “digital organizing” wasn’t really a thing, and now it has become a title and job description in a way that it wasn’t before. I think it's only a matter of time before bigger campaigns make digital events a key part of one staffer’s job description.
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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.