How Revolution Messaging turned a website into 13 million votes for Bernie Sanders
Keegan Goudiss remembers the day Bernie Sanders called up Revolution Messaging and said, “I’m announcing my candidacy for the President of the United States in two days.”
It was late April of 2015. The junior United States Senator from Vermont hired Revolution Messaging, the full-service digital services agency, to take on the web and mobile presence for his presidential campaign. This was no small task, and Revolution Messaging knew they needed the right technology to turn website visits into a political groundswell.
“We typically need at least a month to build a website,” says Keegan, Partner and Digital Ad Director. But Bernie couldn’t wait.
Taking on a digital presidential campaign required connecting an ecosystem of web and mobile platforms, online stores, fundraising mechanisms, and disparate communication channels, in order to inspire a political groundswell. Leveraging technology to spread a campaign’s message gets people to the polls.
But in order to understand the hearts, minds, donations, and clicks of the American people, BernieSanders.com couldn’t have been without a strong analytics framework. From implementing cross-platform analytics, to parsing how voters watched video content, to A/B testing which messages resonated most with voters, data-driven decision-making empowered Revolution Messaging to turn a digital fundraising effort into one of the most successful progressive campaigns in history.
As more and more Americans started to feel the Bern, Revolution Messaging looked to Mixpanel’s end-to-end data to better understand American voters. When they did, they made a surprising discovery: as the progressive groundswell grew, Bernie’s presidential campaign became less about the candidate, and more about the community.
Birth of a data-driven agency
In early 2009, when the newly inaugurated President Barack Obama took the Oval Office, Scott Goodstein, former External Online Director for Obama for America during the 2008 presidential race, founded Revolution Messaging. After developing social networking and mobile platforms for one of the greatest grassroots campaigns in American history, it was clear that digital technology in politics was one of the key drivers that inspire people to rally behind a candidate.
“I was the first hire at Revolution Messaging,” Keegan says. “I knew Scott from former political campaigns, and after the Obama campaign ended, he asked me to join the founding team. We had a bit of funding to have salaries for a few months. Then, with the momentum coming off the Obama campaign, we were able to get contracts pretty quickly.
“In the beginning, Revolution Messaging started more on the mobile side. We still have a text message platform, build mobile apps, and we’re doing mobile advertising. But as we evolved, we served as a full-scale digital agency,” Keegan continues. Eight years later, Bernie called the go-to digital campaign shop in Washington D.C., and data quickly provided the political intel he needed to compete in the race.
Building for the Bern
“We joked throughout the campaign that we were flying the plane while building it,” Keegan says, but that’s typically how campaigns go. Just like a tech startup, a political campaign wants to scale its resources to match the market it’s serving and trying to reach.
But according to Keegan, the biggest challenge was figuring out a way to bridge three different web domains and several subdomains. Once Revolution Messaging wrapped Mixpanel around every Bernie online property, it gave the campaign a more holistic view of what happens when visitors go from point A to point E or F, and so on.
“And most importantly, because of Mixpanel, we were quickly able to show how everything tied together and pointed back to a specific person,” Keegan continues.
“With two days to prepare before Bernie’s announcement, we didn’t have time to build a full website, so we built a quick splash page for the initial launch,” Keegan explains. “That was what we relied on to help power the fundraising over the first 24 hours, which led to $1.5 million in donations.” Bernie’s original splash page functioned as a destination to prompt visitors to join the campaign and endorse the candidate by signing up with an email, and eventually by contributing to the campaign.
As Director of Digital Advertising, Keegan needed to know how ads were driving traffic to the website and ultimately selling campaign merchandise and increasing fundraising efforts.
“As we were building the website and proposing to build an online store – we knew merchandise was going to be a big part of the campaign – our team recognized that from an analytics perspective there were some missing pieces in some of the leading solutions,” Keegan explains.
“I remember our CTO saying, ‘We really need to look at Mixpanel because we can put together a much more advanced report that way.’ And then, from an advertising perspective, I realized that Mixpanel would help us analyze web and paid traffic, along with understanding how our store merchandise ads drove more sales, fundraising dollars, and community support, virtual or otherwise,” Keegan continues. In totality, Revolution Messaging helped raise $61 million in fundraising from digital ads alone.
“And as the campaign continued, Mixpanel was instrumental in helping us focus the campaign’s messages, too,” Keegan says. By segmenting the data in a multitude of ways and running A/B tests, Revolution Messaging discovered that people responded to messages that emphasized the fact that this campaign was about something much bigger than a candidate being elected into the highest political office.
“Bernie Sanders’ campaign wasn’t just a presidential race, it was a movement,” Keegan says. And as it turned out, parsing the data not only informed what messages the campaign should position on the campaign’s web and mobile sites, but also what type of video content (and length) would perform best, too.
An iterative campaign strategy
Campaign Strategy 101 suggests that the way to resonate with voters is to emphasize a candidate’s qualifications (and his or her platform). But the Bernie Sanders campaign opted for a different strategy.
“In the beginning, each digital platform was very focused on Bernie Sanders and why you should endorse his progressive platform. That was successful, but over time, we realized making it less about Bernie, and more about the message and community, was really powerful,” Keegan says.
For example, Revolution Messaging redirected the language and focus of the campaign; they found that iterating on issue-based messages like, “I don’t believe anybody working 40 hours a week should live in poverty,” drove higher conversions than focusing on Bernie Sander’s qualifications. As it turns out, data-driven messaging was the key that helped the Bernie campaign reach new Americans and continue to expand the movement.
“At a certain juncture in the race, we knew we needed to reach non-white voters. And based on the data, we found that messages supporting civil rights, and Bernie as a champion of them throughout his life, resonated with non-white voters and had higher conversions,” Keegan says. “We were able to provide this data to the polling team, which inevitably changed their entire approach.
“At that point, we used this intel to prove ways for TV ads and other media to help improve Bernie’s numbers with people of color. This was a big moment on the campaign,” Keegan emphasizes. “I wish it had come sooner, but it did help us win Michigan and other states later on that helped Bernie stay in the race.”
While it was just as important to get the message right, the content and delivery of that message proved to be just as crucial. While most of what happens in political campaigns is captured for the internet to consume and share, Bernie’s video content was going viral, and doing much of the work of spreading his campaign’s messages. Video content was one of the key drivers that pushed their digital initiatives forward, captivating the attentions of millions of Americans, and encouraging them to join the movement.
The importance of video analytics
As campaign strategists, advertisers, and social media experts would attest, video (i.e. “rich media”) is the most engaging content on web and mobile. However, it wasn’t enough for Revolution Messaging and the rest of the Bernie Sanders team to just know the high-level metrics on the number of video views. They needed a deeper level of insight.
“Whenever we embedded a video on a website, we wanted to be able to better track engagement. It wasn’t just about whether they played the video or not,” Keegan says.
By tracking the videos on a granular level, the embedded video team at Revolution Messaging, which created more than 550 unique videos throughout the campaign, used Mixpanel to learn how long visitors watched the video, at what point they stopped watching, and if they replayed a portion of the video, and so on.
“We wanted to be able to attribute the traffic source to the video. That was one big thing Mixpanel helped us with. We couldn’t understand what people were doing on our site with other out-of-the-box solutions,” Keegan notes.
For the hundreds of videos Revolution Messaging created, the embedded videos team would write the first script and then bring it to Bernie for his approval. This, of course, was earlier in the race, before he had to hit the campaign trail.
“One time, we brought a video script to Bernie about Social Security,” Keegan remembers. “In giving feedback, Bernie told Arun, our creative director, ‘Well, this video is only two minutes.’ Arun had to explain that ‘best practice’ is to keep videos short. To which point Bernie said, ‘I’m pretty sure for an issue like Social Security, which affects so many of us, the American people can watch more than two minutes.’”
Bernie sent back a script that was more than ten minutes long, going against the “best practices” for video content. But Revolution Messaging decided to follow Bernie’s vision and experiment with length. As it turns out, Bernie’s ten-minute “experiment” ended up doing extremely well.
“What we found throughout the course of the campaign was, yes, people are going to drop off,” Keegan explains. “Not everybody wants to watch a ten minute video. However, there was a correlation between how long someone watched and the next actions they took on the site. The longer people watched, the more they were impacted by the message. The more interested they became in his campaign, the more of an advocate for Bernie they were, and the likelier they would donate.” These were the type of detailed insights Revolution Messaging was coming to rely on Mixpanel to provide.
This new video strategy was counterintuitive to everything Revolution Messaging knew to be true. Keegan, in fact, said he probably wouldn’t recommend this to any other client, but for Bernie it worked. “His greatest supporters can listen to him talk forever. They like to hear the details. That was something different that we could run with,” Keegan said.
“And because of the data, we were able to analyze not only the website traffic, but the granularity on the video content. We made a big push across the entire campaign to create longer videos,” Keegan says.
Just as mobile apps try to find their “power users”, diving into the data behind video content gave the digital campaign the insights they needed to discover who their greatest Bernie supporters were on web and mobile. And in this way, rich media became a source of new advocates, turning an opportunity to spread the progressive platform into a shared vision a community could pass along.
Visit → Endorse → Donate → Vote
Being able to connect the full voter journey – from first touch, to donation, to bumper sticker purchase – gave Revolution Messaging the data they needed to understand the people behind the movement, and how to engage with voters until the very last stretch of the primary race.
Revolution Messaging may have created and launched BernieSanders.com in two short days, but over the course of the next 15 months, it became the digital hub that helped transform detailed web traffic data into more than 13 million American votes.
What started out as a longshot – a fringe candidate making strides into the center of a national presidential race – turned into a progressive movement that changed the mainstream political conversation. Despite Bernie Sanders not receiving the Democratic nomination in the end, his campaign was a testament to political will and the power of technology to be the drivers of a grassroots campaign.