Digital Action Center - Building State Campaigns

As Freedom to Marry began working aggressively to win marriage in more states and shape the development and execution of state-level legislative, public education and ballot campaigns, an urgent need to support state-level marriage campaigns with little to no capacity in digital became apparent. What began as offering one-off support to a handful of states ultimately turned into the Digital Action Center—the central hub of digital organizing within the marriage movement.

Over five years, beginning in 2011, Freedom to Marry established a full-service digital shop that built winning campaigns from the ground up, led digital strategy day in and day out, and delivered concrete results to help secure game-changing victories at the ballot box and state legislatures nationwide. The program began as one staffer leading strategy in one state but quickly expanded into five full-time writers and designers and numerous consultants. Because of this program's success, strong digital campaigns will almost assuredly be an essential component of any LGBT campaign in the future.

Winning in the States

Building State Coalitions

The Digital Action Center's work was closely related to the broader state-based marriage campaigns, coordinated by national and state partners. Read more about this winning strategy for building effective, successful state campaigns to win in the courts, at the ballot, and in legislative bodies.

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In nearly every campaign, Freedom to Marry’s Digital Action Center built the digital presence and program from the ground up. Work included but was not limited to: branding; website design and coding; website content development; social media; digital storytelling; email list growth and program; blog content and maintenance; rapid response; directing digital/social media for key in-person moments in states nationwide; and online fundraising. Throughout it all, integration with other campaign programs (including communications, field and fundraising) and all campaign staff (in particular campaign managers and state leads at Freedom to Marry) was key. 

Prior to the Digital Action Center

Until 2010, state campaigns in the marriage movement relied heavily on various consultants to design and execute digital programs. These consultants were not only expensive, but they failed to contribute to the longevity of our movement because the same lessons were not carried from state to state – and with each campaign, they needed to be brought up to speed on messaging, objectives, and more. This meant that some states could afford robust, one-off digital programs, while other less-resourced states were left to fend for themselves. 

By the end of the nationwide campaign to win the freedom to marry – and after Freedom to Marry ran successful digital programs in more than 25 states – the Digital Action Center was clearly the first stop for all movement partners when considering or developing a state-level brand or campaign. This was a clear value-add not just for the movement at large but for Freedom to Marry, as we in-kinded concrete, tangible resources that otherwise would have been a heavy expense and burden for state campaign staff.

The Digital Action Center led digital for dozens of marriage campaigns between 2010 and 2015:

  • Legislative campaigns: Maryland (2010), Rhode Island, (2010-2013), New Hampshire (2011-2012), New York (2011); Delaware (2013), New Jersey (2013), Illinois (2013), Hawaii (2013), Indiana (2013-2014), New Mexico (2013-2014)
  • Ballot campaigns: Maine (2012), Washington (2012)
  • Public education marriage campaigns: Ohio (2013-2015), Arizona (2013-2015), Pennsylvania (2013-2014), Oregon (2013-2014), Michigan (2014-2015), Colorado (2014), Nevada (2014), Wyoming (2014), Utah (2014), Oklahoma (2014), Indiana (2014), Wisconsin (2014)
The Digital Action Center launched and ran day-to-day activities online for dozens of marriage campaigns between 2010 and 2015.

The Digital Action Center launched and ran day-to-day activities online for dozens of marriage campaigns between 2010 and 2015.

Launching a Campaign

Launching a campaign can feel like a daunting process, particularly as it relates to digital. And for many campaigns, creating a site map, compiling content and building social media followings can often feel like a shot in the dark. This is one of the most significant ways in which the Digital Action Center optimized our best practices, based upon 25+ state campaign launches, to create a streamlined, efficient strategy for launching the digital assets of a campaign. If needed, we were able to launch a campaign with only a few days notice. 

State campaign websites were designed to connect supporters with tools they needed to take action – contacting their legislator or attending a rally or sharing their story.

State campaign websites were designed to connect supporters with tools they needed to take action – contacting their legislator or attending a rally or sharing their story.

Typically, our launch checklist included:

  • Logo: We designed all logos in house and sent to campaign managers for approval. We found it best to limit the number of decision makers invited to give input.
  • Website Design
  • Stories: In each campaign, we aimed to profile five same-sex couples and five non-gay people in the state who could act as a third party validator. Typically, the non-gay content would profile more unexpected messengers (i.e. Republicans, faith leaders, military veterans). The stories not only gave the website and digital presence a much-needed human element, it provided diverse evergreen social media content.
  • Photos: Each person or family who was profiled was also asked to provide photos to the campaign—and we also asked staff to help find more photos of real families in the state, even if we weren’t profiling them. We have a strict policy against using stock photos/images of people, so we had to invest early energy into tracking down high-resolution photos (discussed more in the design section of this memo)
  • Setup Blue State Digital account and pages: Instead of setting up new, separate contacts with Constituent Relationship Management Systems (CRMs), we worked with Blue State Digital to house all of these pages – action pages, donation pages, “contact-your-legislator” pages, and sign-up forms. 
  • Bank account/merchant gateway to enable online donations: This process could take up to a week, so this was always a high priority out of the gate.
  • Email list from state group/partners: Often, the statewide LGBT organization would in-kind their email list to the campaign, meaning we weren’t forced to build an email list from scratch. However, we would only include supporters who had engaged in some way (taken an action, opened an email) within the last 18 months, so that we didn’t damage our campaign’s email deliverability by being marked as spam. 
  • Facebook Ads: We would start with a budget of approximately $5K to run ads to generate page “likes” for the campaign for 2-3 days after the launch.
  • Twitter setup: Prior to launching a campaign, we would follow coalition partners, elected officials, grasstops leaders and media in order to build our own following.
  • Launch email and social content: If the campaign had an email list to begin with (e.g. the state partner in-kinded their list), we would draft content from the campaign manager asking supporters on this list to take a low-bar action, like signing a petition. We would also draft template email content for partner organizations so that by just copy/pasting our content, numerous organizations could send emails and post to social on the day of the campaign launch, which meant free list growth and more impressions among a wider universe on day one of the campaign.

Graphic and Web Design:

When planning a campaign website—both in terms of content and design—we conceptualized it as a field organizer on our team making a pitch to a supporter, urging them to take action. This overarching philosophy helped us build websites that were more than just a virtual billboard for our campaign. Instead, in every state, we built a virtual campaign headquarters where our website could enable supporters to help us win without ever leaving their home and almost always with the goal of enticing supporters to join the campaign's field effort to take offline action as well. By giving our supporters multiple tools to take real, meaningful action and building our digital narrative into all of the website communications, our websites became a vibrant, active tool that were working for us at every point throughout the campaign. Here are some best practices:

Every marriage campaign website had a

Every marriage campaign website had a "Sign the Pledge" page that allowed users to get engaged – and allowed us a chance to stay closely connected with the supporter.

  • Build a website for your supporters, not the undecided: There’s a strong tendency in website planning to build a fact-based “brochure” to lay out your case to the undecided or the opposition. In unfriendly states or more obscure issues, providing more information may be more valuable, but ultimately the majority of traffic is coming from supporters who are already bought into the cause. When a supporter walks into a campaign office, you hand them a clipboard. When a supporter visits your website, you have to do the same. Skip persuasion, move directly to urgency, and then give supporters actions that move your campaign forward. Our most common and most effective actions included: sign the pledge, get email updates, volunteer, donate, contact your lawmakers, share with friends, etc.
  • Structure your design to present the urgency and the solution: Make sure that at every turn, you structure the site design and content to present the problem, the urgency, and the solution. On our homepage designs, the first and most prominent piece of the layout was a full-width visual “slideshow” that presented the viewer with our most important message of the day or week (e.g. - "A vote on the bill has been scheduled!"). This wasn’t just a news bulletin—we immediately connected users with the opportunity to email their lawmakers. Every action needs to be given context, and the context needs to precede the ask in your designs.
  • Refresh your content regularly: Your homepage design should be tightly integrated with your digital narrative that’s taking place on other platforms (e.g. - email and social media) and the campaign’s general communication strategy. We regularly updated homepages to reflect updates and progress in the campaign, with prominent space dedicated to the most recent action or news item. This not only keeps your website up-to-date and relevant, but for returning visitors, it presents new opportunities to make the pitch that they need to take action now. If your homepage never changes, users will stop coming back.
  • Develop a ladder of engagement with multiple points of entry: Not every supporter who visits your website is going to be ready to hand over money or sign up to volunteer in their free time. For each campaign, we ranked the priority of each possible action a supporter could take, and then implemented that into the design accordingly. If an action wasn’t integral to helping us grow our digital program, grow support for marriage or passing a bill, we didn’t include it. Make sure you stagger the various points to take action throughout your website design to engage people of varying interest, with your easiest and most important actions displayed most prominently. Then, once a user completes an action, immediately redirect them to the next most important action you need them to take. If they sign the pledge, say thank you—but, now you need their help to grow the campaign by asking their friends to sign the pledge, too. If they send an email to their lawmaker, immediately urge them to make a donation. A good field organizer never stops making asks until they get a no.
  • Sign the pledge—and get them on your email list: In every campaign, the most important action we asked supporters to do was an innocuous, low-bar ask to “sign the pledge.” By just providing their name, email, and zip code, this basic ask allowed supporters to feel a simple sense of satisfaction that they participated in the campaign and helped advance the cause. From this point forward, they were now on our email list, and even if they never organically visited our website again, we had the opportunity to communicate with them directly via email throughout the campaign, convey the urgency over time, and get them re-engaged at a later date.
  • You have a sixty-second window, at best. Keep it simple: A field organizer knows when they make a cold call they’ve only got a short window to get the person’s attention before they hear a click. Your website is no different: our analytics showed the majority of users spent less than sixty seconds on a campaign website before they closed the window or moved on. The people who stay longer than that will, if you’re lucky, only click on one or two more pages from your website before they leave. You have to make your pitch—and fast. Keep your pages clean and to the point. Keep your navigation menu simple with only the most essential pages. Cut out all of the clutter that isn’t helping your supporters take action.

Lessons Learned

Digital & Earned Media

Freedom to Marry's Broader Digital Program

Check out other in-depth resources to see how the Digital Action Center fit into Freedom to Marry's broader programs designed to engage supporters online.

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  • Digital should never be an afterthought: Above all, Freedom to Marry’s Digital Action Center underscored the importance of having digital at the table at all points in a campaign. Unlike other departments, digital has a hand in nearly every facet of a campaign—including field, fundraising, communications and political work. We were the first stop for any state that wanted to launch a campaign, as our team produced branding and websites and was the first stop when the campaign had any major updates or announcements. We operated under the general rule that a press release never went out without social and (if needed) email going out simultaneously. This is a principle to which we strongly adhered. Having digital at the table means we always knew the latest developments and could assess the highest priorities at any given point for a campaign – one of the biggest value-adds of our team. We also know that between email and social programs, digital is where supporters have the highest levels of interaction and engagement with the campaign. Each day, our content reached tens of thousands of supporters in a given state, giving us the opportunity to create a constant drumbeat of momentum that not only engaged supporters in that exact moment but also built long-term trust and credibility, which in turn ensured that when we asked supporters to take a meaningful, important action, they were primed to do whatever was needed. And because digital was always at the table, we knew what to ask and when to ask for it.
  • Own key moments online and own them quickly: In digital communications—particularly on legislative and ballot campaigns—there is nothing more important than a firm commitment to rapid response. Owning key moments online, both in email and social media, is crucial to the long-term, results-driven digital program. When a campaign sends a press release, you hope that reporters will include a quote that you’ve drafted and convey the general tone of your messaging. But digital is different and presents the unique opportunity for organizations and campaigns to be the sole creator of their narrative. We write the emails, we draft the blog posts, we design the graphics—meaning that when we’re updating supporters on our campaign and asking them to take action, we can take advantage of the fact that we are in control of how and when we deliver our message. In short, our underlying goal was to always ensure that when news breaks, our supporters were hearing it from us first. In any given scenario, whether it was a key legislative vote or an anticipated court ruling, we would have content prepared for as many as five scenarios—and our preparation was exhaustive in order to guarantee that we were able to deliver the news within seconds of a key decisive moment. Our rapid response checklist included:
    •  Email: All copy was drafted and approved by campaign staff in advance. Emails for all anticipated scenarios would be uploaded, checklisted and ready to send.
    • Social Media: Our design team would create graphics for each scenario as well. We drafted all Facebook share and Twitter copy in advance. Facebook posts were saved as drafts and Twitter posts were uploaded so that the only work left to do after a key moment was to simply hit “post”. For particularly big moments in a campaign, we would design new cover photos for Facebook and Twitter as well, which would be uploaded immediately.
    • Action pages: All action pages in BSD (sign up, donation, share, advocacy, etc.) were coded in advance.
    • Website updates: All press releases and blog posts were drafted and uploaded in Wordpress as drafts, in addition to any updates to the website slider for particularly big moments.
  • Explain confusing moments to supporters: Rapid response matters for a lot of reasons. First, it gave us the chance to take situations that might be confusing for supporters (i.e. a stay issued on a court ruling or a bill being assigned to a specific committee in the Legislature) and clearly explain what happened, why it was important and lay out the next steps. This built trust, which in turn made our campaigns the go-to resource on marriage in a given state. And our supporters were more inspired to take action with a campaign and brand they are reassured is credible and trustworthy.
  • Use digital to control the narrative: Because we were the sole creators of our digital narrative, our supporters heard news from us first with the spin and tone in which we wanted them to hear it. This is always important, but particularly beneficial for campaigns when the news we’re breaking is not so great. In Indiana for instance, we were working on a campaign to defeat a proposed anti-marriage constitutional amendment that if passed, would’ve been on the ballot that November. Our path to victory was twofold: Either kill the amendment outright or slightly alter the language of the bill, therefore resetting the legislative time clock and keeping it off the ballot for that year. Ultimately, the amendment advanced in the Legislature, but with altered language, which meant we succeeded in keeping it off the ballot. While a news headline may have said “Marriage amendment advances in Legislature,” our email and social language was much more celebratory—because once again, we were the sole drivers of our campaign’s digital narrative.
  • Drive thousands of supporters to action: If a bill was assigned to a committee, members of the committee heard from hundreds of supporters within a minute. If a Governor made inflammatory, anti-gay remarks in response to a marriage bill, we could flood his or her office with hundreds of calls within minutes. This produced not only tangible results but also a real and perceived political power. We consistently heard from our lobbyists that our ability to produce a high quantity of contacts within minutes was a crucial component of sending the message to decision makers that there was real grassroots power behind our campaigns.
  • Stay consistent – and always engage in digital rapid response: It can be easy to brush off digital rapid response, especially in the heat of the moment just minutes after a vote or key decision when there are so many simultaneous priorities. For instance, a campaign may decide to forego sending a rapid response email to instead focus on making media calls—and that one-off decision may not seem overly detrimental to the long-term sustainability of the digital program. But time and time again, our lesson was consistently clear: A digital program’s success is a culmination of one-off moments of rapid response. A firm commitment to rapid response is how organizations and campaigns can build a vibrant and engaged universe of online supporters.