Doing Digital for Romney: An Interview with Zac Moffatt

More

Meet the man who is poised to fight the digital war against the Obama reelection machine.

moff.jpg

What exactly do you spend your days thinking about when you're a digital director of a presidential campaign that's on track to win the Republican nomination? Zac Moffatt, 32, leads the digital side of the Mitt Romney campaign. He moved up to Boston last spring with his wife after some years in Virginia and jobs throughout Republican politics, including work on Bush-Cheney '04, with the Republican National Committee, and a variety of high and low profile races with his firm, Targeted Victory. We talked recently about the shortcomings of judging digital by the same sort of raw metrics we apply to, say fundraising (see, the Washington Post's  @MentionMachine ), about how much of tech politics is happening behind the scenes, and about what digital success looks like.

"It's amazing to me that people are talking about social media, about counting numbers," observes Moffatt, "and yet  aren't getting on ballots in primary states ." When it came to qualifying Romney for the Virginia primary to be held in March, "the political team knew two months in advance what we wanted to do," he says. "We sent out emails segmented to specific areas, with different senders tied to each area. When people came in through Twitter, we moved them through the funnel into signing up an account with MyMitt," the campaign's internal mobilization tool, "and we followed up with a phone call."

That top-to-bottom, proactive, thoughtful application of digital tools to political necessities is what everyone talks about doing, says Moffatt. But not all campaigns are. It helps, he says, that he's senior staff, with the same access inside the campaign as the political or communications director. One group of folks known for a similar approach: the Obama campaign, which Moffatt is quick to compliment -- with a dash of expectation-setting. "Obviously, they're very fortunate," he says. "They have a huge head start because they've been building it for six years."

WHAT IT TAKES TO GET STARTED

Romney '12 started from scratch, says Moffatt. Challenging, yes, but not without its advantages, such as having no legacy of circa-2007 tools and thinking to build from. Of course, that presented endless choices to be made on the compressed schedule of a presidential campaign. Moffatt describes his strategy as creating for the short-term with one eye constantly on the long game. "We're building the perfect digital and offline model to make it through the primary process," he says. "It wouldn't make much sense for me to build out a national program if we didn't make it through the primaries. And if we make it through the primaries, we're going to run a very different campaign in the general."

The nature of a presidential campaign can create tensions for website designers and architects. For example, the "carousel," a design feature popular with many sites today that presents a shifting array of images and topics on which to focus, can be used to speak to true believers, potential converts, influential observers, or some mix of all. But the choices get even more difficult when it comes to increasingly important mobile technologies. "Mobile is about what you can strip down to the most basic and still do the most for the most people," forcing decisions about who to appeal to in that reduced real estate.

And the unique chronology of an American presidential race -- both incredibly short and sometimes painfully long -- leads to choices made under the gun that stick around for the duration. Does your call-from-home tool connect you right to a voter, as Romney's does? Or does it rely upon the volunteer to make the call, as Obama's does? There are legal and data implications baked into each, says Moffatt. "You're making certain structural determinations," he says, "about what CMS [content management system] to build on, how you're going to run your ad program, what you're design process is going to be, how you're going to do your list segmentations, all that, that you're going to have to live with for the next year."

Some of those structural choices, Moffatt suggests, reflect more of a commitment to the long-haul than others. MittRomney.com runs on Drupal, a robust open-source system. A close observer of WordPress, the blogging and CMS tool, noted back in May that  six Republican presidential candidates were then running on that platform : Bachmann, Cain, Johnson, Paul, Perry, and Roemer. Meanwhile, Santorum, Gingrich, and Huntsman joined Romney on Drupal. "Building a website on WordPress is awesome for a congressional or statewide race," says Moffatt. "But I don't know how you would run a presidential built on that. If people had done better, I think they'd have to rebuild everything in the next two months."

Moffatt does it all with a digital team of ten people, he says, some of them shared with other departments. That can seem low, especially given the prominence and significance of the Romney campaign; according to a knowledgeable source, Obama '08 at this point in the process had about double the number dedicated to its online team. "No doubt," he says with a laugh. "I'd love to have their design and creative teams."

PLAYING BIG BY REACHING OUT

"That infographic that they did for their millionth donor?," he says of this cycle's Team Obama. "That was awesome. But that's three or four designers and programmers dedicated to that for 'x' amount of time. What primary candidate can do that?" Team Romney's not above  the occasional, humbler visualization of their own. But he insists that stacking up his team next to their team is not an apples-to-apples comparison. Running small, Moffatt says, means "that we go out and find companies whose size we can leverage, experts we can work with, that let us be much larger than our size."

Often, that means getting used to outsourcing much of your engagement to platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, which Moffatt calls the biggest change from 2008 to 2012. "We're going to have people watch one of our rich video units online," says Moffatt, "engage with our campaign, syndicate the message through social sharing, vote for us, and convince their friends to do the same, and yet never have been MittRomney.com. We're totally comfortable with that. You want someone to go to your website, because that's where you're going to have the richest conversation. But you're not going to pass on someone who only wants to engage with you on Facebook.

Romney's strategy requires homing in on people we're they live online -- and often, in 2012, they can only be reached online. "We call them off-the-gridders," says Moffatt. "We buy advertising for people who don't watch live television any more. We have to find ways to get them to watch our video online. We have an active engagement with Hulu, with YouTube. We're seeing that again and again in our polling and focus tests: people haven't been seeing our TV spots, but they know what they are, because they've seen them on Hulu. It's a testament to a new model of consumption. Governor Romney gets it. He's on the road all the time. He doesn't get to sit in front of the TV. He has his iPad, and when he gets home, he probably has a DVR that lets him skip ads. How else would we get to him?"

Other targeted strategies include tapping into what Google calls the "Zero Moment of Truth," when people are searching, often at the last moment and often on their mobile devices, for the information they need to make their decision. "You look at an iPhone 4S, and the next thing is going to be Siri optimization," says Moffatt. "When someone talks to their phone, how do you make sure your stuff comes up first?"

The techniques made possible by today's technologies aren't always the easiest of sells, inside the campaign and out. "One of the biggest challenges this cycle is getting people to understand remarketing," as in the use of behavioral ads that trail users as they travel around the web. "People think you're advertising to a page," says Moffatt. "No, I'm advertising to that user. It's a commentary on that person, not that site."

"I can't help it if people go to MittRomney.com and then go somewhere else," he says.

In some cases, the choice to go third-party is less about meeting people where they're socializing than it is about making the most of what's available. "We'd argue a Republican concept: we're never going to do it better than firms that do it all the time." MittRomney.com makes use of Storify, for example, to embed together tweets, video, photos, and more on  Romney's weeks on the trail. "Some people might look and say, hey, only two thousand people engaged with it," says Moffatt, "but our argument is that that's two thousand people who for all intents and purposes are coming into our headquarters."

THE TROUBLE WITH SOCIAL

But blending the political campaign with even best-in-class social technologies presents its own challenges. Those tools' makers aren't necessarily thinking about information management in the ways that campaigns are. And even when they are, their interests aren't always aligned. "If the data's not writing back," as in, being collected by the campaign, "then what's the point of this stuff? That's a challenge with technical firms," says Moffatt. "They don't always understand why you'd want to write back to the voter file."

Moffatt runs through the pros and cons of the social tools. Facebook's ease of use makes it immensely powerful in politics, but the company's priority is collecting data to sell stuff to users according to terms of service entirely up to them; total dependence on the platform is ill-advised. Google+ has enormous potential, but campaigns lack certainty that they can go there to talk politics and ultimately grow their list. "You can spend a lot of time talking to 40 people," he says. Social influence measurer Klout is neat, especially if you could use it to find the 40 people in a state most worth talking to. But at the moment, a necessary refinement is missing. "Are they even primary-voting Republicans?," raises Moffatt. "You don't know, and that, I think, is the missing link of this cycle."

Jump to comments
Presented by

Nancy Scola is a writer based in New York. She has written for New York, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Why Did I Study Physics?

In this hand-drawn animation, a college graduate explains why she chose her major—and what it taught her about herself.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Video

What If Emoji Lived Among Us?

A whimsical ad imagines what life would be like if emoji were real.

Video

Living Alone on a Sailboat

"If you think I'm a dirtbag, then you don't understand the lifestyle."

Video

How Is Social Media Changing Journalism?

How new platforms are transforming radio, TV, print, and digital

Video

The Place Where Silent Movies Sing

How an antique, wind-powered pipe organ brings films to life

Feature

The Future of Iced Coffee

Are artisan businesses like Blue Bottle doomed to fail when they go mainstream?

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

Just In