Underdog No More: How Romney’s Digital Director, Zac Moffatt, Got Silicon Valley To Power The Campaign

“As a campaign we would not presume to know more than the collective intelligence and resources of the marketplace. We find the best firms in the country and glue them together to achieve our goals,” says Zac Moffatt, Mitt Romney’s Digital Director. Without the luxury of a 4 year head start to build out it’s own campaign tools, Moffatt has won digital parity with the Obama juggernaut by partnering with the brightest Silicon Valley firms. For instance, though Obama has 4 times the number of Facebook fans, both Romney and Obama have similar levels of users actively commenting and sharing content online.

From partnering with Square to turn each Romney activist into a mobile fundraiser to getting Googlers to give up their famous 20% time for the campaign*, Moffatt has leveraged Silicon Valley’s brightest minds, mostly for free, to give the once digital underdog some much-deserved tech cred.

Facebook And Google Power

“Republican candidate Mitt Romney is leading President Barack Obama in Facebook engagement and new Likes,” wrote the social media blog, InsideFacebook, in a highly contentious post about the superiority of Romney’s social media prowess. Among many impressive Facebook strategies, Writer Brittany Darwell noticed that team Romney was exploiting a brand new feature, “sponsored” results, which displays Romney’s Facebook page when users look for “Obama” or “Democrat”.

But, it would be difficult for any brand, especially a national campaign, to so quickly exploit Facebook’s constantly changing ad system. Moffatt explains that it was the Facebook team, itself, that has been instrumental in giving the Romney campaign its edge. “The Romney team has been quick to adopt new products and features and provide valuable feedback on how we might make those tools better,” says Jamie Smolski, a Facebook Politics & Government team member. The reason for Facebook’s close ties to Moffatt are simple: political campaigns are a delicious proving ground of data and experimentation. They have to move quick, reach every imaginable audience, and excite users’ most passionate beliefs.

A source close to Facebook tells us that Romney’s national campaign has provided “great” data for their foray into mobile. The mobile advertising cash-cow has famously eluded Facebook, even though over 500 million users check-in with cellphones each month. Moffatt tells us that he’s managed to get a whopping 10% click through rate on their targeted mobile advertising, ten times higher than Facebook’s average. It’s success like this that makes it a no-brainer for Facebook to tip Moffatt off to every imaginable upcoming feature.

Mobile users seem especially valuable to campaigns. “You know who the power mobile users of Facebook are?,” asks Moffatt, “stay-at-home moms.” Young, single voters have notoriously low turnout rates, so political campaigns salivate over the 35+ demographic that has both the time and technology-savvy to get their coveted friends engaged online.

And, to their credit, team Romney has had pitch-perfect timing funneling the impulsive civic rage of power moms into meaningful engagement. For instance, when Obama campaign advisor Hilary Rosen made headlines with the assertion that Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann Romney “never worked a day in her life,” Moffatt had Ann Romney respond on Twitter and Facebook. In just a few days, Moffett recalls, Ann Romney was overflowing with 85,000 engaged users. “In 48 hours, we created the single largest coalition, on the conservative side of the country, from scratch, on the only platform which could achieve this, which is Facebook.”

Facebook isn’t the only major player in Moffatt’s Silicon Valley brain trust. A few experts from Google’s website traffic analytics team have donated their valuable 20% time, a time allotted to all Google employees to work on experimental projects. While it’s difficult to know how the Google partnership has helped the Romney campaign (since unlike Facebook, Google activity is private), web search traffic could be even more valuable, as users searching for information are often actively looking to get involved in some way. “We never wanted to be that we’re not engaging the best minds to be successful,” concludes Moffatt.

Walking Billboards and Events

Silicon Valley partnerships have helped team Romney bolster two of the oldest forms of campaigning: merchandising and events. Mobile credit card reader, Square, built the campaign a custom Federal Elections Commission-compliant app that helped turn their Republican National Convention volunteers into an army of walking cashiers. Every t-shirt sold not only refills their coffers, but turns supporters into walking billboards. “Nothing is more about believing in a cause than when you are willing to wear a campaign’s merchandise on your body,” says Moffatt, “It’s a very public validation.”

So, how much money did Square help rake in? A knowledgeable campaign official tells TechCrunch that the official Romney pop-up stores “did well into the seven figures, during the convention.”

The same partnership-happy philosophy led Moffatt to team up with popular event organizing startup, Eventbrite. While Obama’s team has chosen to build out much of their own technology for offline engagement, Moffatt says that “we would rather go to someone who wakes up every morning and worries about event-ticketing.”

Recently released data from Eventbrite seems to confirm that the partnership has paid off: Republicans hold 42% more events than Democrats through Eventbrite (71% vs. 29%), Republican gatherings have an average of 14 more people (68 vs. 42) and 14% more events have been community-driven and free in battleground states, such as Colorado and Florida (77% vs. 63%).

It should be noted that Eventbrite represents some unknown fraction of the total political events nationwide, and the Democrats earn a lot more per event sale ($115 vs. $31, which likely decreases overall turnout). But, in fulfilling Romney’s need to go from winning the Republican primary to competing on a national scale with the Obama digital juggernaut, the Eventbrite partnership clearly helped them scale effectively.

The tired stereotype of Republican luddites just doesn’t seem to hold true anymore. After a sound defeat by Obama in 2008, Republicans made a concerted effort to hire and promote their ardent geeks. Romney was no exception: Moffatt was given access to fully integrate digital through the entire campaign, and hire a large team of power players, such as open-government champion, Matt Lira, to bring some much needed experimentation to the ever-evolving communication landscape.

The Romney campaign’s experience is an important lesson for businesses and government everywhere: give power to smart geeks. Invariably, your geekiest employees and their friends will astound you.

*Update: Moffatt later clarified at Disrupt San Francisco that Google’s partnership was through the form of an externship, noting that contributing paid time would be illegal. See his talk here

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