Your campaign needs a CRM. This is not negotiable. If you don’t have one already, you’re behind the competition. Make your best selection and get started now.
(Note: For more information on CRMs and website best practices, listen to my podcast interview with Beth Becker. Find it on the home page of DemCanCon.org or on the Democratic Candidates Podcast website.)
“CRM” stands for customer relationship management. It is the central tool for any business — including a political campaign — that works with substantial numbers of clients and prospects.
At its core, a CRM is a database of customers and prospects, sort of like the contacts app on your phone but much, much more powerful. A good political CRM helps you keep up with prospective voters, tracks your communications with them, and works with other tools to manage call time and canvassing.
I’ve worked with a variety of CRMs over the years; choosing the right-fit CRM is my first task whenever I start a business or campaign. But selecting the right CRM isn’t easy. Each system has different feature sets, with differing strengths and weaknesses. Costs can vary greatly depending on the system, selected features and the size of your operation, and all CRMs are constantly evolving. Let’s take a quick look at four good choices.
1 - NGP VAN
Many Democrats are familiar with NGP VAN. It’s been around a long time; the CRM component falls on the NGP side of the operation (it was created 20 years ago by Nathaniel G. Pearlman, hence the initials).
The good: NGP VAN has a longstanding semi-exclusive relationship with the Democratic Party, and many longtime operatives are very practiced in its many idiosyncrasies. If you can afford to hire professional staff, most of them will have experience with this platform. It is a complete tried-and-true solution, by far the most-utilized system for Democrats across the country.
The bad: The long and cozy relationship with the national party is also NGP’s greatest weakness. It has hindered the emergence of competing CRMs and lead to complacency and stale technology at NGP. Remember “Berniegate,” when a gap in network security allowed the Sanders campaign to access information belonging to the Hillary side? That was NGP VAN. And I’ll tell you a secret: the breach was so egregious that my own congressional campaign was able to see the same information for a while.
My campaign’s experience with the system wasn’t great. It was sprawling and complex, requiring lots of clicks to accomplish simple tasks. Features didn’t always sync easily with other features. It was expensive: $1,650 per quarter for our campaign. (The only way to learn how much it will cost you is to go through their sales process, which in my opinion is a poor way to do business.) Our sole access point for support was a single staffer in the state party headquarters; he was slow to respond and not always helpful.
The unknown: NGP recently announced NGP 8, which they say simplifies the user experience and adds new and better features, especially in the area of fundraising. My issues occurred during the 2016 cycle, so don’t let that stop you from giving the system an honest look.
One more thing: NGP VAN has a policy of withholding some features from candidates who are challenging a Democratic incumbent. If that applies to you, you still have options within the NGP VAN universe, but you may not get the full suite.
2 - Blue Utopia
Democratic digital expert Beth Becker is a big fan of Blue Utopia. It’s been helping California Democrats for years, and now it’s spreading east
The good: Blue Utopia has a robust feature set comparable to that of NGP. It is powerful and easy to use. The pricing is scaled to fit the size of your campaign, and unlike NGP VAN, Blue Utopia’s pricing is transparent: they display it on their website for the world to see.
The bad: The user experience is slightly dated, requiring multiple clicks on multiple screens to see and accomplish what you want. This is just a CRM: whereas the VAN side of NGP VAN contains voter data from your state elections board, Blue Utopia is missing this piece (as are the other two CRMs in this review). This means you’ll need to get that data elsewhere. Luckily there are plenty of sources for robust voter data, which we’ll cover in a future post. Another challenge: Blue Utopia has a relatively small user base largely concentrated in California, so may have a harder time finding staff with experience on the platform.
The unknown: I haven’t used this system so I can’t offer an assessment based on experience. But the recommendation of people like Beth Becker carries a lot of weight. And like NGP VAN, Blue Utopia works exclusively with Democrats, so at least you know you’re both on the same side.
3 - NationBuilder
Now we get into the nonpartisan solutions. NationBuilder was designed as an all-in-one platform for businesses and organizations, and they expanded into politics.
The good: My campaign used NationBuilder — even though we had already purchased NGP — because NGP was just too darn complicated. NationBuilder is a comprehensive system; along with the CRM you get a template-based website that syncs seamlessly with the CRM; when supporters sign up on the site, they get routed directly into the database. The whole system is pretty intuitive and user-friendly. Pricing is reasonable and transparent, and the phone-based support is prompt, friendly and excellent.
The bad: The fact that NationBuilder works with both parties is a deal breaker for some. To be clear: I don’t buy the argument put forth by some Dems that your NationBuilder data might be used to help the other side. Your data belongs to you; it’s at least as safe on NationBuilder as it is on NGP. We used NationBuilder because we thought it gave our campaign the best chance for success — but we were unaware that there was a good Dems-only option in the form of Blue Utopia. Knowing what I know now — including the fact that the Trump campaign used NationBuilder — my decision might be different.
The unknown: NationBuilder is a lead participant in an initiative called Unlock the VAN which advocates for the Democratic Party to open up their voter data so that it can be used in systems beyond NGP VAN. The argument is that expanding the field of competition would encourage innovations that could help more Dems win. It’s hard to argue with the logic.
4 - Crowdskout
Promoting itself as “the campaign-winning data management and marketing platform,” Crowdskout is new and sleek. It’s designed specifically for campaigns, nonprofits and advocacy groups regardless of party or ideology.
The good: If I were starting from scratch and didn’t mind that my CRM was nonpartisan, I’d give Crowdskout a good look. It offers an extensive suite of features on a clean, modern interface. There’s a widget that allows you to capture whenever a contact interacts with your website: if they watch your embedded video for example, and even how long they watch it. You can make phone calls right from within Crowdskout for an extra fee. And Crowdskout assigns you a “concierge” support person to assist with any service issues.
The bad: In order to see firsthand how the system works, you’ll have to request an online demo. Like NationBuilder, Crowdskout plays in both Republican and Democratic sandboxes — but at least they’re is open about that fact. The same can’t be said for pricing, which is conspicuously absent on the website. And pricing can vary widely, from $75 per month for a campaign with up to 5,000 records to $1,250 for a congressional-sized campaign with up to 250,000 records.
The unknown: In my conversations with the company, I was told that they have a new CTO whose first priority is to make the website more transparent with regard to user features and pricing. When asked for a comment about their policy of serving both parties, a Crowdskout rep said simply, “We’re just trying to sell software.” You can read a fairly thorough review here.
Each of these four options deserves a close look, and each has its pluses and minuses. You may lean toward the companies that share your Democratic ideals. You may favor the solutions that are the most open and transparent. You may prefer a system that will save you time, or that’s relatively inexpensive.
But one overriding consideration eclipses the rest: which system will give you the best chance to win your race? None of the available options will be a perfect fit for your campaign; you’ll need to compromise somewhere. Just don’t compromise so much that it lessens your chances of beating the socks off the GOP on Election Day. The rest of us are counting on you.