A small Cincinnati-area digital agency called CanDo recently took on an unusual commission: Producing a presidential candidate’s official campaign app. The app, Rand Paul 2016, lets users take selfies with Paul, donate money to his campaign, send emails to friends about campaign positions, and even play a secret 1980s-style arcade game where they can blast away at Jeb Bush and Donald Trump campaign logos.
But developing apps for candidates is different from developing an app for, say, a corporate client. “Corporate applications are usually singular in purpose and execution,” CanDo CEO Rob Ratterman explained via email. “In contrast, while a presidential campaign app has the primary goal of advocacy, that manifests itself in a very diverse set of features–including news dissemination, volunteer activation and engagement, donations, video highlights, issue presentation, polling, voter activation and notifications, and social media engagement. It has to somehow entice not only your diehard supporters, but also those who might not otherwise give your candidate a second glance.”
It’s that second part–reaching out to casual supporters and the public at large–that’s the hard part. And it’s one campaigns and app makers are still figuring out.
Smartphone and tablet apps aimed at casual campaign supporters are a new phenomenon. Although internal iOS and Android apps were used to great success by campaign workers during the 2012 presidential election and subsequent congressional and state races, outreach by app is something else.
The first issue is one of preaching to the converted rather than attracting new supporters to a campaign. Zac Moffatt, CEO of Targeted Victory, a digital advertising firm that mainly works with Republican candidates and had close ties to the Romney 2012 campaign, told Fast Company that these efforts mainly attract committed supporters of a candidate.
“I think the challenge these apps have is producing something with enough value to justify being on your phone’s home screen and not being lost among all the apps you download,” he explained. “Do they provide a value proposition? Do they find voters or people that can be persuaded? These apps are mobilization tools, not persuasion tools. If someone is a true believer, they will participate. But the odds of someone using the app more than once who is not interested in campaign is pretty low.”
But a specific set of circumstances in the 2016 campaign are leading some candidates to create apps nonetheless. In a field that, at present, is being dominated by a headline-baiting Donald Trump, Republican candidates are racing to differentiate themselves from their competitors.
Although it’s unlikely a dyed-in-the-wool Hillary Clinton supporter will download an app for a Republican candidate, they offer a relatively low-cost and low-investment way for campaigns to turn casual, lukewarm supporters into more serious partisans. Despite Moffatt’s opinion, it’s less preaching to the converted than making sure occasional churchgoers show up every week.
As of press time, both Rand Paul and Ted Cruz have apps available for iOS and Android. Both of their apps cover the same basic turf. They create viral content to place on social media, they allow ways for campaign workers to reach out to a user’s network, give information on the candidate, and offer just enough fun for a casual user to stick around.
Cruz’s app for instance, cringingly titled the “Cruz Crew,” has a Foursquare-like setup where users gain points for sharing Cruz’s content on social media and sending information to friends. Badges can be unlocked, and users also compete to win Cruz swag as super-connectors. The Cruz campaign did not respond to multiple queries from Fast Company regarding the app.
One problem these apps face is retaining user interest from a fickle public. App Annie, a smartphone app analytics firm, shows that Paul’s app had high downloads as soon as it came out. Upon release on September 2, it was the 21st most highly downloaded iOS app in their News vertical among American users. A few days later on September 10, it had plummeted to being the 412th most popular.
Ted Cruz’s app, by comparison, had such low download numbers it did not even show up on App Annie’s charts.
Ron Schnell, the CTO of Rand Paul’s 2016 campaign, told Fast Company that “It was sort of obvious that we would need an app,” and cited the project’s development as part of a larger goal to make Paul’s campaign as tech forward as possible. As an example, he cited another functionality in the app: Users can choose to receive push notifications regarding Paul’s upcoming Senate votes so they could give him their feedback in advance. In that way, he said, Paul can hear from voters on the national stage as well as his constituents.
But in the end, the big issue campaign apps face is expanding beyond a core user base of a candidate’s supporters. Andrew Rasiej of Personal Democracy Media added that “The only people who will use any apps created by candidates will be diehard supporters. There is no compelling reason a potential supporter would ever download an app; such apps don’t offer any significant change in the experience voters have.”
But in the meantime, expect more apps from candidates as we move closer to primaries. With more than a dozen Republican candidates vying for nomination, odds are candidates will try more and more to differentiate themselves to the public. Building apps is a relatively low-cost way of doing just that.