Last spring political supporters and opponents took notice when Elizabeth Warren introduced legislation to reduce student debt. So did a company that makes money by connecting students with free government programs.
The for-profit firm is the type Warren abhors, but it happily used her image to hawk its services: “New Student Debt Forgiveness Programs. Call Today Before They Expire!” printed over an image of Warren, who stands behind a podium with palms gesturing to the sky.
Welcome to the world of Senator Clickbait, a.k.a. Elizabeth Warren.
The Massachusetts Democrat’s online marketing power is so strong that even her foes want her as a pitch woman. Put her image on Facebook and it can generate hundreds of thousands of shares. A simple e-mail from her with the subject line “I’m sorry” once yielded more than $430,000.
In the parlance of online marketing, Warren generates clicks. She doesn’t just boost e-commerce, she creates it.
“Every time we test a message about her, the needle breaks the gauge,” said Ben Wikler, the Washington director for MoveOn.org, a liberal group pressing Warren to run for president. “It’s an effect we see with no one else in politics today.”
Warren has long been able to generate tens of thousands of small donations for her own political operation through Internet fund-raising, which helped her overcome Republican Scott Brown’s advantage among Wall Street firms and take away his Massachusetts Senate seat in 2012. In 2014, Warren stumped across the country for fellow Democrats and lent her name to highly effective fund-raising e-mails.
Now, as the political world prepares for the 2016 elections and Democrats attempt to regain control of the Senate, her image has become even more ubiquitous. Even though she is just a freshman in the tradition-bound chamber, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is plastering news websites with fund-raising ads using her face.
Political news sites like Politico and the Huffington Post frequently prominently feature headlines about Warren, no matter how minor or incremental her statements. Stoking the flames is persistent buzz about a possible presidential candidacy — which Warren consistently denies, but without quite tamping down unequivocally.
Why is Warren such a powerful online draw? Supporters cite her “authenticity.” They also note that Warren occupies a laptop liberal space on the Internet carved out by Howard Dean and Barack Obama before her and fueled by annual meetings like Netroots Nation, a gathering of progressive online activists.
Warren’s office declined to comment. Interviews with staff at many of the outside groups that use her image to generate attention — both her friends and enemies — revealed the same theme: Warren is Internet catnip.
Early last week, at a time when Warren wasn’t doing anything pro-actively to generate news, 30 percent more people were talking about her on Facebook than Jeb Bush, who is exploring a presidential bid, according to data provided by Facebook. She has been in 32,000 news stories in the last 90 days, according to Cision, a company that tracks news.
Last year she was among the top 10 most-searched politicians on Google. Hillary Rodham Clinton didn’t even make the list.
Top Republican groups have also raised money, using warnings that Warren is out to wreck the economy.
“A lot of our supporters view her as potentially dangerous for America,” said Colin Reed, executive director of America Rising, a Republican opposition research super PAC. “Elizabeth Warren is the titular head of the democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”
Reed’s group assigned a tracker to shadow Warren this month who asked her questions as she went from her office to various committee hearings. Footage was circulated online and, like most things Warren, generated a raft of tweets and quick-hit news items.
In late October, MoveOn.org blasted an e-mail to its membership from Warren. She urged readers to “fight the right wing billionaires.” Warren asked for only $3 from each reader. The e-mail yielded four times more cash than the typical online fund-raising pitch from the time period.
The haul was particularly noteworthy because the message went out during the frenetic last 10 days of the 2014 midterm election, a time when Democrats saw their in-boxes inundated with pleas for money. The yield was slightly above par for Warren. A message from her typically causes e-mail lists to generate two to three times more money than usual, according to one Democratic operative familiar with her fund-raising.
In 2012, MoveOn noticed that the Warren appeal went beyond her own campaign. One of the most effective ways to raise money for other Democrats in 2012 was to deploy her name first in an e-mail, and then mention the other candidate as a secondary message.
“She had coattails as a first-time Senate candidate,” Wikler said.
Liberal groups that have little or no connection to Warren use her name and image in a quest for clicks, said Mark Provost, a self-described “meme maker” for a progressive group called US Uncut, calling her “gold.”
He created an image that includes Warren’s picture along with a message decrying the high rates of student loans. It became one of the group’s top three posts of all time, garnering more than 680,000 shares on Facebook.
“That one went really, really viral,” Provost said. Most posts, he said, only attract attention for a few days. This one has been circulating for more than a year.
In that case, at least Warren agrees with the message, even if it was not cleared with her staff.
Warren’s staffers disapproved of the advertisement posted by the student loan consolidation outfit. An operator answering the toll-free number it advertised explained how the program would “possibly lower your rates” and even lead to “possible forgiveness” of loans. Several hours after a Globe reporter contacted a company spokesman, the toll-free number was disconnected.
Not every e-mail with Warren’s name is a break-out success. Warren’s digital team in 2012 concocted a contest where the winner would fly out to Los Angeles and spend time with Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and John Krasinski. The staff was so confident in the message, they never tested it on small segments of the list like they usually did. It was a dud, raising only $30,000 from a list that would typically yield $100,000.
But, the misses are far less frequent than the hits.
“Elizabeth Warren makes it rain money, I just stand next to her and hold the bucket and try to collect as much of it as possible,” said Lauren Miller, Warren’s onine guru, during a 2013 panel appearance at Netroots Nation. In 2012, Warren raised $42 million, nearly half of it on-line, Miller said.
Ironically, one of the top performing e-mails in Warren’s history apologized for the constant barrage of e-mail requests seeking money, and then asked for money.
Warren’s staff tested the message by sending it to a smaller portion of the list who hadn’t given any money to her campaign.
“At the very least, if they unsubscribe, oh well, who cares, they weren’t giving to us anyway,” explained Miller. But, within the first 20 minutes the campaign raised $50,000.
“We couldn’t believe what was happening,” Miller said. “So obviously we sent the e-mail out to the rest of the list.”
Over $430,000 raised from that single message, she said.
Annie Linskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.