InPHLuencers: Making Digital History at the DNC with Annie Heckenberger

Kyle Krajewski
November 1, 2016

This presidential election cycle has been truly been something. But today, for just a moment, I’d like to take us back to one of it’s few truly bright spots that all of us here in Philadelphia were lucky enough to experience in some way, shape or form: The Democratic National Convention

Let’s not forget that an event of this magnitude doesn’t just roll into town, pop up, and leave. There’s a lot of work that goes into making that pop up happen. In fact, the DNC is in charge of assembling a host committee to get this thing going, on which our friend Annie Heckenberger of Digitas Health Lifebrands assumed the role of the director of digital and social for the host committee.

We recently had the chance to chat with her about how that gig came about, how she approached it, and how cool it was to be a part of American history.

“Things change, but they don’t really change that much at all.”

Before taking on the social role for the DNC, Heckenberger racked up about 20 years experience in the industry, spending eight seasons working New York Fashion Week and a number of years before that working the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas, before joining our neighbors at Red Tettemer O’Connell + Partners. No stranger to large event coverage, she laughed at the idea that, for more than two decades, some things never really change.

A large part of the early part of my career was spent working with celebrities who were considered influencers,” she says. “Now I find myself 10 years in the social business, where again the buzz word continues to be ‘influencer’.”

It wasn’t the only “small world” situation that presented itself before as she was approached by the committee to take on the gig, noting that, beforehand, she was actually looking at campaigns to join in this type of role as whispers of candidates that might run began to surface. So for her, it was really a match made in heaven.

I was just thinking about adding on to what I was doing [at Red Tettemer] by doing something that might create change for the greater good,” she says. “This is the best of both worlds. Because there’s a convention coming to your town and you have the opportunity to be a part of it without really being attached to a candidate. You’re not really even attached to the Democratic Party, because you exist to show off your city.”

And that was really the strategy for the whole thing.

“We wanted to generate revenue for our local businesses. We wanted to create activity for Philadelphians to feel like this is a great event and they were part of it.”

As you may imagine, developing a strategy for one of the biggest conventions in the world come with its challenges:

Luckily for Heckenberger, the committee had the recent Papal visit to work around as a blueprint for what to do and, more notably, not to do. After watching the thousands come to town to see Pope Francis but not spend much money, she knew, first and foremost, that the DNC would have to come out as a champion of Philadelphia’s small business owners, but also to mediate:

We wanted to get business for our local businesses, we wanted to create activity for Philadelphians to feel like this is a great event and they were part of it. And we also wanted to manage expectations for what was going to happen.”

In doing so, measuring successes of the DNC’s digital presented itself as another challenge.

“My goal was never to reach a certain benchmark or target in terms of followers.”

The funny thing about directing the social media for this type of event, Heckenberger says, is that it’s not framed by a standardized growth or engagement strategy we so often become used to in the industry.

It was all about distributing information in a way that ultimately helps visitors plan their trip,  answers questions or show them what to do or get info out there,” she says, “and if you’d listen in on our feeds, you’d see that we have partnered with a number of people to help us do that.”

Heckenberger utilized these partnerships, most prominently, in the forms of Twitter chats as a tactic to discuss and subsequently inform people involved with the convention about anything from tour plans, to food and beverage specials, to understanding volunteer roles.

So if you’re not looking at new followers you’ve amassed as a benchmark for success, what are you looking at? For the most part, participants and press.

I look at the reports of those Twitter chats and see that several hundred people participated. We can also see that press generated new stories from the conversations that we had about those topics. So, in my opinion, I would say that’s success.

“The heaviest work came when the convention ended.”

From beginning working on the convention’s social plan back in March of 2015, Heckenberger is still working on wrapping up her reports, now over a year and a half later. That year and a half had no shortage of nights and weekends putting in work on social and digital plans for the DNC’s platforms and website.

But to be a part of American history makes it all worth it.

@PHLDNC’s last tweet was sent off back in August. Heckenberger knew when creating the plan that all of these accounts would eventually sunset, but their feeds will live on forever as they’re literally being archived by the Library of Congress as a part of American history.

It’s super cool. I’ve been emailing them nonstop,” she says, describing her latest challenge of trying to get an incredible 360 video, shot by local company Greenfish Labs, archived—something the Library itself has never done before. 

Of course, she didn’t neglect the number of people who helped make her life easier along the way, including O3 World, who donated services to build a beautifully designed website, former Governor Ed Rendell, who was an integral leader of the host committee, and Digitas for their endless support.

“I’m really curious and interested to see where 2020 takes us.”

The past few elections have all been deemed the “social media election” in one way or another, but Annie would say that this year we’ve really gotten to see it show how it can play a greater role.

You see candidates embracing these platforms to communicate with voters more than ever before, Twitter boasting its capabilities to live stream the debates on its platform, and even something as simple as being able to post an “I Voted!” button on Facebook.

Social media is so accessible,” Heckenberger says.“It’s actually activating people to be a part of the process. And to me, being able to activate 10 or 11 channels in Philly to tell the story of the DNC is a once-in-a-lifetime chance and I’m really curious and interested to see where 2020 takes us, what new channels are out there, and how they do it better.”