The 2016 presidential candidates have reached out to many voters through the internet, which is a long leap from sending volunteers door-to-door in campaigns past. Unlike the capabilities of modern technologies, volunteers don’t have dossiers on all the residents that indicate where they work, how they vote, what issues motivate them, what their likes and dislikes are, and, certainly not, where they like to shop and go to dinner.
So, in reality, yes, today’s digitally-driven campaigns are indeed very different; they can identify and sort individual voters with uncanny specificity. And according to two online marketing experts who teach in the master’s in Technology Management (TM) program at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies, these practices will become even more advanced in the future.
“The technology now exists for combining many platforms to make a smarter, holistic data set of potential supporters,” said Mikah Sellers, Chief Digital Officer for the branding agency Grafik and an instructor in the TM program. “That was something that just wasn’t possible before in any political campaign. It just wasn’t scaled down to that level.”
More Targeted and Effective
“You can create very sophisticated, targeted operations that will have a level of scientific precision that was previously impossible,” added Tyler Gray, Principal of the digital creative agency Gray Street Solutions. A 2014 graduate of the TM program, Gray is a Teaching Assistant in Sellers’s class on using innovative technology for branding and digital marketing.
Using the kind of advanced analytics and data-mining techniques pioneered by business marketers, campaigns can identify a host of voter characteristics; this enables them to sort voters into multiple groups for more targeted outreach.
“You can have 50 different ads that push something in different directions,” based on the characteristics of various voter groups, Sellers said. “It’s not just demographics, but also psychographics,” that is, the classification of people according to their values, attitudes, concerns, and other psychological variables.
In the 2004 presidential race, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was seen as innovative for using the internet to collect small donations. Five years later, Gray, then the Online Communications Director for 2009 Virginia Attorney General candidate Steve Shannon, tried to go a step further by collecting funds on a relatively new but growing social media site called Twitter.
As it turned out, Gray was just a little too early.
“Was it successful in terms of raising a lot of money? No.” Gray said with a laugh.
Now a Necessity
But what a difference seven years has made. In this year’s presidential campaign, a robust online presence—Twitter included—is indispensable and potentially quite lucrative, as Democrat Bernie Sanders recently demonstrated. In the 24 hours after his New Hampshire Primary victory, the Vermont Senator raised $6 million online from an average donation of just $27.
Judging by the growing number of voters using social media to follow campaigns, these online efforts will keep expanding. According to a report last year from the Pew Research Center, 16 percent of registered voters followed political figures on social media in 2014, up from 6 percent in 2010. The biggest percentage increase was among 30- to 49-year-olds, whose social media following of political figures more than tripled, from 6 percent to 21 percent.
Increasingly, candidates are announcing policy positions—even engaging in debates—on social media.
“Technology is now the focus of the campaign, rather than something that supports it,” Sellers said. “The data scientist in these campaigns is going to be as important as the campaign manager.”