The US Presidential election, like the FIFA World Cup and the Summer Olympics, is one of those events that rolls around every four years to showcase just how far marketing tools have come since the last one. Each of these events sees huge advertising budgets deployed and cutting-edge technology put to use to try to leverage every possible advantage when it comes to capturing the worldwide audience tuning in to watch these global sporting events, or, in the case of the race between Trump and Clinton, convincing the electorate who to vote for when it comes time to appoint the “Leader of the Free World”.
We’ll be diving into the specifics of what each party and candidate is doing in the 2016 election over the coming weeks, but first, let’s take a look at the overall state of US political campaigning, and how a process that’s been going on for almost 250 years has been adapting to the age of digital marketing and the potential of the mobile phone.
Super PACS and Subcommittees
The machinery at work in a US Presidential campaign is huge and complex. Not only does each candidate have their own considerable operation working to put out their message to the public, but there’s also the parties themselves, usually working in concert with the campaign but notionally separate.
In addition, following the 2010 Supreme Court decision on Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, there are also super PACS (political action committees), independent organisations that funnel huge amounts of cash into support for a particular candidate or issue. Super PACS can be sponsored by union organisations or corporations, as well as channelling donations from the general public, but are legally prohibited from coordinating with candidates and their campaigns.
What that all means is there is a lot of money flowing around, all of it dedicated to supporting a campaign or furthering an issue, and there are a huge amount of vested interests involved: governmental, corporate and public.
While many marketing agencies have been accused of lagging behind consumers when it comes to adopting mobile, the government in general is even further behind, much as it was when it came to digital. But with so much cash on the table, any marketers involved in this year’s Presidential campaign will surely be aware of how important mobile marketing is to connecting with the modern consumer, whether for building a brand or delivering a candidate’s message.
To get some idea of how mobile could transform this year’s Presidential campaigns, we only need to look back to the changes that occurred in 2012, when US political campaigning finally woke up and embraced the power of digital marketing, and data-driven targeting.
The 2012 election saw incumbent President Barack Obama face off against Republican challenger Senator Mitt Romney, and while Romney adopted more-or-less conventional wisdom when it came to his campaign’s digital strategy, Obama built on the support he’d seen through social media in the 2008 election to create a campaign unlike any before seen in US politics, and one that would shape this year’s race profoundly.
Yes We Can (Go Digital)
This photo, shared on Obama's social media channels after his victory, became the most shared photo on Facebook and Twitter of all time
At the beginning of 2011, as planning began for the upcoming Presidential campaign, Obama's odds of re-election were anything but certain. While his digital strategy in 2008 had helped him move from long-shot candidate to President, 2012 posed a number of different challenges. The Tea Party movement meant that there was a groundswell of support for Republican candidates, while the Citizens United decision opened the door to more active opposition and millions of dollars in financing for groups who opposed Obama.
The Obama for America campaign worked with a number of digital agencies to build on the work it had done in 2008, creating a suite of tools that could serve as the backbone of the digital campaign and handle fundraising, community-building, communication, voter mobilisation and message optimisation.
Rather than hire political experts or traditional campaign staff, Obama filled his digital and technology teams with technical experience and marketing savvy. The campaign's chief technology officer was Harper Reed, previously CTO at online retailer Threadless, while chief scientist Rayid Ghani came from Accenture and senior data analyst Michelangelo D'Agostino was a particle physicist.
The Obama for America campaign made sure that every level of the organisation understood what tech startups and marketers had been saying for years – data doesn't lie. Analytics were hard-baked into every aspect of the campaign, from the digital team's targeting to how many field organisers should be deployed in a given city. Overall, the analytics team for the campaign was five times bigger than it was in 2012.
The campaign wasn't a swollen behemoth however, and understood where a lean, agile approach would serve better. Obama's social team, managing his 34m Facebook fans and 24m Twitter followers, was made up of just four people. Despite its small size, the social team was crucial for mobilising the 18-29 demographic who were overwhelmingly likely to support Obama.
Traditional campaigns typically aimed to encourage voters with phone calls, either through banks of volunteers or automated messages, but the growth of mobile meant half the campaign's young target voters were unreachable by landline. Instead, the social team built a Facebook-based app that connected with supporters and asked for their permission to look at their friends list. Over 1m supporters signed up, and thanks to their data, the campaign was able to identify 85 per cent of those without listed numbers.
The social team used the app as a targeting platform, asking supporters to share content and reach out to target voters. Over 600,000 supporters followed through, reaching 5m voters with requests to register to vote, donate or watch campaign videos aimed at securing their vote.
In the end, Obama for America became the first Presidential campaign to break the billion dollar mark, with online donations accounting for around $690m (£531m) of that, more than the 2008 campaign had achieved and well ahead of Mitt Romney's campaign. Most of that came from small donations from the public who'd be contacted via email, Facebook, Twitter and other social channels.
The Lessons Learned
About six months following Obama's victory, the Republican party released an 'autopsy report' on what had gone wrong in their campaign, and digital was one of the key takeaways, with the party admitting that it had been left standing in the dust by Obama for America and its sophisticated combination of data-driven targeting and agile, connected workers.
"Despite reaching more voters than ever before through traditional forms of voter contact, we lost," said the report. "Democrats had the clear edge on new media and the ground game in terms of both reach and effectiveness.
"Perhaps the area of Campaign 2012 that received the most interest from a media standpoint is the 'digital divide' that existed between the GOP and the Democrats as a result of the Obama campaign's significant commitment to building an in-house tech and digital team and sharing data resources across multiple entities within the campaign. From social network processing of traditional broadcast media messaging to more effective targeting for voter contact, the Obama campaign benefited greatly from a relatively seamless integration of digital, tech, and data in their campaign efforts.
"Our challenge is less of a technology problem and more of a culture problem. We need to strive for an environment of intellectual curiosity, data, research and testing to ensure our programs are working."
Washington appears to have taken these lessons seriously. Over the past few years, dozens of digital marketing agencies have sprung up around the capital, specialising in social media, analytics, data management and digital outreach for political campaigns. Some focus on one side of the aisle or the other, while others remain politically neutral, focused instead on delivering results to whoever hires them. Many of those who worked on the Obama for America campaign have founded firms, while others have gone on to work for Hilary Clinton's campaign or related organisations.
What does this all mean? The 2016 campaign should be the most digitally-sophisticated ever, from the Presidential level all the way down through Senators, Governors and congressional candidates to local ballot issues, as the political establishment finally wakes up to the power of digital. And in a world where digital increasingly means mobile, this year should see record-breaking spends focused on contacting potential voters on their most personal devices.
Next week, we'll take a look at how the Republican Party has adapted to the mobile age since 2012, and whether an unconventional candidate like Donald Trump can transform his social media presence into a sophisticated, data-driven campaign.