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Trail to the chief: How the presidential campaign is reshaping technology use


August 31, 2012

Every four years, athletes and fans from their home countries focus attention, training and resources on the Olympic Games.  And as the Olympics move nearer to the opening ceremonies, the art and science of athletic performance advance.

Think of the U.S. presidential election as the Olympics for communicators. Every four years, the pressure on political parties mounts as they work feverishly to exploit every possible method of delivering votes — particularly from battleground states. It is a perfect alignment of political strategy, technology and consumer behavior.  As the election gets closer, the art and science of persuasive communications leap forward.  The PR community must jump with it or we risk getting left behind.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized the power of radio and used it to connect with Americans in a personal way through his fireside chats. Kennedy’s debate triumph over Vice President Richard Nixon is credited with ushering in the television era.  And in 2008, the Obama campaign embraced social tools to connect, engage and mobilize hyper-connected mostly younger voters, which advanced the work of the Howard Dean campaign four years earlier.

These technologies already existed and were widespread, but the presidential campaigns helped propel them into the mainstream.
Let’s take a look at the changes in communications technologies since the last presidential campaign in 2008. What is happening behind the scenes right now that will have an impact on PR strategies in the future?

2008 vs. 2012
 

  • The “grandma-fication” of online and social tools — Social was once primarily the domain of progressive early adopters under 30 years old, precisely the type of people with whom the Obama’s ‘Yes We Can’ campaign resonated most powerfully. Today, Facebook reports that 28 million people over the age of 45 are active on Facebook.

    The users of social tools are more heterogeneous and reflective of America generally — which makes it a bigger challenge to captivate the online community with a single message.
     
  • The consolidation of online media — Perhaps the most surprising development since 2008 is that there has not been a major blockbuster social tool to gain widespread penetration since Facebook and Twitter. Google+ and Pinterest may eventually gain critical mass, but they are far from being social super-powers.

    And guess who voters turn to most often: traditional news sources often found through links on Facebook and Twitter or through aggregators such as Google or  Yahoo.
     
  • The rise of mobile — In 2008, the mobile Web was in its infancy. If you didn’t have one of the five million iPhones in use in 2008, then you didn’t have apps or much of a mobile browsing capability. There weren’t any Android phones or tablets of any kind.

    Today, Nielsen estimates smartphone penetration stands at 55 percent and tablets are quickly replacing laptops because of their ease-of-use and connectivity. These mobile connections have proven to be more personal as the line between work and life has disappeared.
     
  • The avalanche of data —  The typical user of social tools shares a tremendous amount of information. A report from Keynote found that 86 percent of the 269 leading news, financial, travel and retail websites install third-party tracking cookies on machines. They share everything from their political affiliation and religious beliefs to where they work and who their friends are, which Facebook apps track. Google keeps tabs on what they do online and where they are with their Android phone.

    This ‘Big Data’ provides a wealth of information that can be analyzed and used to create highly personalized and targeted communications. 
     

The information election

Both political campaigns have adapted to these changes. Both are employing QR codes and mobile apps, each party has been gathering information about supporters —overtly through surveys and conversations, and covertly through online tracking.  And they are using sophisticated software designed to make it possible to use all available data.

For the first time, both parties are combining publicly available data from voter rolls with all the online intelligence to create a picture of what makes their supporters and 2012’s other voters tick.

And the fact that scientists are now heavily involved in political strategy is the big leap of the 2012 campaign. If the so-called Holy Grail of the 2008 presidential campaign was social media, then the Holy Grail of 2012 is microtargeting.

It is not about the number of Facebook Likes, video views or retweets that a campaign can attract. It is about how precisely a campaign can mold a message that will engage a particular voter and then deliver that narrowly targeted message with pinpoint accuracy to compel the voter to act.

For instance, Politico noted this past June 9 that the Obama campaign is constantly experimenting and testing to expand the donor base and has found that $3 is a magic number.

“Asking supporters for that paltry donation to win a chance to attend a fundraiser with the president and George Clooney or Sarah Jessica Parker, has generated tens of thousands of responses,” Lois Romano reported.

But collecting money isn’t the goal of this exchange — it is simply a rationale for collecting data from the donor. The data is worth much more to the campaign than the $3 donation.

The PR implications

What does the information election mean for public relations?

  1. Analytics will grow in importance. Every PR pro must be able to collect and analyze data from the full spectrum of sources. If you don’t want a scientist to take your job, then you need to learn to do what the scientists are doing.
     
  2. Narrowly targeted messages will be essential. I’ve seen notes from people who are angry with Facebook for showing them poorly targeted ads.  The expectation that the organizations that we connect with understand what each of us is interested in and cares about will grow more intense.
     
  3. Mobile-ready messages are a must.  A survey from Equation Research found that 46 percent of consumers are unlikely to return to a website on their mobile phone if they experienced problems during the last time they visited. Make sure that your website uses ‘responsive design,’ which ensures that the site adjusts to the size of the screen on your device.
     
  4. Deliver what mobile users demand. Mobile users gravitate toward easily shareable and new information focused on logistics, such as dates, times and locations.
     
  5. Privacy concerns may prompt changes. Every technology advance suffers from abusers and mistakes. Lawmakers are working to make it easier for individuals to opt out of information-sharing and to make disclosures more explicit.

Just as the use of radio, television and social media by presidential campaigns helped propel those tools into the mainstream, we expect widespread application of methods of collecting and analyzing Big Data in the coming years. Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and many other social sites already customize your online experience based on their instant analysis of your interests and behaviors.  These capabilities will continue to advance — as will consumer expectations.

The art and science of analytics is leaping ahead as you read this — making it possible to target communications and strengthen personal bonds in ways that we are just beginning to imagine. The real question is how will you use these new capabilities to achieve your PR objectives?

Katrina Kokoska Katrina Kokoska is professional services manager with Schipul – The Web Marketing Co. (www.schipul.com), which helps organizations succeed online. Follow her on Twitter at @kkokoska.



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