2014: The Tech Election That Wasn’t
From the way the press has covered elections recently it sounds like campaigns are now totally robotic. We were told campaigns would have NSA like computers to track all communication. We were told they would be able to dynamically customize messages to each voter and make data-driven decisions. We were also promised hover boards. Yet, none of these have come to pass.
Compared to the leap of innovation seen during the 2012 presidential races, the 2014 midterm elections were an evolutionary, but not a revolutionary expansion in the tech behind political campaigns. The most impressive transition was how quickly campaigns – down ballot races and statewide – were able to adopt and adapt the techniques pioneered by the 2012 presidential campaigns. Techniques like modeling and individually targeted advertising are now commonplace. While Democrats still retain some technological advantages, the gap has narrowed and Democrats’ biggest asset is simply the larger talent pool of staffers working in the tech, digital, and analytics space.
In order to maintain technological dominance in 2016 and beyond, it will require Democrats to invest in new technologies and focus on how to get more out of what systems we have already created. To that end, here are three primary lessons campaigns should take from 2014:
1. Put Your Money Where Your (Voters) Are. Campaigns now have very sophisticated targeting programs. Unfortunately, these do not extend to resource allocations, which is one of the single largest decisions a campaign can make. Most campaign budgeting is still done in silos, with a certain budget allocated to television, mail, or digital. There is very rarely any rationale for these decisions, let alone coordination between the actual programs once launched. Of course, we should spend more on TV when reaching older rural voters compared to urban 30 somethings, but even something this simple often still evades us. In fact, Democratic campaigns invested a lower percentage of media in digital and new media channels in 2014 than 2012.
Given we can clearly measure how many Gross Ratings Points an opponent puts on TV, we will sell the campaign office to match point for point. Ask the voters in target competitive states: Was it that 40th television ad that put you over the top and made you decide to vote on November 4? Our data driven decisions need to extend to cross channel integration. We need to be smarter about spending our marginal dollars particularly in situations when we will be outspent. In almost all cases an integrated multi-channel strategy is more efficient than piling up the points on a single channel. This is only going to be more important as voters cut the cord and move on-the-go with faster, smarter mobile phones.
2. Avoid Paralysis by Analysis. Remember the old adage “No one ever got fired for hiring IBM?” This year, no one wanted to be the campaign that was not targeting with a model. On the whole, this is a great thing as campaigns embrace data and targeting. But targeting cannot yet replace judgement. With a limited number of analysts and models still being relatively new to most folks, this process proved time consuming and in some case, paralyzing. The result is that many early defining campaign salvos were delayed, such as waiting to build messaging or launch campaigns until the targeting was finalized. While this came from a good place, we cannot let the desire for incremental improvement delay or impede critical stages of action.
3. Your Technology Will Not Save You. As the volume of campaign communications increase, so must the quality of that content. Breaking through in a crowded media environment requires standing out and adding value — offering utility as well as entertainment. Thanks to viewability tracking implemented this cycle for online ads and pre-roll, we saw how content that didn’t fit the medium didn’t work. Now that we can see whether people actually watch online video and for how long, we learned that most television ads do not translate well to the Internet. A more tailored and creative approach is needed. The same will increasingly be true on television, even though we don’t have the metrics to prove it yet. And yes, it is also true in our fundraising and the content of emails. Technology is a requirement, but vision and message should never become outdated.
Whether it is 2016 or the next public affairs battle, smart campaigns are going to tackle the tough questions. This is our primary focus for the coming months as well. Let us know if we can help answer them for your organization.