Modern political campaigns home in on their key voters with drone-like precision, down to the smallest niche, like Prius-driving single women in Northern Virginia who care about energy issues. They compile hundreds of pieces of data on individuals, from party registration to pet ownership to favorite TV shows. And they can reach people through Facebook, Pandora, Twitter, YouTube or cable television.
The only problem: They do not have enough messages for them all.
The Big Data era of politics has left some campaigns drowning in their own sophisticated advances. They simply cannot produce enough new, effective messages to keep up with the surgical targeting that the data and analytics now allow.
“Our ability to target has far outstripped our ability to create,” said Alex Lundry, co-founder of Deep Root Analytics, a Republican media analytics firm. “We do have too many options and not enough time, and I do think it’s a problem.”
Or, as Joe Rospars, the founder of the Democratic digital agency and technology firm Blue State Digital, put it, “The science is ahead of the art.” An analytics team can help a campaign make “a much more targeted buy,” he explained, but that alone will not offer a particularly efficient return on investment if the ad is still “just a white guy in a suit.”
Josh Eboch, political director for the campaign of Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, likened the data and tools to an expensive car, and the creative message to the car’s driver: “We’re really at the point where everyone can afford the Ferrari, it’s a question of who’s the better driver,” he said.
Campaigns are often under pressure to keep up with the velocity of the news cycle and produce a rapid digital response for placement online or on social media. And, with more and better information about their core voters, campaigns and outside groups often find themselves without the time, money or staffing to fully capitalize on all of the different ways they can deliver messages to their newly segmented voting blocs.
“Especially among Republicans, the big data has been built, the pipes have been built, but the creative side hasn’t been fleshed out or budgeted for the campaign,” said Tim O’Toole, co-founder of Poolhouse, a Republican ad firm. “Anyone can open up iMovie and make something, but the high-level creative ad production has not been baked into these campaigns.”
“It’s very easy to get overwhelmed with all the possibilities you have,” said Alex Kellner, the digital director of Terry McAuliffe’s successful 2013 bid for governor of Virginia and now a director at Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic digital marketing firm. “More campaigns are moving in the direction of having that freak-out moment for a couple of days and saying, ‘Oh my gosh. Here’s all we can do. How can we get it all done?’" The answer for some campaigns, simply, is that they cannot.
Some platforms are now tailoring their offerings to meet the campaigns wherever they are. Facebook, for instance, at its most basic level allows campaigns to focus their message on a particular ZIP code or gender, or even a group of voters that “likes” a certain set of Facebook pages — maybe MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and The Nation, or Fox News’s Sean Hannity and Guns & Ammo magazine.
At a more sophisticated level, a campaign can upload its entire voter file to Facebook, and work with one of the site’s data partners to reach only its targets with messages designed specifically for them.
“The approach here from Facebook’s perspective is to offer a menu of options, and campaigns can determine what makes the most sense for them, based on their resources,” said Andy Stone, Facebook’s policy communications manager.
Zac Moffatt, co-founder of Targeted Victory, a Republican technology firm, said he frames the discussion with his clients as “big Internet, small content.”
“We know all of this stuff about voters, but because politics is based on a broadcast model, we shove the same three messages down their throat,” Mr. Moffatt said.
Going forward, and especially in the 2016 presidential cycle, Mr. Moffatt added, the creative content should be specifically geared to both the relevant voter demographic and the platform. “In the future, all audiences should see different ads — six-second, 15-second, 30-second,” he said. “The explosion of content will be the biggest game changer.”
Yet campaigns also must guard against producing dozens of different messages for dozens of different demographic groups, simply because they can.
“We always say have that umbrella message, but then supplement it with as many highly targeted messages as you think you can stand, both from a budget standpoint and a philosophical standpoint,” said Mr. Lundry, the co-founder of Deep Root Analytics.
Some larger campaigns have already been able to marry the advances in data and analytics with an equally robust investment in creative content. The campaign of Mr. Cornyn worked with Facebook to aim Second Amendment ads at self-identified gun-rights supporters, as well as to direct Latino and Vietnamese voters to pro-Cornyn websites, one in Spanish and one in Vietnamese, created specifically for each group.
Mr. Kellner said that from early on, the McAuliffe campaign invested heavily in both the data and the creative sides to ensure it could target key voters with specialized messages. Over the course of the campaign, he said, it reached out to 18 to 20 targeted voter groups, with nearly 4,000 Facebook ads, more than 300 banner display ads, and roughly three dozen different pre-roll ads — the ads seen before a video plays — on television and online. “It certainly was a lot,” he said, “but it was also targeted.” Still, he added, “Probably not every campaign will need 4,000 pieces of creative. I think what’s important is not trying to find every small segment, but it’s ranking the segments where you can have the biggest effect and then focusing on them.”
Mark Skidmore, partner and chief strategist at Bully Pulpit Interactive, said campaigns face three main challenges: segments (“There’s infinite ways we can segment and target audiences”), formats (a wide range of formats, like video, audio and text, across a wide range of platforms, like Google, Facebook and Pandora) and context (“If I’m on Facebook, I’m in a very different state of mind than if I’m on Twitter searching for news”).
A smart campaign, he said, needs to not only tailor its message for each audience, but also make sure its creative content works best for that particular medium. “On Facebook, the lead-in might be something fun and appealing, like ‘Let’s be more than friends, sign up and vote.’ On Twitter, it might be something like, ‘Retweet this but also go vote,’ ” he said.
Sometimes the best message is “Stop reading this and go vote.”
NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote!
Michael H. Drucker
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