Cover Story : The Direct Marketing Election
What all marketers can learn from the deep voter databases and cutting-edge direct marketing tactics that are winning the 2012 electionNovember 2012 By Katie Kuehner-Hebert
In the 1964 presidential campaign, President Lyndon Johnson ran the "Daisy" ad against challenger Barry Goldwater. The TV ad ran only once, late in the campaign. In it, a little girl counted the petals of a daisy, and when she reached the number nine, an off-camera male voice counted down to a missile launch. The girl looks to the sky and the screen turns black, only to be replaced by a mushroom cloud. Then Johnson's voice says, "These are the stakes! To make a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die."
"It was the final chapter in a narrative about Goldwater that he was unreliable and scary and would take us into nuclear war," says Bert Ralston, a former field representative for the National Republican Congressional Committee and founder and president of VOX Populi Communications LLC, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based government affairs, campaign consulting and crisis management company.
While marketing methods have become vastly more complex, ultimately, every move a campaign makes is based on target marketing, says Ralston. And while the Daisy commercial may not be direct marketing as we consider it today, it was built on direct marketing principles that have been winning elections since the time of Washington: "They targeted people who believed that Goldwater was paranoid," says Ralston, "and it worked."
For the campaigns of President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney, it's no longer just about convincing people to vote and support their candidates. It's about convincing Americans to respond with their money, time, contact information and opt-in, and ultimately nurturing those relationships into long-term supporters who will have a high lifetime value as donors and be reliable party voters in elections to come.
This is an important election to direct marketers for reasons that have nothing to do with who wins or loses. It has been shaped by the tools of direct marketers—and many that marketers are only just starting to explore. It's not just politics imitating marketing, but perhaps also a glimpse into direct marketing's future.
Both Democratic and Republican political campaigns are relying on increasingly large and complex databases to mine voter information. The Republican National Committee's database is called GOP Data Center (formerly Voter Vault), which Romney's campaign uses, and the Democratic National Committee's database is called VoteBuilder.
VoteBuilder is a product of NGP VAN in Somerville, Mass., which on its website bills itself as the leading technology provider to Democratic and progressive campaigns and organizations, including the Obama campaign.
Formerly termed "voter activation network," the VAN is "the interface of the software that many Democrat political campaigns and political organizations use to manage information about voters, members and volunteers," says Jim St. George, NGP VAN's managing partner.
"In the 1980s, there was one database on somebody's desk and all information had to come and go from that," St. George says. "Once we were able to take that voter file information and put it online in a very secure way, all of a sudden there are all sorts of opportunities to generate new data more easily and put it in more hands to democratize that data [and] redistribute it more broadly among campaign workers and organizational supporters."
Anybody who has been authorized by a Democrat or progressive campaign can use the system—which is password protected to lessen the chance that opponents can access it, he says. The information within the system is managed on a state-by-state basis, as most voter data is generally mapped by campaigns in each state. The Obama campaign enlists the help of state and local Democratic organizations to access this database. Romney's campaign uses the RNC database in much the same way.
The quality of the underlying data increases when large numbers of people across multiple campaigns and organizations are all using the same database, says St. George. If any one user makes an important change about a particular voter, everyone who uses the system can immediately see that information.
"It simply makes campaigns more efficient," St. George says. "They don't waste time communicating with people who are no longer eligible voters, even though the secretary of state may not have recorded that yet. But we'll have that information in our system."
Retargeting and Web Behavior
AdRoll in San Francisco is a firm that performs retargeting services for the Obama campaign, according to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) website. "Retargeting allows a political campaign—for example, the Obama campaign—to utilize its first-party website data to show highly personalized messaging and advertising to site visitors," says AdRoll President Adam Berke. "It's easy to segment by interests, as well. AdRoll has the ability to layer on geographic targeting, even down to congressional voting district."
Although Berke is "not at liberty" to share how the firm performs its Facebook Exchange services, he is able to explain how AdRoll generally leverages first-party data on any candidate website for its retargeting efforts: "First-party data is generated by a user visiting a particular site for a cause, product or campaign," Berke says. "It reflects the highest degree of intent, because we know the users already visited that page. And, because they visited that page, users are hopefully more likely to be advocates and donate and vote."
The firm uses third-party data generated by other sites in its retargeting efforts as well, he says.
Micro vs. Macro Targeting
Web behavioral targeting is only one way the campaigns are trying to make election marketing personal. Both Obama and Romney also are employing "microtargeting" tactics—analyzing increasingly large databases that contain specific information about particular voters, such as party affiliation, frequency of voting, contributions and volunteer history, combined with their buying habits and other activities compiled by vendors such as Acxiom, Dun & Bradstreet, Experian Americas and InfoUSA.
Microtargeting uses analytics to identify issues within that data that are important to those voters who are likely to be receptive to messages from the candidate. The campaign then sends them targeted messages about the candidate's positions on those issues via email, direct mail, text messages, telephone calls or home visits.
Obama uses Washington. D.C.-based Catalist LLC as its microtargeting firm and Romney uses Targeted Victory in Alexandria, Va., according to the FEC website.
Austin James, vice president for digital strategy at Gridiron Communications in Granger, Ind., says microtargeting can sometimes backfire when campaigns make faulty assumptions, such as believing a small business person or a veteran who twice voted for a Republican candidate will automatically dislike Obama's every position.
"In some instances, you may actually have a Blue Dog Democrat who voted GOP, but they actually like Obama," James says. "If you send an email blatantly attacking Obama on issues, you may turn off that person."
Microtargeting is very akin to fishing, he says. "Analytics give us our best guesses where there is going to be interest, so we can put out on email for a call to action—but in the end, it's really just our best guess."
Republican pollster David Hill in Auburn, Ala. says microtargeting is "a very polarizing topic."
"Some people are just big believers in it because they are making money off it, or they really think it works," Hill says. "But I know some people who think it doesn't work, such as John McCain," the former Republican presidential candidate and Arizona senator. "He thought it was a waste of money."
To Hill, the "jury is still out" on the effectiveness of microtargeting.
"It's not a one-size-fits-all—it doesn't work for every campaign or every circumstance," he says. "For it to work, a campaign has to have an independent database, such as BMW owners or gun magazine subscribers. But finding a list that matches up political attitudes that makes some sense can be challenging."
Instead of targeting individuals, Hill and his team identify specific clusters of voters, or "super voters" who vote Republican in every election. The firm also identifies issues important to either men or women, or to either young people or middle-agers. The intent is to help campaigns identify broader categories of targeted messages for TV ads, radio and mass mailings.
John Morgan, president of Applied Research Coordinates, a Republican demographics firm in Fairfax, Va., says that in some ways, microtargeting is a "sham."
"Their polling size is usually too small," Morgan says. "They might only poll 1,000 or 2,000 people in a state, and that is not a big enough sample. I don't like microtargeting, but it's better than no targeting at all."
Morgan prefers a more traditional targeting method—"precinct targeting," the practice of finding specific precincts within swing states that candidates have to target in order to win that state. He's been employing this method since he worked with Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign.
"Target precincts could be 48 percent to 49 percent GOP, or they could be as low as 38 percent, depending on the strategy," he says. However, groups within those precincts often vote and act in blocks by social factors, such as their church affiliation. So Morgan says, "If their next door neighbor is a blue collar Catholic Democrat, then we need a targeted message" to sway both neighbors.
Precinct polling is an "old-school" political targeting tactic, but the concept is very similar to identifying influencers and evangelists who can help promote your product and enroll their followers in a marketer's opt-in campaigns. Is it more effective to target individuals based on household-level behavior and demographics, or to aim more broadly to convert larger groups identified by affiliations or interests?
People curious about Obama can now log on to his campaign website and—if they are logged into a Facebook account—they can see in the middle of Obama's homepage the names of two of their Facebook friends who "Like" Obama's site. On top of that personalized message is a box labeled, "Are You In?" People then have the ability to enter their email addresses and ZIP codes to receive even more personalized messages to help get out the vote or ask for more donations.
The ability for the Obama website to recognize the Facebook cookies embedded within users' computers, which allows it to list specific Facebook friends who have "Liked" his site, might be seen as a way to excite people that their friends are supporting Obama, says Patrick Donnelly, manager of corporate development for WCG, a global public relations and social media engagement firm based in San Francisco. WCG analyzes conversations on the Internet, particularly within social media, to determine the 50 most influential people who are discussing issues pertaining to their clients—whether they be political candidates or commercial marketers—whom the PR firm targets with tailored messages. It also analyzes conversations to make sure clients' messages are in sync with what people are actually talking about, Donnelly says.
So what does that reveal about the tactics being used in the election?
"If you are an undecided voter and you want to learn about how a candidate feels about some of the issues, you can go to his or her website, and if you see that X number of your Facebook friends already support that candidate, you might be more likely to read the positions—it's almost like an endorsement," Donnelly says. "Or you may be more likely to ask your friends about how they feel about that candidate, or what they think about his or her positions."
However, others may think their privacy has been violated, he says. "Some people have no problem sharing how they feel about the issues, while there are other groups who may just want to share about yoga and parenting, and they don't want anyone to know about their political beliefs," explains Donnelly. "Social media is still fairly new, and so is how comfortable people [are] about things like Facebook tracking their moves on the Internet."
Despite all that, Donnelly believes political candidates and political advocacy groups—like commercial marketers—should continue to at least get people to "Like" them, as it's a great way to get "a basic starter list of who is in their camps." It also allows the campaigns and other marketers to entice those loyal followers to download apps encouraging them to solicit the support of Facebook friends targeted by the campaign.
"It's a great way to get ambassadors for their cause—passively," says Donnelly, "which is a good way to go."
Email and Mobile Missteps
The targeted messaging enabled by the voter databases can be more effective, but that depends on how the candidates structure the messages and position the content, says Loren McDonald, vice president of industry relations at Silverpop, a digital marketing technology provider based in Atlanta.
McDonald has been analyzing emails from both the Obama and Romney campaigns and points out ways both candidates could be stepping on their own marketing toes.
For example, both campaigns are going against email marketing best practices and are not consistently putting well-recognized names in the "From" line, such as Vice President Joe Biden pitching for Obama, or McCain for Romney. Instead, some emails come from the campaigns' communication directors, while others come from a local or state party leader.
"A voter who does not recognize those names could just as easily not open the emails or just delete them," McDonald says. "They need to stick with recognized, trusted brand names."
However, both campaigns are creatively changing the content of the emails that could translate into more donations or votes, he says. For example, both are simplifying the messages so readers can more easily view them on smartphones and tablets. The campaigns are making the sentences short, formatting in single columns and quickly getting to the call to action—asking recipients to donate, volunteer or rally other people to vote for the candidate.
The candidates are also using emails for more "retailing" purposes—asking supporters to buy T-shirts or bumper stickers touting their candidacies, McDonald says.
"I think it shows some real creativity around how to commit their supporters who are really passionate to buy things to promote the campaign," he says. "It's also a more creative way to raise money, replacing messages like, 'We just need another $10 by midnight!"
McDonald predicts that microtargeting will get even more sophisticated in the 2016 presidential election. For example, candidates might send angry barbs about their opponents—i.e., "red meat"—to recipients they know are in their "bases" to get more donations, but more dispassionate explanations of their positions to independents to convince them to vote. But he says it will take further database mining to determine which voters might be most receptive to those types of emails.
Text messages from campaigns are the newest frontier in political marketing, according to Jeff Hasen, chief marketing officer at Hipcricket, a mobile marketing and advertising company in New York City. Hasen contends that Obama has an advantage over Romney in that Obama has been building his mobile database since before the 2008 election and throughout his presidency, and people haven't opted out of receiving messages via text.
However, Hasen, who has been receiving text messages from Obama since 2008, has "a problem" with the President's recent messaging.
"Within a matter of 35 days starting July 24, I received 11 text messages. And in my view, that is way too many, especially three months before the election," says Hasen. "Just because you have someone's permission to come into their house, doesn't mean you should overstay your welcome," he says. "I would rather get periodic updates that are relevant to me, and they need to provide news to me, rather than be repetitive."
Hasen speculates the recent announcements by both campaigns that supporters can donate via text message may be just a way to get them to opt-in for targeted text messaging—considering that carriers likely take a big chunk of the donation to collect the money via cell phone bills.
"As far as campaigns just using text donations to get people to opt in to message, I don't think it's a necessarily smart strategy," Hasen says. "It's a lower barrier of entry just to ask them to opt in to get campaign information than to ask for a donation."
Unlike the Daisy ad, none of these tactics is intended to be a knockout punch against the opposing candidate on Nov. 6. Instead, they leverage the power of direct marketing to drive immediate actions, collect data and build relationships with the customers (donors and supporters, as well as voters) that the parties hope to be able to leverage for years to come.
Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a Calif.-based journalist who has written forAmerican Banker, HRO Today, Benefits Selling and other business publications.