Obama Victory's Debt to Digital Marketing

5 minute read
Dan Berthiaume avatar

At its core, politics is essentially marketing. Candidates deliver competing messages that combine their political philosophies, personal qualities and professional and governmental experience into a brand that must persuade consumers to perform a transaction at the voting booth.

Marketing is increasingly becoming a digital operation, and the willingness of the Barack Obama campaign to recognize and respond to this fact in a big way was one (but not the only) important factor in Obama securing re-election earlier this month.

Obama received a lot of credit in 2008 for running what was at the time the most sophisticated online and data-driven campaign ever, and this year his campaign team surpassed what they accomplished in 2008 by a wide margin.

CMSWire thought it would be interesting and instructive to review coverage from some technology media outlets about exactly how the Obama campaign used digital marketing tools and techniques such as microtargeting, persuasion targeting, connecting and targeting social profiles and predictive analytics to get the right messages to the right people at the right times in the right places to produce the right votes (at least from the perspective of the Obama campaign).

Microtargeting Boosts Negative Ads, Early Voting 

As described in a Jack Myers Media Business Report article, the Obama team “established a huge analytics group that comprised of behavioral scientists, data technologists and mathematicians” to perform microtargeting.

While using sophisticated online data analysis to refine messaging for highly specific voter groups has been going on since at least the successful 2000 Bush presidential campaign, Jack Myers Media Business Report credits the Obama team for building individual voter profiles that drilled as deep as magazine subscriptions.

The Obama team then used these profiles to arm door-to-door canvassers with targeted profiles of individual voters they were visiting (delivered via mobile device), as well as instant transcripts that could be quickly altered based on real-time feedback from canvassers. Microtargeting data was also used in direct mail and email strategies, and even helped the Obama campaign identify highly “persuadable” voter groups that would be responsive to negative TV ads (such as viewers of the TVLand cable network).

In terms of driving early voting, the Obama team went as far as analyzing the one million Facebook users who downloaded the Obama app, determining who had friends in swing states with demographics that likely made them pro-Obama, and asked those users to send their selected friends messages reminding them to vote early. A large early vote turnout for Obama has been largely credited as a key in his victory. 

Persuasion Never Sleeps

The Wall Street Journal provided a deeper look at the “persuasion army” using digital communication technologies to remind friends in key demographics that they should vote for Obama. Rather than simply targeting select voters with automated mass messaging, the Obama campaign took advantage of digital marketing’s ability to make personalized appeals on a mass scale.

“The Obama ‘turnout machine’ wasn't faceless,” stated the Journal. “It was real people living full-time, some much of the past four years, in battleground states such as Ohio, Iowa and Virginia. They attended full-time to targeted racial, ethnic and labor constituencies.” For example, the article quotes an anonymous voter with an Asian surname who said months before the election he was “inundated” with targeted emails from liberal Asian groups reminding him that Obama is “better for minorities.”

Learning Opportunities

Social Success Dashboard

One social media tool the Obama campaign used to obtain extremely detailed data on supporters was an organizing platform called Dashboard. As explained in a Mother Jones article, every time voters who used Dashboard did something like sign a petition for a particular cause, it was tracked. In addition, Dashboard users were encouraged to write short essays on what the Obama campaign meant to them, which were then analyzed for keywords indicating specific interests.

As a result of Dashboard and other social media analysis tools, the Obama campaign reportedly created as many as 11 versions of targeted campaign emails to reflect specifc preferences of different voter groups. These efforts, of course, were combined with the aforementioned requests of Facebook users to send messages to friends in swing states and simple but effective tactics such as recruiting voters who signed up for local pro-Obama Facebook groups to perform door-to-door canvassing. 

Obama Plays Moneyball

Baseball has been using predictive analytics for years as a result of a successful system called “Moneyball” created by former Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane. On Election Day, Computerworld ran a feature by Robert L. Mitchell comparing Obama’s “all-in” dedication to predictive analytics with Moneyball.

“Analytics permeates every aspect of the Obama campaign, right down to the auto-dialer get-out-the-vote programs that decide who to call and give volunteers a script with a message designed to have the highest probability of moving each micro-targeted segment of voters to action,” stated the article.

Predictive analytics helped the campaign determine how much money to request from targeted donors based on prior donation history and move past inaccurate survey results to determine how voters actually felt based on individual behavior.

The Romney campaign’s digital marketing efforts have been widely disparaged as far inferior to those of the Obama campaign. While the Democrats may still enjoy a digital edge in 2016 as undoubtedly the next Democratic president will inherit the Obama operation, the Republicans will surely have a much more sophisticated digital marketing system of their own in place by then. Someday, the Republicans will inevitably catch up to (or possibly surpass) the Democrats, and politics will become a much more virtual enterprise.

Image courtesy of Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com