Corporate marketers have known for a long time that what you eat, what kind of house you live in, and what kind of car you drive says a lot about how you shop. Now, political campaigns are using that same information to find out how you vote.Data has always been important in politics. Voter registration, election turnout, and census information have helped campaigns identify where their message might resonate.
The Internet has opened up vast new amounts of data that can help candidates and campaigns find potential supporters and their political behaviours and preferences. Political strategists are tapping into that data using a new technique known as “microtargeting,” which combines traditional voter outreach with advanced corporate marketing strategies and customer relations management technology to deliver an individually tailored message to voters.
“Political microtargeting is starting to become a lot more like traditional marketing that they’ve been doing for years in the corporate world,” Republican digital media strategist Todd Van Etten told Business Insider. “Stuff that’s been used in the corporate space online for a long time is now moving over to politics.”
Van Etten, a former new media director at the Republican National Committee, runs the D.C. office of CrowdVerb, a Seattle-based microtargeting startup that counts Karl Rove’s American Crossroads among its clients. The firm, he said, is about finding out “what is the crowd doing and what can the crowd do for you.”
According to Van Etten, microtargeting goes beyond finding potential supporters. Information shared online can also help campaigns identify what message those people will respond to, how they like to be contacted, and what tasks they might be willing to do for the campaign.
The vast potential of microtargeting was first realised by Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, which built what is widely considered to be the most efficient and extensive online organisation ever seen in presidential politics.
CrowdVerb, the brainchild of three RNC veterans, was founded to help Republicans regain the upper hand in online campaigning this time around.
“We have seen the way data was used, but more importantly, the way data was not used,” Van Etten said. “A lot of data was amassed in 2008, but there weren’t enough resources put toward using that data. Now, over the past four years, we’ve gone through the data, and have been able to develop tools that are much more efficient about taking that data and turning it into actionable campaigns.”
Although political strategists are secretive about the details, there is evidence that Republicans have already making inroads in the digital campaign realm. The rise of the Tea Party, for example, was largely the result of effective microtargeting that helped identify Tea Party supporters.
“Microtargeting is how we’ve been so successful,” Tea Party organiser Dustin Stockton told Business Insider. “As far as sustainability, there is no way they could have kept up that momentum and energy without microtargeting.”
Stockton, the chief strategist for The TeaParty.net, said that the group has used issue-based microtargeting to find out which issues are important to individual Tea Party supporters.
“Once you have an email address, you have the ability to start compiling data on them — you can track which emails were opened, what subject lines worked, what specific [fundraising] asks they clicked on,” Stockton explained. “The goal is to start sending nearly custom-messages so that we are only sending people stuff that they have a passion about.”
While the Tea Party has focused on targeting Republican audiences, CrowdVerb concentrates on finding more moderate voters that might respond to a conservative message, Van Etten said. Using data from social media, the firm is focused on identifying independent voters that might be overlooked by traditional Republican voter targeting.
“There is a big potential [for Republicans] to pick up a lot of voters who were excited about Barack Obama and got involved in the political space because of him, but who now might not be happy with him,” Van Etten told BI. “Those are the kind of people who we can deliver a message to.”
But it is unclear if Republican efforts will be enough to compete with Obama’s online machine. The campaign has been perfecting its online strategies for four years, and seems determined not to lose its edge in 2012. And for now, it looks like the President is winning the digital war with all of the Republican candidates, including presumptive nominee Mitt Romney.
“I am not convinced that the Mitt Romney campaign is quite as robust as they would have you believe,” another former RNC new media official, who didn’t want to be identified criticising the Romney new media ops, told Business Insider. “The way the Obama guys set up their infrastructure from the very beginning was to pull in a lot of data and I think they will use it very effectively. I’m not sure that Romney will be able to compete with that.”
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