Hey, Mr. President! Does This Mean You Can Stop Assaulting Me With Messages Now?

How fitting that the Obama campaign, one of the most sophisticated political uses of multichannel marketing ever, ended with the world record-breaking tweet. Within ten hours of responding to the networks calling the election for him by tweeting “four more years” more than 600,000 people retweeted it. According to Twitter, the activity across its network throughout election night and especially in the moments after the call at about 11:15 ET was breathtaking, and multiples higher than had ever been seen in previous political events.

According to reports, the similar Facebook post, which on both networks included an image of the President hugging the First Lady in celebration, drew 3.46 million likes and 446,044 shares. On Facebook, the level of chatter about the election Tuesday night reached a record-high index of 9.27 on a scale of 10, according to the company’s own Talk Meter metric tool.

This was the kind of watershed moment that emerging media often try to manufacture for themselves. Remember the video streaming of Farm Aid years ago that was supposed to mark the arrival of online video? Or all of the mobile programs around World Cup Soccer that were supposed to solidify the arrival of the cell phone as a medium…in 2006?

What set this explosion of mobile social media apart, of course, was that it was closer to spontaneous and user-driven than planned by the media themselves. This was a demonstration of how the act of reaching for one’s device and tweeting or posting one’s thoughts to a group had become a reflex for many of us. In my family, my wife and I were text messaging with my daughter so she could share her feeling of having voted for the first time in her life. That was the way we could approach living through it with her. Which is to say also that we have ascribed to this channel an important and intimate role -- one that ultimately we ascribed to the landline phone by the mid-twentieth century. I doubt greatly that many early users of the phone shared quiet intimacies over it across even the first decade or more of its use. This is a comfort that no doubt evolved as we gained comfort and reliance on it.

My respective in-boxes are the most grateful that this tortuous campaign is over. An interesting phenomenon happened for me in being on the receiving end of the Obama campaign’s scary smart targeting and marketing mastery. At one point over the summer and leading up to the convention, SMS messages from the campaign were outnumbering those from my family. No joke. This does say something about how little my wife or daughter bother with the old man, but even so!

Knowing something about the machinery behind the messaging for Team Obama, I understood that the contacts are synchronized across mobile, e-mail and even snail mail paths, so an action or response (or lack thereof) on one channel will trigger actions elsewhere. At some point the messaging emphasis switched from SMS to e-mail, where it just went bonkers in the closing days. Emails from Michelle and Joe had apocalyptic overtones at one point. The final SMS message from the campaign on Election Day actually asked if I would become a mobile one-shot phone bank.

“Will you make one call for President Obama? Reply CALL and we’ll send you the name & phone number of one voter in a key state who needs to hear from you.”

I was left with two impressions from letting myself become besieged by Team Obama. First, there are new kinds of “creepiness” associated with target marketing of the ulta-modern sort. Once you know that a marketing system is smart, nano-targeted and responsive to action and inaction, you start wondering why you are getting this particular message? Why was I getting these specific calls to action with “this is serious” subject lines? Mechanized as the system is, I had an increasingly human and suspicious relationship to the incoming missives.

Second, multichannel marketing has a weird amplifier effect that can be quite negative. Until I actually counted the number of SMS messages I had from Obama in the last two weeks, I thought his team was hitting me almost daily. In fact, that impression was false. While it was more frequent over the summer, the recent messaging was down to about once a week. The relentless email messages were helping to give me the impression that I was being besieged via the most sensitive channel. I am not sure what to make of that, but there you are. This focus group of one experienced multichannel marketing as overwhelming, and I tended to focus frustration on the channel I was most sensitive about.

Which suggests that we need to appreciate the potential effects of hyper-target marketing and surround-sound messaging because attitudes toward the message are likely being colored by the receiver’s own evolving relationship to each of these media. 

When I complained about the Obama messaging assault to someone close to the operation itself, he insisted they were only doing it because the numbers showed that it worked. Tuesday’s result may be partial evidence that he was right.

But like campaign speeches that always seem to talk past us and not to us, the robo-messaging done with “personalized” appeals from the candidate or his family only adds to our (or at least my) political discontent. Feigned intimacy is to my mind more hollow than explicit disinterest, because it carries with it the reminder that there is something so much more genuine and heartfelt to be had.

That contrast between the highly personal, most valued parts of our existence and the shallowness of our commercial and political culture come through on mobile devices so starkly. This is the messaging channel I use to ensure my daughter got to school on a snowy morning safe and sound. Robo-texts from pretend friends have a special ring of dishonesty here.

Right beneath the pile of text messages pleading for funds, to enter “dinner with Obama” contests and that last plea to call a swing state voter is a message from my daughter describing how she got her first thrill from democracy. The actual act of voting did not affect her much, “until watching the news and seeing how close the popular vote was and then it made me think, ‘wow, my vote helped in that in some way.’”

I hoped it helped something, honey. 

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