While Nate Silver has soaked up the post-election “triumph of the quants” spotlight, how Obama's team used data and science just may have the most lasting impact on advertising and marketing. Particularly telling was the use of data in the campaign’s television advertising strategy, which represented a shift away from tactics that political campaigns have used since the 1980s. Estimates from the Washington Post and others put the Obama campaign’s TV spend at close to $500 million. If you look at Obama the president as Obama the brand, it’s the largest scale implementation of data-denominated television advertising that any brand has undertaken to date. And it worked.
After reviewing their own data after the 2008 election, the Obama team recognized that data sitting in silos put them at a distinct disadvantage. Integrating large data sets isn’t as sexy as creating an effective creative spo,t but it’s equally important. Once voters were segmented for robo-calling and neighborhood canvassing, this data could be applied with marginal effort to targeting television advertising.
The centrality of the campaign’s own data and segmentation was key to understanding where to find the most elusive of target audiences on television. First, understand “Who?” Then, find out, “Where?” Traditional thinking in political TV campaigns was to make ad buys in news programming. But audience fragmentation, the decline in ratings of TV news over the last 20 years, and the rise of “newsy” outlets like “The Colbert Report” and “The Daily Show” have made this strategy less efficient and effective. This insight, combined with deep data on their target audience, drove campaign strategists o make buys in shows like “The Walking Dead.” An anonymous Obama campaign official quoted in a post-election Time article claimed that their television buys were “14% more efficient” than their spend in the 2008 election.
Obama’s team ran constant election simulations like the ones discussed by Nate Silver on his New York Times blog. It’s a new, quant-driven world of polling. The same is true for marketing and advertising, where measuring the past for its own sake is no longer good enough. The past is now best used to predict the future. Playing out hundreds of scenarios for multiple mix models and media plans accounting for variables such as cost per reach of target audiences in a given medium and weekly fluctuations in content consumption patterns, is fast becoming a required skill for brands and agencies. That capability will eventually be expected of media vendors serving those constituents.
It’s clear that the campaign invested in scientists, technologists and data to gain these sorts of efficiencies. But they also took advantage of one thing that required no data: the Election Day deadline. When faced with the pressure of a deadline, many marketers tend to rely on gut instincts. But Obama’s campaign bet on data over political advertising as usual. The logic and science that drove the TV advertising strategy of the Obama campaign show how brands are beginning to view television advertising differently in the post-election world.