Winning The Election, A Million Impressions At A Time

The tipping point of any technology surely must arrive when a mass audience is motivated by technology-driven behaviors that it does not even recognize. As digital marketers, we must pause and reflect on the recent U.S. presidential election and realize the victory that it represents for us. I am not speaking so much of the outcome, President Obama’s re-election, but of the data-driven campaign that he and his team executed so brilliantly.

While 2012 was championed as the first “Social Media Election,” it rightly should be called the first “Big Data Election,” as the decisions that were made on Nov. 6 at voting booths and ballot boxes were preceded by micro-targeted, multidimensional decisions on a millisecond-by-millisecond basis countless times over the past year.

The Obama campaign played by the rules of next-generation mobile marketers in such a deft way that they seamlessly melded traditional text-based communication with signifiers. Even the campaign theme, “Forward,” could have been signified by a sideways triangle “forward” button. If the Clinton ’92 campaign theme was “It’s the Economy, Stupid!,” the Obama ’12 campaign theme could have been “It’s the Data, Stupid!”



Why do we see this campaign as a watershed moment for our industry? Well, for starters, it was the first mobile Web-driven campaign of its kind (keep in mind that the iTunes App Store did not open until August, 2008). This in and of itself made for a new campaign reality: Customers (voter) have great power, and they are communicating large amounts of data on the go. Also, the Obama team leveraged so much data from the original 2008 campaign that it could, from the start, introduce real-time capabilities in marketing and in field reporting that were unprecedented. Without being disruptive, they let the data and the math and the ultimate result tell the story. That led the advertiser, in this case the Obama team, to multiple avenues for delivering messages on multiple platforms, and extending requests on the front end that would yield rich data on the back end.

The Obama team’s dashboard product also enabled real-time decision-making on the part of the campaign’s extended volunteers, creating a user-generated tool for contacting potential voters, and targeting Facebook friends in swing states, for example. Non-intrusive, elegant, and targeted to the geographic millimeter and timed to the millisecond – that is how marketers need to make their data work for them going forward. This kind of real-time learning (RTL) and real-time bidding (RTB) is the new standard, almost a second-generation, for the digital media industry.

Conversely, the Romney campaign could have taken greater advantage of RTL and RTB implementations, particularly in regard to targeting voters in swing states. Using older predictive modeling technologies, modern presidential campaigns cannot keep up with the flood of data in today’s world. That world needs to be addressed where it lives, and not with a monolithic approach. And, yet, that is what the Romney team effectively did -- thet attempted to motivate voters through traditional TV advertising. Digital appeared to be an afterthought (note that the campaign’s vaunted Project ORCA system was clearly a last-minute Get Out the Vote, or GOTV, tool, and not part of a systematic analytical data approach), and while this may represent the perceived demographics of a GOP audience, it is clearly not indicative of the real-time world in which we live, which can be more effectively addressed by mobile marketing.

It's telling to note that the first Obama campaign got its unofficial start in 2006 with great insight from the mobile industry (former CTIA head Tom Wheeler helped shape some of the campaign’s early thinking regarding mobile), particularly in intelligent use of SMS marketing. The 2012 campaign leveraged mobile, social media, advertising, apps, and data-driven decision targeting in a truly ROI-driven way. Rather than carpet-bombing audiences, the quality of the data that drove micro-targeted marketing was equally rewarded with highly qualitative data on the receiving end.

Essentially, the Obama team created its own data index for messaging and media placements, built on an Amazon Web Services (AWS) platform that could accommodate the campaign’s ever-growing mobile data archive. Using simulations in a manner more common to meteorologists or pharmacologists, the Obama campaign is the new paradigm for data-driven marketing, in that it looks at a massive data set – the U.S. population, not merely the electorate itself – and treats the data as sacrosanct, yet not static.

The data, therefore, becomes the customer. And, in an earlier and more gentle marketing universe, we used to say that the “customer is always right.” Listen to your data, and it will help you tell your story -- and, maybe, win a presidential campaign.

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