To Save Politics, Learn From Ecommerce

It doesn’t take an ad tech executive to figure out how online advertising works. You see a pair of shoes, say, or a watch, on an ecommerce site, and if you click away without buying it, an ad for the same product pops up on whichever website you happen to visit next.

And, surprise, it seems to be targeted to meet your exact specifications, using advanced customization tools to make sure you see the item you’re most likely to purchase. The technology is far from flawless, but it does a good-enough job determining what it is we want and helping us make an educated decision.

Sadly, the same set of sophisticated tools is rarely used when advertising candidates for office. Online, it seems, electoral campaigns have only one mode: blunt.

Political ads know how to announce their candidates, but take none of the steps those selling everything else mastered years ago. All your average political ad seems to require of you is that you know its product, the candidate, exists. This is a limiting way of doing business.



What would a better approach look like?

If political campaigns took a page from the ecommerce playbook, they would realize the ultimate goal isn’t to make a sale but build a relationship. The first stage in this relationship is to verify interest, which political campaigns, using everything from geo-targeting technology to voter registries, do well.

Then, however, comes the trickier part: assessing how the relationship is evolving. Ecommerce sites do this well; they would rarely advertise another grill to a person who had just purchased one, opting instead to push a host of accessories, like tong or a meat thermometer.

Political ads can and should take this logic to heart: Once they’ve established a potential voter’s general interest, they should go beyond merely displaying the same message and engage in customization.

This would mean making sure the message the potential voter sees when clicking on the ad is targeted to meet their interests. To understand how that might work, imagine a hypothetical office-seeker, Candidate A, who is interested primarily in three issues: health care, gun control and education.

Using the same tools applied by ecommerce, Candidate A should be able to tell which of these three issues are most likely to engage the potential voter visiting his site, and present targeted display copy accordingly. Instead of being directed to a general and generic homepage, the voter would see a message that is much more likely to convert her from undecided to committed.

For ecommerce sites, this is frequently the end of the relationship. For political campaigns, it’s only the beginning.

Once a voter, enticed by a relevant and customized offering, indicates their likely to support the candidate, the campaign can give the eligible voter the tools to share a message with their contacts on social media, or even to volunteer and canvass for the candidate in a neighborhood.

Not all voters will be comfortable taking these extra steps, but online advertising, if applied properly, should be used as a platform to help engage those who do. Right now, no such effort exists. Campaigns rely on only a small group of highly committed supporters to show up on their own accord and sign up for duty.

It’s time we changed all that. As our political system grows more fractious and chaotic, ensuring growing commitment to the democratic process is a pressing national priority. Rather than rely on outrage and despair to drive us to take action, we can and must use the technologies at our disposal to encourage more people to grow more engaged with candidates, platforms and ideas.

This cost-efficient way of communications is good not only for candidates, but for voters as well.

Since the advent of ecommerce, we’ve grown accustomed to being pampered consumers. As crude as it may sound, taking the same approach to our political process may be precisely the change we need. If politics continue to come to our attention through the alarmist filters of non-stop news alerts and around-the-clock cable talk shows, we’re likely to grow disinterested.

Conversely, if they approach us with the same canny and caring attitude our marketers have long crafted into an art form, we may see elections in a whole new light.

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