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How political communications is changing

Posted by Chad O'Connor  November 5, 2013 11:00 AM

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It’s finally over. Win or lose, the candidates and the voters alike are probably relieved. Months ago, candidates and their staffs crafted plans to meet the three basic requirements of a campaign: raising money, developing a broad and effective communications strategy and conducting a robust get-out the-vote effort. How campaigns meet these requirements has changed radically over the past decade as new tools and techniques have become available.

Today, campaigns have two approaches to communications: inbound and outbound. Inbound – which includes cable TV, radio, keyword advertising and social media – is used to reach voters that are already aligned with a candidate or cause. They’re referred to as inbound because the voters they reach have actively sought out the candidate’s message on their own. Inbound communications is a popular and necessary investment for campaigns because it is how they engage the base.

Outbound, on the other hand – which includes phone banks, email and online advertising – is designed to reach a much broader audience. According to Nielson 79 percent of the US population uses the Internet and an IPSOS survey found 85 percent are on email. These people can all be reached using outbound communication. As a result, outbound is rapidly becoming the primary vehicle for reaching the undecided voters needed to win an election.

In the past candidates were able to focus their advertising on the three major television networks but now that audience is dispersed across interest-specific cable stations. Again according to Nielson, the three network newscasts only reach 16 percent of viewers on a nightly basis, CNN 16 percent, MSNBC 11 percent and Fox News 21 percent. While cable channels have proven to be effective in energizing a candidate’s base, it’s unlikely that an undecided voter is going to be swayed by partisan channels such as MSNBC or Fox News.
In 2008 many campaigns latched on to online advertising as a new and better way to reach and engage voters. Social media – Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – quickly became mainstays in politics because they were easy to implement, incredibly effective at energizing and organizing supporters and could be used for a fraction of the cost of television. Politicians had discovered inbound digital communications and they liked it.

During the 2012 election cycle, the Obama campaign took digital to a new level by using an outbound approach. Rather than simply using Facebook and Twitter to connect with its base, the campaign used data mining, predictive modeling and analytics to develop and deliver hundreds of custom messages, each with language and a call-to-action tailored to a specific audiences. Email and online advertising became the tools that brought those $3.00 donation requests and delivered millions of dollars to the campaign. For Obama 2012, it was not TV or even social media, but the application of outbound tactics in email and online advertising that broadened the base and made the difference in fund raising and getting out the vote.

In 2013 data-driven outbound political advertising still remains a relatively new and emerging tactic. However, thanks to data mining and enhanced targeting precision, in the very near future outbound marketing will play a greater role for both candidates and advocacy groups. For issues communication, fund raising or getting out the vote, outbound approaches may eventually become a core element in most campaigns.

“Big data” and advanced analytics make it possible for campaigns to understand their base and use that understanding to identify and reach undecided voters likely to be sympathetic to the cause. This will allow campaigns to reach more voters at a dramatically lower cost than direct mail, phone banks, cable television or any other available tactic.

In some ways political advertising is returning to its outbound roots. After voters abandoned traditional broadcast, and social media was leveraged to reach people who already agreed with a candidate – a next generation of political advertising is being born. We’ll increasingly be introduced to candidates and causes that will likely hold our attention, receive our support and get our vote – even if we haven’t heard of them before.

Ray Kingman is CEO of Andover, MA based Semcasting, an innovator in data development and audience targeting for both online and offline marketing.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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