Part 1: All Politics is Social

I read a piece by Graham Vyse yesterday discussing a “core message” for the Democratic Party going into the 2018 midterm elections. He highlights a lot of the things I’ve spent the last few months thinking about; is it necessary to have a central, unifying message? Is it better to simply have a vision? Can the party win by simply pointing fingers at the disaster in the White House? These are all valid and important questions for the party going into the new election cycle. From a campaign perspective, however, the question should be simplified: how are we going to get the message out?

The most powerful tool in any campaign’s kit in the next 18 months is going to be social media. Facebook provides advertisers with ad targeting based on a nearly limitless number of behavioral actions. As Facebook expands its reach to in-app and display, expect this to continue for the foreseeable future. Google is in the game as well, but Facebook is currently the biggest, most cost-effective option for getting your message in front of eyeballs. It also allows campaigns and candidates to do something they’ve never had the ability to do before; tailor their message to the audience based on real-time data.

Anyone who’s played around in the Facebook ad manager has seen their Detailed Targeting; seemingly endless options based on what Facebook assures you is hard data on behaviors, demographics, and interests. With so many variables, it’d be hard not to reach the exact audience you want. As with most things digital, options can be a double edged sword; you can very quickly turn your advertising into a feedback loop by trying to characterize your audience based on what you personally feel is ideal. Think back on 2016 and how confident the Clinton campaign was in their message and their polling data. It left them blind in multiple key demographics, costing them the election. Facebook offers you a wealth of statistics at your fingertips and feedback in near real-time. The lesson for campaigns of the future is let the data shape your message, and not the other way around.

The spectacular rise and fall of Cambridge Analytica illustrates the public and the media’s need to believe that complex algorithms and Big Data can crack the code on how to do political advertising effectively. This is analogous to the rise of “programmatic” buying in the display advertising world. Somewhere in the process a human being needs to take a look at the data and decide what it’s saying. The boring truth is that political campaigning is similar to any other form of advertising; you need to test many messages, refine the message, appeal to emotion, and create a call to action.

Facebook is the perfect tool for this sort of advertising because you have what amounts to a clean room — you know exactly where your ads will be appearing if you target the news feed, and exactly what they will look like to all potential viewers. Their ad manager allows you to iterate quickly and run reports in nearly real time on the performance of messaging. With creative use of audience and demographic data, campaigns can reach the people they want with the messages they feel will be most effective, with pinpoint precision.

On top of all this, Facebook is inexpensive when compared to traditional advertising. Testing messaging and coming up with targeted creative is now a matter of spending ten or fifty or one hundred dollars, instead of tens of thousands. Rather than getting lost in the weeds ensuring that ads only run in highly specific areas, or that mailers only end up in receptive mailboxes, you can test a message to everyone and use the data to shape your narrative. Social media, when used correctly, is direct democracy. Every dollar has equal rights on the platform.

Local and state candidates have their work cut out for them, and have easy access to the most powerful messaging tool available. Campaigns need to work with marketers and, most importantly, let the data tailor their messages. Different groups will always want different things; we finally have a way to speak to all of them, uniquely, at the same time. Let’s not waste this opportunity.

In future posts I’ll talk more about creating and testing a message, understanding demographics in advertising, and creating an effective call to action.

Read Part 2 here.

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