All Iceberg: The Unseen Digital Campaign That Just Swung Australia’s Election

The media saw ‘tip’ while the voters got ‘iceberg’.

There’s an abundance of old political campaigning orthodoxies being thrown out the window in 2016: Trump in the US has set fire to the handbook with spectacular results; Brexit in the UK embarrassed those who placed their faith in opinion polls and facts.

And in Australia last month, a stunned commentariat were left scratching their heads when what should have been a shoo-in for the ruling conservative party left them staring down minority government.

“Calls for Liberal Party to reveal internal polling that did not identify voters turning on Coalition” — Sydney Morning Herald, 7 July 2016

The media didn’t see it coming, nor did the conservative Liberal Government. But a small unit within the opposition Labor Party campaign team were not surprised. They’d been quietly conducting millions of online conversations with voters well below the radar of the usual election monitoring channels.

This is the future of elections. The orthodoxy in Australian campaigns, like many western parliamentary democracies, goes a little something like this: a sample of swing voters are telephoned, often on landlines, and surveyed as to their opinions and voting intentions. A smaller sample still are invited to participate in focus groups where they discuss in front of strangers their thoughts on the parties, issues, and often shown some samples of campaign advertising. The results of these research efforts are distilled into one ‘lowest common denominator’ message designed to appeal to the broadest audience, and broadcast to the masses.

It was far from perfect in terms of accurate research, but for a long time it was the best we had.

Like it or not, in 2016, advertisers are blessed with much more useful personal information in order to target their products and messages much more accurately. Yet political parties have been slow to adapt their approach — and the media even slower to judge them for it.

The digital unit within the Labor Party campaign (working with Corelab and Harris Partners) necessarily had to keep their campaign hidden from public view: they were testing a beta social media targeting tool they didn’t want to fall into the hands of the conservatives, which allowed them to match the electorate roll to Facebook and target much more effectively — a global first for election campaigns anywhere.

The media saw ‘tip’ — a topline message replicated across all platforms — while the voters got ‘iceberg’: tailored content, rigorously tested and optimized based on a real-time feedback loop.

Digital targeting of Labor voters who were not enrolled saw >1% increase in number of Labor voters in key seats

At any one time, there were upwards of 350 different pieces of content in the field as a result of the insights generated for each specific audience. Based on excellent integration of field data, a pool of the two million most persuadable voters in the most marginal electorates were identified online, and each individual allocated a top issue of most interest.

In other words, whereas traditional political advertising research could divine that women under 35 living in a certain area mostly care about cost of living and spray that market with a cost of living message, the Labor Party campaign could target each individual in that same area with a different message about what that individual cares about.

The results were astounding. Each persuadable voter was served 45 pieces of content over the course of the 8 week campaign that took them on a persuasion journey. Forty-eight of the top fifty target seats (96%) where voters were taken through this online journey saw swings towards Labor, some as large as 13%.

Research and messaging were turned on their head. While the campaign heads and media debated whether the campaign suggesting the government would privatize the national health insurer had become a net negative or a positive, the digital team were able to pinpoint the exact moment sentiment turned on the issue: down to the hour.

Older voters saw this popular ex-Prime Minister, while younger voters saw a 24 year old woman telling her story.

In Australia’s most marginal seat, in the outer suburbs of Sydney — long treated by the major parties as a redneck wonderland where only dog-whistle racism and blue-collar jobs messages can cut through — all persuadable women saw an article published on a mum’s blog (about the Labor candidate’s day in the life as a single mum on the campaign trail) an average of 5 times. While the figures aren’t available yet to see the female voter swings, overall the seat swung over 4% to Labor and changed hands.

A traditional campaign would have shied away from using third party material from a source such as a mum’s blog, but this campaign Labor realized its role as publisher. Voters are not reading news sources, they are consumers of social content. Blunt billboard messages don’t resonate anymore like they used to — and certainly not in web real estate.

“The problem is the punters are spin-savvy now. They get all the tricks. Too much West Wing and Secret City.” — John Connolly, PR expert, Crikey 16 June 2016

Parties should instead be seeing themselves in the role of curator within people’s newsfeed. Labor’s broadcast campaign shied away from talking about economic management, for example, as the research showed it was a weakness. But for white collar males in inner urban areas this was the only issue they would engage with. They were highly skeptical of party content on economic issues, but engaged positively with third party articles suggesting Labor was in fact a better economic manager.

Why then, would parties insist on the tired old ‘believe us when we tell you’ mantra? There is a way to get your message to these highly targeted audiences, through more credible messengers.

So while a head-scratching media was furiously debating the impact of what they saw as an election fought around one health-policy scare campaign, in reality they saw only ‘tip’.

The unseen iceberg was a modern version of a mass scale direct voter-contact campaign, waged for the first time with the ability to target individual Facebook users instead of the firehose of broadcast advertising spraying demographic groupings. If conversations win elections, then the 100 million unseen online conversations driven by the Labor digital team in the recent Australian election are still echoing throughout the new Parliament.