How the soapbox went digital.
Ethics change with technology. So says sci-fi author Larry Niven. It's quite a thought in these uncertain times, when politicians' credibility as harbingers of ethics hinges on their canny use – or shocking abuse – of technology. The scrutiny they are under is enabled by technology, too. Statesman makes moral blunder. Voters film it and post on youtube. Statesman tweets his apology. Voters tweet their disapproval back. It's a sophisticated game of ethics Pong.
Back when actual Pong was at the digital cutting edge, the marriage of modern technology and politics was very much in its honeymoon period. The televised debates between presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon are widely regarded as a watershed, the point at which public perception of politicians was based on the moving image, rather than the printed word.
But while television revolutionized personality politics, very little changed in the way technology was used to canvass opinion or harvest votes. Right up until Obama's 2008 nomination, the political campaign trail was paved with three-by-five index cards and soundtracked by the analogue click of phone banks calling potential voters. An index card would be created with the voter's details. A code denoting the voter's preferred candidate (or the direction they were leaning toward) would be added. Campaign organizers would be handed shoeboxes filled with cards that had been coded, and would call voters to rally support.
The index card system used in field organization seems so quaint now, but it engaged voters in the electoral system – and that's exactly what desktop and mobile marketing strategies are doing in the 21st Century. Now, if anything's the dinosaur it's television, a medium barely touched on by the first Obama campaign. It was even said by some commentators that Hillary Clinton acceded her Democratic nomination because she ran an old-fashioned campaign.
By contrast, Obama raised half a billion dollars in campaign funds online, and gathered vital data on the electorate that allowed him to appeal directly to them. The president's team was young enough and canny enough to see the way the tide was turning. A combination of social media, YouTube, Twitter, mobile advertising and traditional forms of marketing helped the campaign deliver a more personalized message to voters.
Some of the innovations developed and exploited by the Democratic presidential campaign were – and remain – at the forefront of mobile technology. A hyperlocal targeting app created specifically for Obama linked a google map to the neighbourhood in which campaign volunteers were working. Blue flags appeared on the map with targeted scripts that could be used to talk directly to voters about the issues affecting them. Mobile payments were also used to great effect, allowing supporters to contribute dollars via text message.
The Romney campaign tried similar strategies. One idea was a VP app that promised to inform supporters of the vice president pick before anyone else. In the end, traditional news media beat them to the punch. After the Obama victory, one Romney staffer said dejectedly: “We weren't even running the same race.”
After the Republican's disastrous attempts to flirt with new technologies in 2012, it's unlikely the GOP adopt anything other than a full-blown mobile marketing strategy for 2016. After all, an estimated 1.2 trillion text messages will be sent this year, and almost every single American voter will have received at least one of them.
The beauty of text messaging for political campaigns is that those who choose to receive SMS broadcasts have granted permission by opting-in. This is usually done by texting a keyword to a short code or local phone number. Why is opting-in so good? It protects you from accusations of spamming, as everyone on your list has requested you contact them by text. This way, you know that everything you send is heading towards someone who wants the information. Add to that the fact that more than nine out of ten texts are opened and read, and you have a pretty effective platform.
Political campaign managers are using text messaging in all sorts of innovative ways:
- Personally connecting with voters
- Running polls and surveys
- Announcing debates and party events, conferences and meetings
- Getting feedback on hot-button policy proposals
These dramatic changes in the political landscape are profound. As Larry Niven pointed out, the technology itself has an impact on the way people think. It might be used to manipulate people. It might be used to empower them (as with the much-lauded application of Twitter during the Arab Spring). Either way, it's here to stay, and the Obama 2012 campaign is a perfect model of how to conduct a mobile marketing campaign that works. You should try it some time.