Two weeks before Scott Walker announced his presidential bid, he set up a Snapchat account so followers could get a behind-the-scenes look at the Wisconsin governor grilling brats and singing karaoke. When Hillary Rodham Clinton held her first major campaign rally of the cycle on Roosevelt Island in New York, she live-streamed it on Periscope so supporters could tune in from afar.
As candidates utilize the latest social media platforms ahead of the 2016 elections to expand their potential reach with voters, political and technology experts say they should be investing the most in the older guard (relatively speaking) technologies, led by email and established giants such as Facebook, Twitter and Google Ads. For congressional candidates with smaller budgets and shorter timelines than their presidential counterparts , experts say innovations in targeting and increased efficiency for turning eyeballs into donors, such as one-click donations, are far more important than maintaining an active Vine or Instagram account.
“The checkbox approach to being on every platform is not an effective way to create a cohesive digital strategy,” said Mike Conlow, technical director at Blue State Digital and former deputy chief technology officer to President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign. “The fewer resources a campaign has, the more realistic it has to be about the size of its digital strategy.”
The metaphor multiple strategists used to describe an effective digital strategy is "a funnel" — a campaign’s goal should be to reach out to as many people as possible and then draw them in to support the candidate, financially and otherwise.
For fundraising, experts said email is still king — though social-media platforms may prove effective at expanding campaign outreach.
"The way to voters' hearts may be through Instagram or Facebook, and all of those things are going to provide a wider funnel for which to get voters through, but the road to donating still goes straight through the inbox," said Nick Schaper, the president and CEO of Engage and former director of digital media for Speaker John A. Boehner.
Statewide and national campaigns often have more money to test the waters of newer and relatively unproven technologies. On the other end of the spectrum, experts advised candidates with constrained resources to double down on more established platforms, which have huge audiences and allow for more effective targeting and leveraging supporters’ networks.
"It definitely is a focus on basics and not being distracted by those new platforms and things that are not proven,” said Carl Sceusa, chief technology officer at IMGE and a former deputy digital director at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “If you can actually get the friend to recruit other friends, that's a big part of what this cycle is going to be.”
Sceusa also emphasized that the innovations in campaign technology headed into 2016 are behind the scenes improvements in “super targeting” — better use of data, connecting across platforms and being able to act on data in real time to target individuals. Or to put it concisely, "customizing on an individual basis in real time."
Stephen Smith, who leads the digital strategy team at Purple Strategies and ran online communications for Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign, said there’s been a transition from targeting voter demographic groups to targeting individual voters with tailored messages. He predicted campaigns would spend most of their dollars on the larger established platforms.
“You need to have both the size of a Facebook or Google, and Twitter less so, and the kind of robustness of the data set,” Smith said. “It’s about understanding your audience and using all the data and technology at your disposal to reach them, and only them, as frequently and authentically as possible.”
Smith added that for congressional candidates, the rapid rise in mobile phone usage combined with innovations in targeting will be especially helpful in allowing them to zero in on voters in their district.
“There's a lot of fascinating new things that don't look new,” Smith added.
Among innovations leading up to 2016, Jenna Golden, Twitter’s head of political advertising, detailed a number of new options for political ad buyers, including ads targeted at users who engage with specific keywords or fit into any of more than 350 Twitter-derived interest categories. Golden also said Twitter’s own geo-targeting is now more precise and can target individual ZIP codes.
“They salivate over the targeting,” Golden said.
Amid the increased use of data, digital strategists said having an authentic digital presence is more important than ever as a way to cut through the noise and connect with potential supporters. And while those same strategists say the biggest investments and most important changes for the 2016 cycle will be on established platforms, that hasn’t stopped others who think they have found the next big thing at the nexus of the digital and the political.
Matt Mahan, CEO of civic engagement startup Brigade, said the direct-marketing, top-down approach that currently dominates the political campaign landscape has led to low levels of satisfaction and participation, and that emerging social and mobile technologies have been much more effective at spurring deep engagement.
“You can’t imagine this model of campaigning is where it’ll be in, say, 10 to 12 years,” Brigade President James Windon added. “The hopeful next place is something that’s social, that's interactive.”
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