Social Data Goes to Washington

Published on Mar 18th, 2019


Just wanted to share a really terrific article written by Melanie Brown, our Director of Business Development. Melanie shared this piece - entitled “Social Data Goes to Washington: The Next Step in Big Data for Politics” - a while ago on LinkedIn. An excellent read; check it out…


Politicians, much like consumer brands, need to keep their audiences engaged. Just as targeted content marketing is a cornerstone for brands in their campaigns, it needs also to be for political campaigns. And just like for consumer brands, the big play for political campaigns is now the utilization of big data.

Big data is everywhere for consumer brands. They’re utilizing insights on their consumers to develop vertical content that will resonate with people at different stages of the funnel, so that these different audiences stay engaged with the brand over time. This data is drawn from a ton of different sources to provide a sketch of the consumer.

The same strategy can be applied to political campaigns, and the need to tap into who a voter is, and what they care about.

Target Your Way to the White House

One of the most celebrated victories for big data in politics was Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Back in 2008, using upwards of a thousand data points for every single voter, Obama’s campaign was able to identify the likelihood of any voter in the country to vote for him, and the issues that those people cared about—regardless of whether they were left-leaning or right. Following that data collection, the campaign targeted individual voters and groups of voters with specific messaging that, in the end, turned them into supporters.

In 2012, Obama doubled down on data, leveraging TV viewership data along with previously collected voter data to target his audience on television—something that’s even now just gaining traction with brand advertisers.

There were 8.5 million people who voted for Obama in 2012, and for Trump in 2016. And the political talking heads remain perplexed by it. Why would someone make that big of a swing?

The answer is data, and targeted messaging. Obama’s time and attention to any individual voter’s main concerns and top issues turned people towards him. They saw him to be a leader and a change-maker where they wanted him to be most. Coupled with the support of his consistently left-leaning base through broader messaging like “Change We Can Believe in” and “Yes We Can,” person-level targeting put Obama over the top.

Trump’s messaging in 2016 took on the same kind of simplistic tone that rallied people around the country. “Make America Great Again” allowed for voters to project their own image of greatness onto the campaign without details from the man himself. And Trump, too, took a tack of targeted messaging. He visited factories and small towns, held rallies all over the country, and created a following of smaller groups than the base Republican following. He called for people to identify themselves by some characteristic—their social class, their income, their ethnicity, their location—and then marketed the ways in which he was going to work for that group.

Not all voters are alike. Not all conservative voters are alike. Not all millennial voters are alike. Not all rural voters are alike. Political candidates all know this, and so by leveraging all of the available data out there, campaigns can put together a pretty accurate picture of each of their voters; not unlike assembling a puzzle. Social engagement data is one of the most recently found pieces of the internet-age puzzle.

What does Social Engagement Data Bring to the Table?

Social media engagement data can tell you that voters in DMA #44 (Birmingham, Alabama) are more involved with environmental causes than immigration policy. That same data will tell you that they trust Bill Moyers and drive Fords over GMs. They watch American Heroes Channel and eat cereal from Nature’s Path Organic Foods, and in 2016, those voters skewed heavily towards Donald J. Trump in the run-up to the election.

Okay, so maybe the kind of cereal people eat isn’t hugely impactful when running a successful presidential campaign, but with the upcoming election season—and gubernatorial, congressional, and senate seats up for grabs—this kind of granular social behavioral data on local voters is going to be absolutely crucial to developing political strategy in the social media age.

Apart from helping candidates to craft appropriate and effective messaging for different voters, social behavioral data will take media planning and placement up a notch. By adding social engagement data to existing voter profiles, campaigns can now have the ability to know exactly which media outlets their voters or target voters are engaging with (on and offline); the kinds of content that makes them like, comment on, or share a post; and when they’re on social media to make that kind of engagement.

Politics, at its core, is about people: about talking to people, about listening to people, and about working for people. And what better way to get to know people than through their social media behavior?

After all, haven’t we all gotten to know the current president through his?

@melanie.h.brown
Cover image via Thrive Global

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