Election Over, Political Campaigns Reveal Their Bags of Tricks

What the Data-Fueled Race to Pennsylvania Ave. Can Teach Marketers on Madison Ave.

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Successful political campaigns, Barack Obama's among them, put real-time data to use rapidly and aggressively. Corporate brands could learn a thing or two, whether it's how data can incite speedier decisions, or the ways offline info can benefit online messaging.

"Political campaigns use real-time insights and data to make creative decisions on the fly. Everything is tested and decisions are made almost instantaneously," said Michael Bassik, CEO of Proof Integrated Communications, a WPP-owned agency serving political and corporate clients.

During the campaign, the president tweeted: 'This seat's taken.'
During the campaign, the president tweeted: 'This seat's taken.'

The Obama campaign famously built the largest data team in political history to integrate data gleaned via social media and the web with offline data, such as shopping information and voter-file data. As early as July of 2011, predictive-modeling and data-mining analysts were in demand for the in-house analytics department in Chicago.

Key to that team's success, wrote Michael Scherer in Time , was this "single massive system that could merge the information collected from pollsters, fundraisers, field workers and consumer databases as well as social-media and mobile contacts with the main Democratic voter files in the swing states." That data fed into many strategies, from helping media buyers find unconventional -- and thus, less expensive -- TV buys (FX's "Sons of Anarchy" was one), to figuring out which celebrity messages were most likely to get high-value fundraisers to open their wallets.

Obama's team tapped social data for get-out-the-vote efforts, and it sought to build its list of Facebook supporters using clever, if simple, data-driven apps. In one case, the Obama camp suggested Facebook users find out how many others with their same first names had voted. If a curious user followed the link and allowed it to connect to his Facebook account, the Obama campaign then asked the user to contact a list of friends in swing states to deliver get-out-the-vote messages.

The Romney team, too, looked to harness unwieldy data sets and close the gap by tapping a platform from data-management company Lotame to house all of its information. The platform stored and filtered a variety of data it then used to target online ads to Hispanic moms or likely GOP voters who would be difficult to reach on TV.

"Having a standardized data-management platform created efficiencies that far outweigh their cost," said Mitt Romney's digital director, Zac Moffatt. "It's the only way we achieved some level of parity," he said.

Both parties used offline data from publicly available voter files to segment voter groups and better target online messaging to them. The practice certainly was not new for 2012, though it did become more pervasive this time around, said Mr. Bassik.

For political campaigns, offline data often flows in from field volunteers conducting door-to-door canvassing. Democrat Elizabeth Warren, who won the Senate race in Massachusetts, used offline data gathered by volunteers to get the right messages out to potential supporters online.

"We were able to make online ad-buying decisions based on what [volunteers] would see in the field," said Mark Skidmore, partner and chief strategist of Bully Pulpit Interactive, which worked on the Warren campaign. Information about supporters, including demographic and ZIP code data, informed online targeting, he said.

It's a lesson that could apply to any local marketer with a bricks-and-mortar presence. "I could actually see retail stores using product inventory data they might have to target their ad units," Mr. Skidmore said.

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