10 Key Insights from CampaignTech

I have recently returned from Campaigns and Elections’ Annual CampaignTech conference – attended by nearly 450 practitioners from across the country and around the world.  What were the hot topics?  Where was there consensus and disagreement?  Here are what I believe are the Top 10 Key Insights after 48 hours of a deep dive into digital campaigning.

1. The Digital Gap

Obama beat Romney in 2012 and Obama’s tech advantage was a big reason why.  Clinton had better tech than Trump in 2016, but Trump simply had a better message.  How is 2020 looking so far?  At this point, there is growing bi-partisan consensus that Trump and the GOP are beating the Democrats when it comes to digital and technological investment – and output.  The GOP is spending much more money and they are more effectively activating people online, through social networks, and through peer to peer texting.

2. Don’t Count Trump Out

Yes, I know, I am writing this on the heels of the release of the Mueller report, but Democrats and Republicans alike say counting out Trump is a very bad idea – there is at least a 50% chance he gets reelected and that number may be growing.  Trump is raising money, Democrats are becoming more divided as the primary gets underway, and Trump is putting his money to work – his team today has at least 40 full time campaign staff.

3. Digital is Different – Produce Accordingly!

Photocopying your TV script and running the same ad digitally is yesterday’s game.  Digital is different and production need to be digital specific.  Don’t confuse the two channels.

4. Early Spending = High ROI

Too few candidates try and do what Clinton did early in 1996 – define the race / your opponent before the other side can.  Money should be spent early because late money is having a harder and harder time breaking through – it just doesn’t have the same impact.  The conventional wisdom is that voters are “not paying attention” early on isn’t supported by the data.  Communicating early allows you to build your public profile before the other side engages and early money has a higher ROI since it’s often cheaper to purchase digital (or TV) inventory, and often the quality of the inventory is much higher.  With a flood of money into politics, late money just isn’t moving the needle anymore.

5. Test, Experiment, and Optimize.  And Then Do It Again.

The rise of the Analyst Institute on the Democratic side, with more than 6,000 members is an indication that the “set it and forget it” mentality is no longer the way to run a race.  Unless you are producing at least a dozen different digital ads to run, you are not doing justice to the campaign you are running.  Test, experiment, and optimize – and keep doing it.

6. The Twitterverse is NOT the American Electorate

The recent New York Times analysis about who makes up those on Twitter – and those doing the most tweeting – shows that group is hardly representative of America or either political party.  It simply represents those who are most vocal – similar to the analog “Congressional Mail Bag” test – those who are most vocal are most likely to write their Member of Congress about an issue they care about – hardly a representative view.

7. Build the Foundation: Invest in Your Data

Politics – whichever side of the aisle you are on – is an emotionally gripping space to work in.  It is easy to get hooked on the arguments, the messaging, and the tension.  But so much of politics is about the basics – and there is no better example than the campaign database.  How many campaigns overlook their database and thus cannot send text messages to all their supporters?  How many have incomplete or outdated email lists?  Don’t overlook your database.

8. Targeting On Steroids

While society continues to grapple with the so called tech-lash, one of the significant marketing contributions of the Big Data era is the ability to segment and finely pinpoint highly local and finely tuned appeals to different audiences.  One size doesn’t fit all, and one message doesn’t fit everyone – and today’s big data capabilities mean it doesn’t need to. 

9. Direct Mail is Not Dead

The demise of broadcast and cable TV has been predicted for generations and it still takes the bulk of today’s campaign spending.  Direct mail is another obvious target but according to the United States Post Office – political direct mail is not only growing, it’s thriving – in large part because voters see the credibility of mail as significantly greater than digital communications.  Mail isn’t disappearing. 

10. Digital – Ready for a Seat at the Table

Digital strategist after digital strategist – especially on the Democratic side – bemoaned that they don’t have a full seat at the table when budgets are decided and even when campaigns are trying to break through and be heard by voters.  Digital – for better (and worse) has changed our society and significantly impacted consumer behavior, yet it’s still not getting nearly the respect from campaign managers it warrants and frankly deserves.  Will this change with the 2020 cycle?  All predictions are that 2020 will be the year that digital comes into its own.  Will it happen?  Stay tuned.