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Obama Re-elected Through Digital Data and Devices

The next general election in Britain has to be sometime between now and summer 2015. Among all the angles the media will focus on to explain what a hard-fought campaign it will be, is the use of technology.

America Leads the Way for Now
The November ’12 Presidential elections have been the most digital so far. Hardly surprising, but for a taste of what British politicos have started to study in detail, it’s worth noting what Barack Obama’s election machine built, with Mitt Romney following some way behind.

The 2008 race to the White House was at the time praised for ground-breaking deployment of the internet and texting to pull in funds and get the supporters out to vote. In these past four years, the rise of the smartphone, apps and social media have pushed campaigning up a whole new gear.

Now cyberspace is monitored for chatter, trends and views, and they had a rapid rebuttal unit for all and any accusations. That has been the case for decades. This time, the instancy of the internet provided both problem and solution at a click.

Twitter followers (Obama claimed 15 million), personalised emails to known supporters and waverers, and a range of merchandise that would put Disney to shame. Fans could buy around 200 Obama branded items from cookware to clothing, from accessories to photos and from pet stuff (‘I bark for Obama) to bibs and nappies for Democrat-inclined babies!

It’s the Personal Touch That Counts

The secret is in the specific targetting to individuals and very direct groupings. Each US state had a separate website; every identified social grouping had theirs too. Nurses, teachers, women, the old, military veterans, Hispanics, Jews, animal lovers… they thought of pretty well everyone.
Supporters were urged to login through Facebook, thus giving access to valuable data and people’s friends. We are told that all the data fed into a gigantic data base, VoteBuilder, dubbed by critics as ‘The Presidential Big Brother’.

People who clicked on any Obama site were tracked through other visits to find they were hit with Obama ads among other ‘interests’ they may have had. Obama’s team spent more on internet advertising than other media, and quickly mastered the technique of sending people ads if they clicked on keywords like immigration, economy, jobs or banks.

Several people in other countries experienced the same approach. Many US voters live abroad of course, but it’s quite something to find a shower of Obama-pushing, just because you Googled his efforts.

They didn’t neglect the old-fashioned equivalent of door-stepping – making phone calls to take questions and make personal pleas. News clips of the President himself, jacket off and sleeves rolled up, as part of a bank of eager people phoning supporters carried round the world.

Still it’s always been true that pictures speak more loudly than words. Obama and his boffin team, comprising some of America’s top digital brains, have learned that they needed both the old and the new to win.

They had to have invitations to join, big events and pleas to voters backed by celebrities. But they also needed the new systems if digital life.

Data Was the Real Winner!

In the run up to the election, most commentators felt Obama was a tired brand, and his Republican opponents are traditionally better at getting out their core voters. In the end, however, it mattered not all, as Obama won with results not a million miles from 2008.

Harper Reed was one of Obama’s main nerdy, whizzkids with a reputation for managing geeks to achieve high targets, came with a clear mission statement: ‘to assemble a data-mining infrastructure that allows the campaign to determine which voters to target and how on a scale that’s never been seen before’.

Obama used a person designated ’chief scientist’ (specialising in consumer behaviour), an ‘analytics department’ to monitor all voter trends and an army of code writers. According to the New Your Times (back in March 2012), there was every variant of ‘political strategist present, alongside data analysts, corporate marketeers and web producers’.

Every data source beside Facebook, including voter logs, thousands of phone conversations and in-person conversation was carefully searched endlessly, for the key ingredients to target the approach to each and every voter.

Using the armoury of technology from smartphones to apps, Twitter to ads plus the principle that computers never forget, this was a ruthlessly efficient, and still in parts quite secret, exercise in mass marketing. They are not admitting to teh algorithms they used which they labelled ‘our nuclear codes’.

In Britain, expect the Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labour to employ versions of the Obama treatment next time around in every respect.

Also check out:

The Rise of iDemocracy, the Fall of Big Brother Thanks to Digital Technology, 17 October 2012

All That Twitters is No Longer Gold, 3 September 2012

50 Ways to Use a Smartphone, 8 August 2012

Data Is the Never-Ending Fuel of the Web-Network Economy, 24 October 2011

Advertising Gets Really Personal, 5 September 2011

Just How Valuable Is Your Web Data? 14 December 2011

Image: Elizabeth Cromwell