The political data game: How first-party data shaped the 2016 election

Tomorrow Americans will vote in an historic presidential election featuring two of the most unconventional candidates ever to grace the national stage. If you strip away the surface you’ll find that the war wasn’t fought with rallies, stump speeches, or clever tweets. It was fought with data.

Campaigns in 2016 featured the most sophisticated data operation in electoral history. Political marketers used more first-party data than ever to create targeted messages aimed at moving voters to the polls. Consider HIllary Clinton’s social video campaigns targeting younger millennials or Donald Trump’s recently revealed dark posts on social networks like Facebook. Consultants and agencies on both sides of the aisle used targeted campaigns to move the needle in this year’s contest by reaching real voters rather than hypothetical profiles and segments.

Every (eligible) voter counts

In a close election every vote counts, but selling a candidate requires marketers to clear more hurdles than selling widgets does. First-party data helped political marketers this year clear them by reaching the right ears and eyes.

“Geography plays such a unique role, because you can only legally buy the “product” [vote for the candidate] in district you live in,” says Michael Beach. Beach is co-founder of Targeted Victory, a right-leaning digital strategy firm that’s worked high profile races for Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator Kelly Ayotte as well as on the presidential bids of Senator Ted Cruz and Governor Mitt Romney.

Beach said he fought an uphill battle this year with old school campaign strategists more comfortable relying on wide linear TV buys, even in the emerging age of addressable TV. A traditional television buy for a candidate running in Boston is wasted on millions of voters who live in New Hampshire or Western Massachusetts, Beach argued.

Meanwhile, digital strategists this year used first-party data to reach discreet voters in distinct districts. Beach and others used this information to digitally target only those voters living within the contested district via Facebook, display advertising, and mobile advertising in order to avoid overspending on people ineligible to vote.

Building on the Basics

While most political marketing still relies heavily on traditional voter files owned by the respective parties this year saw so campaigns use first-party data to flesh out these typically scant records with more detailed and timely information.

“People change a lot in four years.” says Sean Cullen EVP Sean Cullen, EVP of product and technology at Fluent. “I may have registered as a Republican but now I could be a Democrat. I may have moved or expressed interest in one particular issue.”

According to Cullen campaigns benefited from using first-party data to dramatically enhance scant and dated voter file information. These enriched files can power comprehensive digital campaigns.

Standing out in a crowd

Data-driven tactics proved particularly crucial in down-ballot campaigns as the headline-making presidential contest sucked up all the earned media oxygen this year.

Mark Langgin, a partner at DNC-aligned digital targeting agency GPSImpact, sees this tactic working well for new and lesser known candidates in a competitive media environment. “We’re definitely using first-party targeting with our clients. Everything from municipal races to small ballot measures at the county level, legislative campaigns, and congressional races. Oftentimes, the first dollar spent is on Facebook. One of the first pieces of infrastructure we get set up for a campaign, is making sure a site  is fully tagged for remarketing and conversion tracking.”

Lookalike targeting is also a key tool in expanding candidates’ reach by finding candidates that resemble committed voters, he said.

Finding new votes in unexpected places

First-party targeting also allowed campaigns to hit challenging demographics where they live. For screen-agnostics, cord-cutters, and TV averse millennials that meant Facebook. Political marketers on both sides of the aisle saw 2016 gains by tracking down these previously elusive voters.

“The big problem in [20]14 was, ‘How do we go and find millennials and generally light TV viewers under the age of 45?” Langgin said. “Our ability to both accurately find those voters and to do it with scale was pretty limited in 2012 and 2014. The ability to use first-party data to find or match to online identities from mobile devices has increased pretty dramatically.”

Langgin pointed to Facebook’s expanded marketing toolkit for helping candidates better use first-party data. Over the past two years, the platform has gradually improved targeting capabilities for mobile pre-roll, ad native video. However, the biggest innovation within Facebook’s walled garden is the introduction of custom audiences. This application, not available in the last election cycle, allows campaigns to plug in all their first-party data to create highly targeted audiences. These audiences can be extended view Facebook’s lookalike modeling tools.

While Beach acknowledged that competitors on the left have an advantage with younger voters, he also noted that the Republican base is considerably less tethered to linear outlets than one might assume.

“We’re in the mindset that our voters are older, and they just sit there and watch game shows all the time. But as we buy more and more television all we’re doing is driving additional frequency to the same people that have already seen our message. ” According to Beach, the higher socio-economic status of core Republican voters flies in the face of this standard wisdom.

“Our voter actually trends more in everything, just because of economics.  As a Republican, that’s our sweet spot: higher income, and older. In a target Republican or Independent household with the presence of children, we’re seeing 18 devices connected to the Internet.”

Swearing in the age of first-party data

With so much media attention focused on controversial emails and troubling tweets it’s easy to forget the digital strategy brought to bear to motivate real voters to the polls.
Building campaigns on first-party data allowed smart political marketers to make the most of their largely donated budgets by reaching only eligible voters, finding new pools of potential support where they live, and gaining awareness in a crowded field.

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