Over the past 10 years, the marketing profession has changed in profound ways, empowered by the Internet and tracking and reporting technologies to get at more metrics-driven results that tie directly to the bottom line. Key to this shift is the concept of microtargeting – the ability to slice-and-dice target audiences with such precision that marketers are able to tailor messages and offers that appeal directly to individuals and which increase the likelihood they’ll convert to a sale.
As the results of Tuesday’s election come into more specific relief, it is clear that this same strategy – microtargeting – has paid huge dividends, from the race for the Presidency to marriage equality, to tax initiatives in the nation’s largest state.
President Barack Obama was able to overcome the headwinds of a struggling economic recovery and high unemployment to beat back the challenge of a well-financed and skilled campaigner. The way he did this was by building a coalition that was very broad and in no way deep, while Gov. Mitt Romney went for the opposite strategy by focusing on a single demographic and going deep.
The problem for Romney’s strategy is that, at the end of the day, there just wasn’t enough voters in the slice of the electorate he went deep into: older, mostly male white voters.
Conversely, by using microtargeting the President’s campaign team was able to find all the pockets of support for his policies in each of swing states, tailoring specific messages and appeals to each of them. They focused on all the high-density, major metro areas. They focused on working women. They focused on Latinos. (They had African Americans and gay people in the bag.)
They also focused on every major college town in each swing state and ginned-up the student (and faculty) vote, and in so doing managed to increase turnout versus the last presidential election (which itself was historic).
While all of these micro-audiences share some things in common – the demand for more and better jobs, or the desire for education reform – they also value issues that are distinct to each particular group. Latinos are concerned about immigration policy. Working women are concerned about reproductive health issues and equal pay for equal work. Students believe in multiculturalism, marriage equality, fair immigration policy, and an equal economic playing field.
Team Obama masterfully spoke to the concerns of each of these microtargets while also taking into consideration things like geography, local voting rules, past voting patterns, and a constantly updating news cycle. The effort paid off.
In another example, the national teams advancing marriage equality referenda in four states employed a similar marketing strategy. Whether in Maine or Maryland, Washington State or Minnesota, the marriage equality folks understood the electorate and used microtargeting to precisely deliver tailored messages to a whole variety of voters.
Nathaniel Frank details the path to victory in Maine, particularly how it deployed a highly-targted ground game:
The research, which even included a control group, showed which approaches worked with which groups. Older people might respond better to older messengers; pet owners might respond better to in-person conversations than to mailings. Armed with this kind of granular information, campaigners could work most effectively to shore up support among persuadable voters.
In the end, the Maine campaign spoke to 250,000 people, nearly a fifth of the state’s population—and that was likely the fifth that mattered most. This sort of effort is ongoing in more states beyond this week’s election, such as Oregon, which may be next up for an initiative.
In California, a major tax initiative, Proposition 30, was convincingly passed. Revenues raised will be used to shore-up public schools, colleges and universities. Let by Governor Jerry Brown, the pro-Prop 30 team carefully tailored and targeted its messages to the state’s many liberals; parents who rely on public school education; and grandparents with grandchildren in public schools. They, also targeted college kids. In a decidedly anti-tax environment, the Governor and his team convinced enough Californians to pay more in sales and income tax for the benefit of the state’s education system.
As election campaigns get better at what marketers have been perfecting for more than a decade, the pathways to victory at the polls will increasingly be paved by painstaking market research and highly targeted messages. The most effective campaigns will also leverage what marketers also know: even highly targeted messages are only as good, ultimately, as the product they’re selling.