by Michael O'Neill
September 18th, 2012

As the general election begins to heat up, so does the digital arms race. This clash goes far beyond the simplistic jockeying between candidates for the biggest following on Facebook and Twitter — indeed the data lying beneath the surface may end up being far more important.

In January, the online news publication Slate.com broke news about a top-secret Obama campaign project called “Project Narwhal,” which aims to integrate all the data the campaign has captured over the past six years — from door knocks and donations to email activations and Facebook app installs. As a result of these efforts, Obama for America now has an unprecedented, and scarily accurate, understanding of the interests and motivations of their 13 million or so supporters. That data is already fuelling a hyper-targeted outreach programme that personalises the campaign’s communication with supporters.

The Obama campaign knows the next president will not be re-elected based only on the number of his Twitter followers or Facebook likes. Facebook and Twitter are still extremely important gateways for the campaign in creating opportunities for engagement and building relationships, but simply having a presence on those social platforms isn’t enough.

Republicans are responding quickly to this data build-up with voter database platforms of their own. A conservative grassroots group called American Majority Action has released a community mobilisation app to rival tools the Obama campaign has been using.

The keys to winning are what they have always been: convincing voters, recruiting volunteers, raising money and getting people to show up to vote. This means driving people to action. Thanks to the integration of all data points into a single database, and the ability to mine that data in supporter communications, Obama for America will be more effective at driving people to action than ever before.

In 2008, the campaign knew when to ask someone for money, when to ask for volunteer hours, and when to send informational emails. In 2012, they’ll also know how much a supporter is likely to give, the kinds of volunteer activities (door knocking, phone banking, etc.) that a supporter is likely to do, and the issue messaging that will strike a chord and drive that activation.

As Teddy Goff, the Obama for America digital director, said on a panel recently: “We try to speak to people in the language of the people we’re speaking with.” Campaigns know in order to resonate in this day and age they can’t just broadcast from on high, they need to tell a story that is deeply personal and unique to each person.

The campaigns also need to know where to find their audience. In late March the New York Times reported on how in the tight Wisconsin primary battle the Romney campaign has put a significant investment in paid online video ads as opposed to traditional television spots because they know that a sizable portion of the electorate does not watch live TV anymore.

The campaigns will continue to use what they know about their audiences to serve them to tailor how and where they communicate with them. This means building a narrative with different constituent groups all over the country in sustained ways that gets them excited and gives them the tools to act.

Information travels instantaneously in the modern social political campaign and campaigns know that they can’t take a moment off. They have to create content and engage with voters every day. They know that one sound bite can knock them off their message and the only way to defend against this is to continue to deliver the story you want and empower followers to help tell it.

As the general election heats up, we will see a lot of this data-driven storytelling from both campaigns. And organisations of all stripes will be looking to these campaigns for innovations. In this socially driven world, people expect to be treated as individuals and the campaigns will have to do what they can in their power, and use all the data they have to meet people where they are.

Colin Moffett is senior vice-president, digital communications, at Weber Shandwick

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