Email, social, and addressable TV allow nontraditional candidates to enter the race cheaper and stay in longer
"Friend, I cannot tell you how much digital marketers like you mean to my chances of sitting in the Oval office next year."
That email message was never sent by any of this year's presidential candidates, but it might as well have been. In 2012 the Obama for America campaign brought targeted, direct marketing to the political arena at a level that had never before been imagined.
By Election Day, there were 40 million names on the President's email list, compared to just 4 million on Mitt Romney's. The Obama campaign's creative also was revolutionary, calling recipients "Friend," and divining what key issues most impelled them to vote. So aggressive was the Obama organization's use of segmentation to elicit both dollars and votes from Americans that email has become the foundation channel for presidential bids. Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz all have been emailing their "friends" since the day they announced their candidacies.
"We saw the start of this in 2007 with Obama. Digital has lowered the barrier of entry to get into the race," says Michael Beach, co-founder of Targeted Victory, a digital political agency that worked for Romney in 2012 and represents Ted Cruz in this year's race. "You can communicate to people at a much lower cost and that allows nontraditional candidates to connect to a lot of people and raise a lot of money."
One candidate, Bernie Sanders, collected $5.2 million dollars on his website within a day of his New Hampshire victory, a veritable torrent of grassroots greenbacks. The average donation was just $34. "Raising this much money in that amount of time was unheard of before digital," Beach says.
Not all candidates have been equal in email prowess. An analysis performed last month by eDataSource, which tracks billions of branded emails daily, found wide variances in list sizes and open rates. Ted Cruz's list numbered 3.6 million people with a fairly average read rate of 15%. Donald Trump was registering an exemplary open rate of 26%, but his list was small — less than half a million people.
The only candidate not in need of ready cash for Iowa and New Hampshire, Trump has not worked email as intensely as his opponents. That's bound to change as primary season marches on and email becomes as important for getting voters to the polls as for getting their money.
Thanks to the digital revolution in political marketing, it's not too late for the Trump campaign to influence voters via their inbox. His list of 500,000 is a strong one, because it was built largely from Trump fans who attended his rallies.
"That's an earned list. That's pretty impressive. It's not hard to spend some money and build the list," says Jordan Cohen, CMO of Fluent, a lead acquisition-focused ad platform that is in the employ of more than one candidate in the current campaign. "This works the same in politics as it does in business. The bigger the brand equity, the bigger the advantage take rate, or opt-in rate. National brands like Target and Walmart have the highest take rates, and Trump is a national brand."
Beyond the inbox But email is hardly the be-all and end-all of presidential digital channels, especially as the remaining candidates move into phase two of their digital campaigns. According to Targeted Victory's Beach, digital political marketing has three main objectives: fundraising, persuasion, and mobilization (i.e., getting people to the polls).
Persuasion will guide the themes of campaigns going forward. Look to Marco Rubio, who has to convince people he's not the canned presenter Chris Christie made him out to be, and to Hillary Clinton, who must persuade her dwindling throng of fans that she's not yesterday's news. Social media and television are needed to get this job done.
Social is a trickier channel for campaigning than email, because it requires encouraging social media influencers to amplify candidates' messages. Cision, a media intelligence company, has been assigning candidates a social "share of voice," determined by how much candidates are mentioned on Twitter during a specific time period. Cision filters out tweets not dealing with substantive topics, as well as those from people under the voting age.
Ben Carson, an early email leader with 4.5 million subscribers and one of the highest delivery rates, saw his waning support in New Hampshire revealed by Cision before the voting there. Of the top seven GOP candidates, he registered the lowest social share of voice at 5%.
Demonstrating the highest level of social savvy early on is Sanders, according to James Rubec, Cision's content marketing and social media manager. Though Trump maintains a high Twitter profile and receives almost daily coverage of his tweets, his "tent-pole" Twitter page is his lone outreach. The Sanders campaign, meanwhile, is using Twitter to build its field force by allowing his state campaign organizations to open their own accounts.
"Check @BernieSandersOH and you'll find it has 4,000 followers," Rubec says, adding: "Sanders sent a tweet within minutes of winning New Hampshire thanking supporters and volunteers got 17,000 retweets. As the campaign wears on, Twitter will increasingly be used by candidates as a rapid response and engagement tool."
Digital not only lowers the price of entry to presidential politics, says Targeted Victory's Beach (left), it also affords viable candidates the option to stick around longer. "Any candidate can go directly to the voters," he says. "They don't have to go through all the traditional channels, like TV. Mobile is a viable alternate path."
Of course, TV ads are flooding the airwaves of upcoming primary states such as South Carolina and Nevada, and TV will command the lion's share of candidates' budgets as the national conventions approach. Yet, new digitally powered options such as addressable TV will allow smaller-pocketed candidates to segment their buys to either likely or on-the-fence voters and gain more efficient use of their television dollars. TV providers like AT&T, Dish Network, and DIRECTV are able to target specific ads to select households through their set-top boxes using technology from Invidi, a tech provider that promises to reach TV viewers with the same accuracy as direct mail.
"Addressable TV is here and not in its infant stage anymore, and is an excellent way to supplement and complement linear TV buys," says Adam Gaynor, Dish's VP of media sales and analytics. "When we first launched, we used basic demographic and psychographic data. Now we're in a position to acquire data sets from third-party suppliers such as Acxiom and Experian based on what the client wants and use data on the back end to measure effect."
But just as email is the workhorse of digital brand marketing today, it is the intrepid ward heeler of digital political marketing, as well. "The reason why candidates were so intensely focused on building their email lists six to eight months ago was to enable them to be competitive today," says Fluent's Cohen. "Now the race is on and it gives them the ability to spend on higher-cost paid media; it's becoming more about message."