Big Data

Mobilise - The end game of getting out the votes

At the time of writing we're five weeks away from the start of advance voting and four weeks from overseas voting, so it's a timely opportunity to look at the end game of political campaign communications - mobilising your supporters and voters to turn up and cast their ballots for you. In political circles this is known as GOTV - Get out the vote.

Mobilise communications fall into two specific activities. The first is Enrolment. As a political campaign you want to make sure your supporters are correctly enrolled to vote, so there's a huge premium on political parties to push this. Given voter behaviour and demographics are the way they are, this has traditionally been less of a concern for right-wing political parties whose voter demographics tend to skew towards older New Zealanders who are more sedentary in their lifestyles so their enrolment details are usually up to date. Left-wing parties, whose voter demographics tend the other way towards younger, more geographically mobile people, thus have more of a challenge on their hands.

This is why over the past couple of election cycles we've seen differing efforts in New Zealand to mobilise these voters. While there's debate over the political leanings of some of these efforts, groups like Rock Enrol or FFS Vote (For Future's Sake) are examples of third-party attempts to mobilise voters.

The parties themselves take slightly different approaches. The Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand, for example, put a significant amount of effort in trying to engage overseas voters, as is evidenced by their having an "international candidate" whose job is to secure votes from the Kiwi diaspora around the world. Likewise, Labour is showing signs of trying to engage Kiwis living in Australia with a recent Facebook event calling for volunteers in Melbourne.

If this was 2014 you'd see this activity quite visibly ramp up, but 2017 might be a somewhat different beast. With improvements in social media and online ad targeting since 2014, the majority of the Mobilise content that's going to be produced from an online perspective is going to be below-the-line advertising.

The rationale for this is pretty simple and somewhat cynical. Political parties only want to mobilise their own supporters to vote, so the more you can focus your GOTV activities to focus on your core supporters, the better off in theory you'll be. What all the parties will be doing at the moment is figuring out exactly who they need to talk to in those final three weeks of the campaign in order to mobilise them as voters.

To achieve this from a social media perspective they'll look at all the voter data they've collected via the previous two phases of communication - Persuade and Participate - and match that up with online advertising tools. Whether it's plugging carefully curated email lists into Facebook's ad tool, selectively buying Google AdWords, or targeted advertisements on major news sites, you can generally assume that if you see an ad from any of the major political parties (National, Labour, the Greens and NZ First), you're seeing it because you match some type of demographic, behavioural, or geographic filter that suggests you might vote for them.

While the advertising tools on social media here aren't as detailed as are available in the United States and United Kingdom, they're still detailed enough when partnered with your own data to allow campaigners to be pretty confident they're talking to the right people. It won't always be perfect, for instance I've found Facebook's geographic filters here aren't particularly accurate, but it's much more cost effective at reaching a far greater number of people.

If you doubt the importance of this, you only need to look at the U.S. election. Donald Trump not only campaigned more in key battleground rust belt states, but ultimately was able to mobilise a greater number of supporters to vote than Hillary Clinton, enabling him to benefit from the quirks of the electoral college.

Participate - Petitions aren't just about supporting an issue anymore

Think by signing your name and email to an online petition that you're showing your support for an issue that's important to you? Think again. While getting you to show your support for something is part of the reason why political parties and lobby groups hit you with an endless stream of petitions and sign up pages, it's no longer the primary driver of this behaviour.

Ultimately it's all about getting your email address and starting you on a pathway to being an active support and participant in their campaign or cause.

Having already covered the extensive lengths political campaigns go to in persuading you to support them, I'm now going to look at how they aim to - and I apologise for borrowing a corporate term here - move you up their value chain.

Generally the value chain that political campaigns, lobby groups, and NGOs use goes something like this:
Voter sees content about an issue > Voter signs up via a petition on that issue > Voter receives request to donate > Voter receives request to join campaign/cause > Voter is asked to volunteer.

The idea is that each step in this path represents a greater commitment from the person they're targeting, and to move people along that value chain you need to be able to speak to them in an increasingly more targeted and personal way.

Traditionally political campaigns have done this through building voter files, and none do it better than the Democrats and the Republicans in the United States. As I've previously recommended, Sasha Issenberg's The Victory Lab does a fantastic job of explaining how this data driven approach has both evolved and is implemented in the U.S.

Where the U.S. and overseas jurisdictions differ from New Zealand is that their privacy and information sharing laws are much more lax than those here. If, like me, you've signed up to receive emails from both the Republicans and the Democrats, you may have noticed that you also eventually receive other emails from affiliated campaigns and causes. That's because they're constantly buying, selling, and refining their voter files to get the best possible information on voters so they can better identify those they want to target, and what messages that want show them.

What's changed in the last decade hasn't necessarily been this approach, it's been the channels it's applied to and the scale on which it can be done. Prior to the internet and social media it was used to micro-target direct mail, newspaper, radio, and TV advertising buying, door knocking, and phone calling. Now the same methodology is being used on social media, email, and online ad platforms, and it's backed up by data on an unprecedented scale.

As I mentioned before, New Zealand's privacy laws means that unlike the U.S. where political parties go and buy massive consumer data sets from commercial providers, that's simply not possible here. The net result has been that New Zealand's political parties, lobby groups, and NGOs have to go out and build these data sets themselves largely from scratch. This is why signing your name, age, email address, and town or postcode to a petition is almost mandatory to be able to show your support for it. Because once they have that data, they can add a line to their voter file with your name, contact details, demographic and geographic information, and issue tags to it.

The idea then is that they begin to target you through their online channels to get you to take the next step. Signed a petition? How about you donate so you can support us as we fight for it? Donated? Why not join our campaign and be part of a community of like-minded people? Joined our campaign? How about getting out and about and volunteering to help us out?

Next, because you've signed a petition on a specific issue, that party, lobby group, or NGO now knows you have a potential interest in that topic, so they can tailor content to serve to you whether it's via sending segmented emails to specific audiences, use it to target Google AdWords or SEO optimise a website, or uploading that email list into Facebook to let it create a broader audience of people who are similar to you via their demographic, geographic, and Facebook activities. On this final note, it's important to keep in mind that Facebook doesn't share that data on who else might look like you with someone who's setting up ads, but it does mean political parties can continually refine their voter files, data analysis, and targeting strategies by serving up similar content to those people.

While the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand have, in my mind, historically been the best at this, largely borrowing techniques from Greenpeace, WWF, and Forest & Bird, as far as I'm aware the Labour Party have had the single most successful sign up campaign with their "What number baby are you?" My understanding is that Labour gained somewhere in the order of 40,000 to 50,000 new email addresses to it, and while there was a larger than normal level of backlash to it when people realised they were also signing up to Labour's email list, I'd wager that the churn of unsubscribes they were getting were far outweighed by the gains they made.

It's also worth pointing out that contrary to the headline in the above article that Labour was tricking people into signing up, from my experience there's usually been text (and I believe it's a legal requirement) to the effect that signing a petition means you're agreeing to receive communications from that political party and its candidates.

As someone who's worked in this field, the notion that this is somehow a political dark art I think isn't really fair. Rather, it's part and parcel of the continuing evolution of not just communications practice, but what we're seeing more generally too across society. Other than long-standing commercial use of consumer data to target people with advertising, this approach also has the potential to offer massive benefits from a civic and social perspective too.

Whether it's getting people to engage with our democracy at all its levels, being able to understand how to communicate with people in a crisis via targeted alerts across mobile phones, social channels, and physical alerts, or being able to more accurately predict and intervene early to prevent health or law and order issues, data like this can and is used in a responsible and productive way. We're hugely fortunate in New Zealand that we do have very robust structures in place for governing its use responsibly, and a culture that does err on the side of caution about its use.

Next time we'll look at how political campaigns aim to Mobilise their supporters to get out and vote for them, a phase of political campaigning that now spans the two weeks prior to polling day with the opening of overseas and advance voting.