Sasha Issenberg

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.

The social media political revolution wasn't televised - you missed it back in 2014

A recurring theme I see in commentary on the 2017 New Zealand election is how this year will be known as the "social media campaign". It really isn't. 2014 was the campaign that social media revolutionised, what'd you think all those kids were doing with those selfies with John Key? They were posting them to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram while at the same time being served up with a barrage of specially designed, targeted content from all of the major campaigns, political leaders, and third party campaigns.

I think part of the reason for this is that our traditional media companies themselves still don't quite get social media. Reading or watching much of their use and commentary on social media it's often dismissively served up as some sort of light entertainment medium that only millennials care about (the Paul Henry and AM Show's use of it's social media bunker is a good example of this), or as something that should have the country on the verge of a moral panic* (Stuff's recent "The Takeover: How Facebook is everywhere" was a good example of this).

The reality is that political social media is fundamentally the same as it was when it made such a big impact for Barack Obama first in the 2008 election, an approach that was ruthlessly refined by the 2012 U.S. elections. It's useful to sometimes think of political campaigns as an arms race - where each side continually looks for an edge over its rivals in terms of both getting its message to its audience, but then also converting that audience to voters. The development of this arms race from a data perspective is nicely documented up to 2012 in Sasha Issenberg's "The Victory Lab: The secret science of winning campaigns".

Essentially, Issenberg argues that George W Bush's team in 2000 and 2004 came up with a much better targeting model and method getting their messages out and converting voters to their side. In 2008 it was the Democrats and Obama's team, in large part thanks to a lot of earlier leg work by Howard Dean, who first clued onto the immense power of the web, email, and social media, to create two amazing campaigns from a content perspective, but underpinned by one of the best and most in-depth data operations ever seen. Dan Balz's "Collision 2012: The Future of Election Politics in a Divided America" picks up where Issenberg's work leaves off and provides a good platform for understanding how Obama's campaign leveraged social media to devastating effect against Mitt Romney and the GOP.

Which brings us to 2014 where National, Labour, the Greens, and Internet Mana all had significant social media and digital operations. It was just that traditional media was geared so heavily towards following the traditional on-the-ground elements of campaigning - campaign launches, policy announcements, debates and the like - that they simply didn't notice the importance or volume or work going on in the digital space.

The social media revolution happened to our political campaigns back in 2014, and it went entirely unnoticed except by those who were at the coalface of those functions. The tools and methods have been continuously refined since then, but the game- changing moment happened three years ago.

Without going into specifics, the numbers of unique New Zealanders who would have seen a piece of social media content from either John Key or the National Party on a weekly basis during that campaign were such that it was a massively more cost effective channel to reach a greater audience than other mediums could ever hope to deliver, and it had the added bonus of being an amazingly easy platform for people to engage with content in a way that traditional communication channels - face-to-face, TV, newspaper, radio, or physical mail/leaflets - simply couldn't (and still can't) match.

The political social media revolution well and truly happened back in 2014. The only difference between 2014 and 2017 is that traditional media companies have finally realised what people like Matthew Beveridge had already clicked onto in 2014 - that social media is a game-changer for the scale and nature of political campaigns in much the same way that radio, direct mail, and television have been in the past.


*Further to this point about inciting a moral panic about social media - the reaction to social media by traditional media across the world parallels, in many respects, the backlash to all new methods of mass communication as they're appeared by the previously dominant sources of information. Pamphleteers were routinely censored and harassed throughout Renaissance Europe, newspapers heavily controlled by governments in their early days.

More recently serial novelisations, when they first appeared in the 19th century, had established book publishers lashing out at these new shorter forms of writing with their appeal to the working class who were rapidly becoming more literate. Charles Dickens was one of those serial novelists who was slammed by the established content producers of the day for his work - especially its moral character, the social themes addressed in it, and its mass appeal - but is now considered to be one of our greatest literary figures.

There was a similar reaction from newspapers when radio stations first became commonplace, with many forbidding radio stations from reading their newspaper stories on air until after the physical papers had been delivered. Radio stations responded by employing their own news departments. The reaction to cinema and television in particular was similar too, with established players seeing the new technology as a threat to not only their own survival, but common decency.