How Social Media, Microtargeting and Big Data Revolutionized Political Marketing

Marketing has revolutionized politics. An expert discusses how it’s affecting November’s election.

The paradigm has shifted in U.S. politics. Out-of-nowhere candidates—such as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic-socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders—have grown less from the political canon and more from the will of the people.

Marketing has been at the heart of this shift, according to Bruce Newman, professor of marketing and a Wicklander Fellow in business ethics at the Kellstadt Graduate School of Business at DePaul University in Chicago. In Newman’s latest book, The Marketing Revolution in Politics, he writes that President Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns changed how politicians use marketing.

Obama’s campaigns used the latest in marketing technology, Newman says, including microtargeting, social media and Big Data, which he calls the “strategic triad.” Newman’s book juxtaposes how these forms have worked in for-profit, nonprofit and political sectors.

The use of marketing in politics has been considered outdated for years, Newman says, but the Obama campaigns flipped that concept. Newman says a “shift that took place in ‘08 and ‘12 was so sophisticated that now the for-profit and the nonprofit sectors have a lot to learn from what we’ve been doing in politics.”

Marketing News spoke with Newman about the “marketing revolution” in politics, how marketers are using the marketing tactics of politicians and what to expect in future elections.

Q: Can you explain what the “Obama Method” is and why it worked so well in his 2008 and 2012 campaigns?

A: Essentially, what he did was use technological skills to go through every step any company would go through, which I refer to as a “lesson.” Each lesson represents a different chapter in [my] book, beginning with identifying the marketing concept, using the research strategically, creating a unique brand identity, coming up with a winning advertising strategy, developing a relationship with your customer and being able to act in a crisis.

Q: How far forward did the Obama campaigns in ‘08 and ‘12 push these marketing techniques? I recall George W. Bush’s chief campaign strategist Karl Rove was lauded for his use of data during the 2000 and 2004 campaigns. What’s the difference?

A: What Karl Rove did in 2000 and 2004 with Bush was use numbers and mathematics to determine what it was they had to do to win in the general election. I can tell you from personal experience, as I was in Mexico City in 2004 and [Bush’s 2004 campaign chief strategist] Matthew Dowd was one of several speakers invited to speak to about 300 politicians. What was very interesting was that as I sat and listened to his keynote speech—I had never heard about this in the media in the U.S.—he said they realized after they won in 2000 that in order to win in 2004 they needed 3 million new voters. The way they did that was to go to the evangelical leaders across the country in the churches. They requested that each evangelical religious leader enroll 10, 20, 30 people from their church to register to vote.

Sure enough, Karl Rove was very clever; they did in fact win in 2004 by exactly 3 million votes. They also made the point that after they won in 2000, it didn’t matter who the opponent was. As long as they could get the extra 3 million votes, they could do it. Karl Rove used numbers and mathematics to come up with a quantitative orientation to the campaign. What changed in 2008 was Obama realized that it wasn’t necessarily important to win the popular vote by a certain number of votes, but his people knew he had to win in the Electoral College vote. If you go back to 2012, for example, Obama won the popular vote by about a 3% margin, but he won the Electoral College vote by a 30% margin. … How did that happen? It happened because they used microtargeting and Big Data to send selected targeted messages the way we do in the marketing of any product or any service.

They carefully targeted those voting blocs around the country that they knew were on the fence. All they had to do was win those people over to win [the election]. As opposed to Karl Rove saying, “We need 3 million new voters to register,” the Obama people said, “We need these specifically targeted voters in these particular areas of the country, and in order to do that we have to use microtargeted messages to get through to them.”

The other difference was fundraising. The Obama campaign used very sophisticated experimentation to determine how to go about sending e-mail messages for fundraising. For example, they would send out [thousands of] e-mails with different words in the subject line in order to perfect exactly which wording brought about the most funds.

Q: Have you seen anything in this year’s campaign that has taken the Obama Method and run with it? I’ve read that Ted Cruz’s campaign used microtargeting in the primaries.

A: What Ted Cruz did, which was an anomaly on the Republican side, is he merged Big Data with personal data. What Cruz would do is have anyone who came to his rallies provide their personal Facebook accounts. [The campaign] would take that information and they would merge the personal Facebook accounts with the Big Data information they had. They then sent messages to each person who came to the rally and to all of their friends who were on their Facebook accounts, magnifying geometrically the number of people they were able to target.

Another big change we saw—and this is how the title of the book reflects what’s happening now—is the ability of the candidate to go directly to the voter in no different way than Amazon has gone directly to the book customer and in no different way than Uber has gone directly to the person who wants transportation.

This direct distribution channel, which we have seen evolve on the commercial side, has now been transplanted to the political side, and it’s allowed someone like Donald Trump to circumvent the political party apparatus and go directly to the voter and very effectively utilize tweets to drive the debate in the news. [Trump] has 12 million followers right now; Hillary [Clinton] has about 8 million. To this day and throughout the Republican primary, Trump has used tweeting in a way that we didn’t see in 2008 and 2012.

Q: Is it a more personal style of tweeting?

A: It’s personal, but it also brings the message back to the entrepreneur. … You have to have a narrative that people respond to, a narrative that creates an emotional connection with the people listening. This was the genius of the branding expertise of Donald Trump.

But the interesting story from the marketing standpoint is that in marketing, you can use branding very effectively. You can use all the tools we have—which Donald Trump doesn’t rely on; he’s not relying on microtargeting, he doesn’t believe in Big Data, whereas Hillary Clinton is [and does]—and you can be the best brand or advertiser in the world, but if you want to be a good marketer, you have to have a good product.

What people are realizing now is that Donald Trump was able to use a unique brand identity to get the attention of the media and the people, to respond to a movement in the country where there are people upset with how much money they’re making and the threat of ISIS and other foreign interventions. [However,] if under the spotlight you cannot come up with answers to questions and people say, “I don’t think he really knows what he’s talking about,” suddenly all the great advertising and branding means nothing if you don’t have a good product. And that’s what’s happened to Donald Trump.

Q: Back to the Obama model, have you seen many companies or marketers use it in their own business?

A: Well, on the corporate and nonprofit side they’re not breaking down the boundaries. In the Obama campaigns, they had people sitting around a table from different departments. The strategists, the consultants, the pollsters, the advertising people, they all broke down the departmental barriers and they all worked together. They had an open mind about bringing in new solutions to problems, they began to use advertising in a way that wasn’t used on the commercial side. What we see on the commercial side is that all of these technologies are being used, but they’re not being used in a creative way as the Obama people used them in 2008 and 2012.

Q: What’s behind that creativity? Is it the simple act of getting everyone in a room?

A: It is. It’s all about bringing people in from outside in a creative way. We as marketers have to have a much more open mind about allowing the CMO to interact with the CIO, CEO and CFO in a way that most corporations don’t. Yes, the corporate world is using it but they have not come to a point that … Obama did in his two campaigns.

For example, Jet Blue Airlines is using technology so the person at the gate has information loaded in their handheld computer and they have visual capabilities of identifying their loyal customers as they walk up to get into the jet. They were saying, “Hello, Mr. Jones. I’m glad you’re back on our flight today.” That was being used but then people were feeling like, my God, my privacy. You can take [the technology] and use it up to a point.

Q: Does that speak to why Cruz’s campaign ultimately wasn’t successful? When you said he used campaign stops to collect Facebook pages, it struck me as something people may consider creepy.

A: He was much more advanced than his opponents during the primary, and that helped him. But his basic problem was that he wasn’t able to measure up under the microscope when he was compared to Donald Trump. Donald Trump [picked on] each one of his opponents one at a time. Unfortunately for Ted Cruz, he wasn’t tough enough and didn’t stand up to Donald Trump. … A big part of effectiveness in marketing is matching the right message with the right messenger, something Donald Trump has had throughout the campaign. …

Trump was more effective at becoming the face of the movement in no different way than Obama was the face of [his movement], bringing people of all different races and creeds together. [Obama’s] jingle, “Change We Can Believe In,” epitomized his message very effectively. Donald Trump, up to this point, has been very effective at looking like the leader who could “Make America Great Again” if you think America isn’t great. Of course Hillary Clinton is juxtaposing that messaging by saying, “What’s wrong with America? It’s been great for a long time. There’s no need to make it great again.”

What we do in marketing is very fascinating on the political side. What you have in a political campaign is an organization in crisis mode from day one. … I talk about how an organization responds to crisis. What’s the most effective way to communicate? Who should you put on the television screen? How fast should you respond in crisis? Do you open yourself up and the people in your organization to the crisis? Do you raise expectation in some level that leads the public to expect too much from you? … There’s no other sector in society that’s exposed to crisis in a way a political campaign is, especially at the presidential level.

Q: Trump and Sanders were out-of-nowhere candidates this year. Could this innovative use of data eventually translate to a third-party candidate picking up steam?

A: It’s going to be a couple cycles down the road, but we’re moving in a direction—in no different a way than we see in the book industry, music industry, transportation and real estate—[where] it’s becoming possible for an outside organization, a micro organization, to make an inroad into a market. You have this organization oligopoly controlled by just a few corporations that did not allow for that to happen. Those barriers are being broke down in sector after sector.

Q: What do you see happening on Election Day?

A: There’s no doubt in my mind, and I’ve been forecasting this, that it’s going to be a landslide victory for Hillary Clinton … in no different a way than in the Electoral College vote that Obama won in 2008 and 2012.