Key 2012 Tech Trends, Part One: Retail vs. Wholesale Online Politics

This article is the first of four parts of a larger article I wrote for the Campaigns & Elections special edition on the CampaignTech conference, which is shipping with the current issue of the magazine. This piece also appeared in the C&E blog.

If C&E's CampaignTech conference is any indication, online politicos are going to fight on two different kinds of ground in 2012, and they’d better be ready for both. We might think of them as the air war and the ground war, but those words also apply to television advertising and grassroots organizing. A better metaphor might be retail vs. wholesale—one-on-one vs. mass communications.

Online advertising shows the distinction clearly. The majority of today’s political digital ads are intended to recruit supporters, donors and volunteers for particular campaigns or interest groups. Using interest, demographic and geographic matches, advertisers can target Google, Facebook and display (banner) ads with ruthless precision.

It’s even now relatively common practice to zero-in on individual people (if anonymously) by matching a campaign’s voter file with the “cookies” placed on consumers’ computers by commercial advertisers. Retail politics, indeed! At the same time, digital campaigners can run ads with the entirely different goal of influencing the broad public conversation. These ads may not be geo-targeted in the same sense as the recruiting ads mentioned above; instead they try to reach influential voices like reporters, bloggers and political activists.

For instance, a state senate campaign might run recruiting ads within its district aimed at potential voters, while simultaneously placing messaging ads on the statewide newspaper’s website aimed at reporters and bloggers. Sometimes campaigns try to boost their profile by running ads in their state or district, along with the District of Columbia, which is aimed at catching the attention of national influencers.

Consider Twitter, too. Yes, most campaigns use Twitter as a way to reach those influentials, since it’s a communicator-heavy medium that doesn’t geo-target naturally. But field organizers are also turning to the microblogging service for volunteer organizing—using, for instance, “protected” Twitter feeds (only open to people approved by the feed owner) to relay messages to grassroots teams via their mobile phones.

On the positive side, this split of online tactics into retail and wholesale reflects a maturing of digital politics in general, as more people find creative ways to put the available tools to use. On the other hand, “new” media managers now have more masters to serve, with so many elements of a campaign clamoring for time on the same channels.

Next up: Data-Driven Politics, Plus an Advertising Explosion


Written by
Colin Delany
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