Data analysis, phone apps and social media are rapidly changing political campaigns

The detailed digital profile makes her conversation easy, even friendly. Taxes for you. Schools next door. Law enforcement down the street.

Some houses can be skipped: no potential votes here, the phone says. That vision or a version of it is popping up in political campaigns across the country.

“It’s a completely different environment,” said Stephanie Sharp, a Johnson County officeholder and consultant who uses and sells a version of the app. “There’s a gold mine of data. … You’re not cold calling when knocking on doors anymore. You know a little bit about your relationship with someone.”

No one is throwing the yard signs away. But the big-data digital revolution rocking media, entertainment, retailing and sports is coming to politics.

The change is arriving at a blistering pace.

“Things are moving very quickly,” said Jared Suhn of Singularis, a political consulting firm. “You shouldn’t be doing one thing anymore. You should be doing 10 things to 10 different groups of people.”

The shift is built around sophisticated and relatively inexpensive hardware and software that now give campaigns rich stores of private and public information — powerful tools for identifying voters and winning elections.

“Ten years ago it was TV and mail and radio,” Suhn said. “Now, you have so much more on-the-ground canvassing going on, strategic grassroots operations, digital stuff online. … There’s a way to get your message out.”

That message is first sharpened by polling and outreach, then reshaped for easy distribution to specific voters.

“You can target people literally to the house,” longtime consultant Jeff Roe said.

Fresh digital technologies emerge in every election cycle, enabling candidates and campaigns to become even more efficient and effective. A campaign’s most important hire is no longer the paid-media guru, it’s the algorithm guy.

Kansas City-based consultant Marcus Leach said combing through digital data allows him to instantly link voters with candidates and campaigns with friends and neighbors.

“It takes only a single ‘like,’ ‘share,’ or mention on Facebook or Twitter,” he said, “and our servers will automatically data mine that person’s Facebook, LinkedIn, look for associations, look for friends.”

The digital revolution in politics is relatively well-known to consultants and campaign managers, but candidates are now catching on too.

“You have to expand your footprint. To a different universe,” said Kelly Kultala, a Democrat now running for the 3rd district House seat in Kansas.

The move to a digitized democracy began to accelerate six years ago when then-candidate Barack Obama successfully used email and a social media presence to reach younger voters and raise money.

His campaign saw the future. Voters who signed up to learn Obama’s vice presidential pick found themselves in an email database, becoming the foundation for his voter contacts for years.

By 2012, Obama’s digital targeting operation blanketed the country, identifying and turning out voters in battleground states like Ohio.

Mitt Romney was far behind.

“Marrying grassroots politics with technology and analytics, they successfully contacted, persuaded and turned out their margin of victory,” the Republican party’s own post-election study found. “There are many lessons to be learned from their efforts.”

Suhn, who works with Republicans, says the party is working hard to fix the problem. “Everybody is catching up,” he said.

That could include state-level Democrats, who’ve often grumbled that Obama’s campaign refused to share its digital secrets. The national party is now considering a major data share, Sharp said.

But the move to digitize voter contacts isn’t driven entirely by partisan politics and isn’t limited to deep data sets and microtargeting.

Even low-visibility, nonpartisan races and issue campaigns can use digital tools. They’re easy, effective — and cheap.

Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are free. So are Instragram, LinkedIn, and whatever other social media site pops up this afternoon.

Websites can be produced and put online for a fraction of the cost of a slick video or 30-second TV commercial.

“You can find your facts, and you can find your Q and A, and you can find your opinion online,” said Pat O’Neill, a Kansas City campaign veteran who advised a winning candidate in the recent mayoral election in Independence.

Indeed, the use of low-cost digital tools, plus big-data and microtargeting techniques, mirror the revolution in big league baseball outlined in the book “Moneyball.” As with the Oakland A’s baseball team, the goal is now to firmly identify voter “bargains” cheaply instead of wasting campaign funds on high-cost, low-efficiency mass media.

“The cost of yard signs has doubled,” Sharp said. “Have you seen the cost of postage? … Every dollar has to stretch farther.”

Big data is even affecting political TV commercials.

“You can actually run one ad to a TV in a home, and in the very next home you run a different ad — based on what their buying habits are like,” Roe said.



Not everyone thinks the trend is healthy for democracy.

Low-cost, high-impact voter outreach efforts can help underfunded candidates and neutralize the effect of high-dollar donors. That means the digital revolution could help level the political playing field for thousands of candidates and campaigns.

At the same time, though, the proliferation of communications outlets might make it impossible for voters to thoroughly scrutinize political messaging. A candidate can support lower taxes in an ad aimed at one house and more spending in an ad next door.

“It does fly under the radar,” Suhn said. “You can use that for good and for bad.”

Political reporters and ad-check groups are increasingly worried. Fact-checking TV ads and speeches are one thing, but looking at every tweet and Facebook post isn’t practical, let alone examining what a candidate says one voter at a time.

“It’s going to be a challenge for us,” said Eugene Kiely, director “The strategy is going to remain the same, which is try to crowdsource, get our readers to try to get this material to us.”

A candidate’s opponents will find it harder to respond to statements as well.

“There’s no way to follow it or track it,” Roe said. “It’s hard to do a truth watch on an ad targeted to a select group of people that you never see.”

Digital targeting can also lead to circular political messaging: like-minded activists talking to each other, eliminating the undecided or independent voter from the process and making compromise even more difficult.

“They’re not getting a rounded view anymore,” Sharp said. “They’re only getting the side they want to hear.”

Candidate Kultala sees the same phenomenon.

“The things you like on Facebook or the things that you follow on Twitter are things that you support or agree with,” she said.



The digital explosion won’t mean an end to negative ads on your television this fall, or blurry postcards in your mailbox. Traditional media will still consume more than half of all campaign budgets this fall, experts predict.

“We must evolve in order to keep up with the younger mindsets,” O’Neill said. “But if you forsake traditional media, you do so at your own peril.”

Indeed, much of the digital revolution is aimed at younger voters, not the entire electorate. Older voters still rely on traditional cues — newspaper and television reporting, commercials and other mass messaging techniques.

Eventually, though, today’s grainy 30-second TV ad may seem quaint.

“For so many years, we’ve just blanketed districts with mail, and hope the name sticks in their head,” Sharp said. “But that doesn’t hit people where they live. You’ve got to target the issues that get them to the polls.”


11 Indispensable Google Terms Every Advertiser Should Know


Google Search Glossary

Google Product Listing Ads

Product Listing Ads (PLAs): Product Listing Adsare paid display ads within Google search. These ads are managed within AdWords and charge a CPC rate. Following Google’s recent Shopping Campaigns PLA update, you may also hear PLAs referred to as Google Shopping campaigns.

More on PLAs– Learn more about what product Listing Ads are, and how to manage them here.

More on Shopping Campaigns– For details on Google Shopping Campaigns, check out this PLA tutorial.

Google Shopping: Google Shopping is a comparison shopping site within the Google network. PLAs are the display ads on Google Shopping, but can also be referred to as Google Shopping ads or simply Google Shopping.

*Google Shopping, PLA, and Product Listing Ads will be often be referred to interchangeably.

Google Paid AdsGoogle ads are ads Ads which merchants pay a cost per click (CPC) for each time they are click on in search.

Ad Group: Google ad groups are  one or more products that you have segmented into an ad through AdWords. You can have an ad group with one SKU, or an ad group which contains all of your products. Merchants create ad groups for PLAs based on product information.

Product group: A product group is just another way to say ad group, and is a term associated with the new PLA campaign structure.

AdWords Ads: Product Listing Ads are managed within the AdWords login, but there is a different type of Google ad which you also manage there, and appears on Google search. AdWords ads are text ads which are PPC, use the Google data feed and managed through AdWords, but do not feature images or appear in Google Shopping page major results.

Display Ad: Ads which feature a product or merchant image.

Paid Ad: Ads which merchants are charged for.

Google Trusted Stores: Google Trusted Stores is a review system on Google search, which allows merchants to develop trust ratings and display a trust badge to increase conversions.

Google Organic Search Results- These are the unpaid search results on Google Shopping. Organic results appear below paid ads, and are determined by Google’s relevancy algorithm. Fewer of these results are appearing over time as they get crowded out by PLAs and other sponsored ads.

SERP (Search Engine Result Page)- SERP is a common abbreviation for a Google result page.


How Much Does Marketing Cost?


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This is a question that stumps those who are just going into business for themselves more often then not. I know that this does not directly relate to Social Media Marketing, however I thought it was a subject important enough to cover anyway…

I just reviewed an RFP for marketing services. It was a very detailed, well written RFP. And the client was asking for everything. Which is not a problem. Unless you have a limited budget.

Do you know how much marketing costs? How much should it cost? What should you pay for good advice when it comes to your marketing strategy?

I’ll try to unpack the answers to this complex question below. My answers lead to a few more questions, which I’ll have to address in future posts. Read on, and let me know what you think…

How much is a marketing plan?

Just the term “marketing plan” can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people. Are you looking for a complete, strategic marketing plan, or do you just need a tactical plan or roadmap to guide your marketing programs for the next few months?

I know an independent consultant (not me) who charged a start-up $25,000 for a full-blown marketing plan. Did they pay too much? Maybe. That all depends on the results.

If you’re shopping for a marketing plan, consider this before opening your checkbook:

What do you hope to achieve with the plan?

Do you need help identifying the right customers, streamlining your product plans and developing competitive strategies? If so, you need someone who specializes in marketing strategy. Look for a consultant who has executive-level marketing experience that relates to your market or industry.

Expect to pay a few thousand dollars ($2,500-$15,000) for a project that will take several weeks or a few months. Plan to be actively involved, providing access to company and customer information and your business strategy. This effort may include customer research, competitive analysis and exploration of things like your sales process, customer relationships and technical capabilities.

Did you have something more basic in mind? Maybe you need help promoting an upcoming seminar, or launching a new service offering. In that case, a tactical plan is more in line with your needs. In fact, you may not even need a formal, plan document. Instead, a solid project plan with budget, timelines and deliverables may be enough.

You can engage a professional marketing consultant for this work,  hire a freelance marketer or call on your agency for assistance. Depending on the scope of your project, an actionable marketing plan like this may run from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars ($750 – $5,000), excluding implementation.

You want me to pay for that?

Don’t be surprised when the consultant or freelancer includes things like a marketing assessment, brand audit or competitive research in their proposal. Understanding the market environment you’re working in is critical to providing sound advice. Scrimp on the foundation, and your strategy will be shaky.

It pays to invest up front so your marketing partners have a strong base of knowledge about your business. This will actually save you money in the long run. A consultant that knows your business will be able to quickly spot trouble areas you might miss, helping you find solutions before you even realize there’s a problem brewing.

Other things that are worth paying for? Professional copywriting, skilled design, SEO analysis and customer feedback, to name a few.

What does a website cost?

This is a common question. I remember paying upwards of $50,000 for web work back in the mid-’90s, knowing I was getting a good deal. Thankfully, technology has become much more accessible, and the availability of exceptional web designers has expanded. (Of course, so has the number if not-so-qualified resources, so be careful.)

The price you pay for a website will depend on a number of factors. You can make your own for free if you’re really stretched, or have a small shop create a simple site based on WordPress to get you going. In fact, WordPress is a pretty powerful CMS (content management system) and many companies are moving to the platform as a viable option for easy to use, highly manageable websites.

Pricing for a basic site will start as low as $1995 and may reach $25,000 depending on size, design and functionality. Add more complexity, and you could be up to $30,000 or more.

What makes the price go up? Adding capabilities like these will cost extra:

  • An ecommerce shopping cart so you can sell merchandise or digital downloads online. From freeware like Zen Cart to more sophisticated solutions, getting the right people to work on your ecommerce capabilities can save a lot of headaches.
  • User interface design, UI or UX (user experience), focuses on the usability of your site and the ability of visitors to complete desired actions. If the objective of your site is to provide shopping, search or membership features, an investment in UX work can pay huge dividends in higher conversion rates and more engaged users.
  • Custom coding, like a specialized database application, image galleries, or recommendation engine. Thankfully, lots of these items have been packaged up as plug-in or third-party solutions that can be added to your site. However, there is a cost for integrating things like live chat, customer reviews and video capabilities.
  • Search Engine Optimization (SEO) – While you might think that web designers are experts at SEO, the fact is that most are not (just as many are not well versed in UX). You may need a separate SEO expert to work on your site, ideally partnering with your web team to build in search-friendly structure from the start. Ongoing SEO support starts about $2500/month and goes up, depending on the size and complexity of your site.

Isn’t social media free?

Sure, you can sign up for Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and hundreds of other social media sites for free. But what is your time worth? As a business professional, you can easily step into social media quicksand if you are not careful about how you manage your time and social media presence.

Here are a few areas where you may want to hire social media help:

  • Social Media Strategy – What are your goals? Where will you invest your time on social media? What is your message? How can you monetize your social media efforts? Are you looking for a hard or soft return on investment (ROI)? A social media strategist can work with you to address these questions and formulate a plan that works for your business. The cost? Usually $500 and up.
  • Social Media Policies – Once you have a plan in place, you need to establish social media policies. These are guidelines for your staff that cover appropriate use, showing employees where they are empowered in social channels, and where they need to exercise caution. Well written policies can be priceless, so its worth investing $250 or more to have your own custom policy created.
  • Social Communications Calendar – When do you post on your bog? What goes on Facebook? How often should you tweet? What do you say? A communications calendar can help you plan social media content that aligns with your strategy, enabling staff to express your messages in the right way at the right time. Monthly management of your social communications plan may run $500/month or more.
  • Outsourced Engagement – Hiring someone to tweet and post on your behalf may sound good, but this is one area I advise clients to be cautious about. There are many risks if you outsource the voice of your business, and the cost to your reputation can be high when things go wrong. With that in mind, if you choose to outsource your tweeting, posting and blogging, hire someone you can work closely with to collaborate on plans and create content. You’ll pay upwards of $50/hour or $500+ a month.

Should I bring it in house?

Based on the prices listed above, you might be thinking that it’s smarter to hire staff to handle your marketing. This is a “yes and no” answer. For things like social engagement (tweeting, Facebook, blogging) I do recommend in house resources. No one knows your business like an employee and this is an area where tight control over content can be essential.

On the other hand, for things like strategy you are probably better off with an experienced consultant. Even if you have a marketing VP or CMO, the insight provided by an expert who brings a broader perspective can help alleviate what I call “marketing myopia.” You might just be too close to the situation to see everything you need to consider.

In these cases, a consultant can help you assess the market environment and plan strategies for success that your team can implement. If you need some additional assistance, hiring a virtual CMO or a contract marketer for a few months can provide the jump-start you need to accelerate your growth.

It’s cheaper to do it myself

DIY is a terrible malady. It can be a chronic disease for entrepreneurs. I know, I suffer from it myself. Whether you’re just starting a business or you’re simply trying to squeeze the most from every penny, it’s easy to think, “that’s easy, I can do it.” And you can. But will the results really be what your business deserves?

Do It Yourself marketing is often slow and slightly off target. It may be good, but usually it’s not great. And it comes with a huge opportunity cost. What would you be doing if you weren’t trying to figure out how to get your site to the top of the search engine rankings? Maybe you’d be closing new business or working on a new product idea.

Instead, there you are pulling your hair out, trying to do something you know you can do, but probably shouldn’t. Think about it…

If you loved writing copy, you would have been a copywriter.

If you were passionate about market research, you would have chosen that field.

And you would have been damn good, I’m sure.

But you didn’t.

So hire someone that did and reap the rewards of their passion and expertise. Then get back to running your business, which is what you do best, right?

Still stuck on the cost? Think about the value of your business. What will it take to realize the ROI of that project? Often, it’s as little as one new customer. Keep your perspective and spend strategically.

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