Trick and Treat — The State of Digital on the 2016 Campaign Trail

    1024 576 Tu Nguyen-Brown

    Whether you’re trick-or-treating as Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump today, you’re probably as happy as I am that the 2016 presidential election cycle is finally drawing to a close. While much of this contentious and bizarre campaign season seems anything but sophisticated, it is in fact the most technologically advanced election in history. As Inc.com’s Paul Gossinger notes in a recent article, most of the technological effort has focused on two factors: vastly increasing new registered voter turnout and microanalysis pinpoint targeting by county to optimize state wins and electoral college performance. With only a week of this craziness remaining, the party that better executes in these two areas will emerge as the winner.

    My focus at Smart Panda Labs is web analytics but, ten years ago, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer or a political lobbyist. I studied government at Smith College and was headed for the Peace Corps when a series of opportunities steered me into the world of data, site analytics and digital marketing. Of course, these worlds have collided—the spheres of technology and politics now are inextricably linked—so I couldn’t let this election season pass without taking the opportunity to look at our current candidates and their campaigns through the lens of digital marketing.

    a brief history of technology, data and the internet in politics

    But first, let’s take a quick step back in time, to see how and when these worlds of politics and technology began to overlap.

    • 1948: The Dewey–Stassen debate was the first audio-recorded presidential debate to ever take place in the United States, and the event was significant— Harold Stassen had led in the polls going in, but Tom Dewey’s debate performance was much better.
    • 1960: As televisions made their way into the American household, the Kennedy-Nixon debates drew 66 million viewers and shifted voter preference from to Kennedy after Nixon performed poorly.
    • 1996: By the Clinton-Dole election year, politicians had finally tapped into the World Wide Web and begin to leverage “new media.” Clinton and Dole had very basic web pages, downloadable screensavers and even crossword puzzles, but no online fundraising and very little interaction with voters.
    • 2004: The candidates became “netwise” during the 2002-2004 election cycle—their campaigns figured out how to systematically leverage the Internet … and the country was According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, Internet use for political news and information grew 83% between 2000 and 2004. Howard Dean, the frontrunner in the race for much of 2003, relied on the Internet not just for money, but also for grassroots organizing, message dissemination, and tactical intelligence, taking notes from the progressive online advocacy group MoveOn.org. The Kerry campaign and the DNC together collected a record $122 million in contributions through the Internet. Meanwhile, the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign and the RNC teamed up with advocacy groups to implement what RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie justifiably called, “the most sophisticated voter contact strategy in campaign history.”

    And all this before the rise of social media, smartphones, live streaming or tablets.

    2008: the election year that changed campaign tactics forever

    Daniel Kreiss, a professor of media and journalism at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, has been researching the impact of technology on our modern political sphere. His books, Taking Our Country Back: The Crafting of Networked Politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama and the newly released Prototype Politics: The Making and Unmaking of Technological Innovation in the Republican and Democratic Parties, 2000-2014, explore the progression from traditional campaigning to contemporary campaigning, where digital media and technology has played a major role in shifting campaign tactics. In his research, Kreiss touches on the predictive and individual level modeling of Obama’s 2008 campaign. The older method for targeting voters was to generate static micro-targeting categories of voters based on polling at a particular moment in time. Obama staffers offered better insight on the vast diversity within those categories and put canvassers out in the field to add to their data. This collection and merging data of and intelligence from various sources in order to create profiles of the electorate was known as Project Narwhal.

    Kreiss also explored the roles of campaign staffers in both the Romney and Obama campaigns during the 2010-2012 election cycle and found that Obama led Romney with almost a 5:1 ratio in regards to staffers in the technology, data, and analytics fields. In both election cycles, the Obama campaign and DNC successfully organized around the importance of data and technology, setting a precedence for the current 2016 cycle.

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    source: Prototype Politics, Kreiss

    digital strategies: Clinton vs. Trump

    The Clinton and Trump campaigns are fully submerged in the world of digital. Let’s compare some of the strategies they’ve employed.

    website, mobile and social

    Both candidates have websites that are mobile responsive, and Clinton even has a mobile app that launched in July 2016. As of mid-October, Clinton has almost 7.5 million followers on Facebook and 10 million on Twitter, while Trump has 11.6 million followers on Facebook and 12.7 million on Twitter.

    analytics and optimization tracking

    Using Ghostery, a browser extension that, among other things, allows you to see what vendor tags are utilized on web pages and apps, I took a look at what’s under the kitchen sink for www.hillaryclinton.com and www.donaldjtrump.com. Both campaigns are using site analytics trackers, optimization tools and tag management systems, albeit different ones.

    • The Clinton campaign is using Google Tag Manager, Google Analytics, Heap Analytics, and Optimizely.
    • The Trump campaign is using the Adobe suite of tools for tracking – Analytics, Target, and Tag Management.

    All the tools above are great – some are older and established, others newer and innovative. But, tools are only as good as the engineers and analysts behind them. These tools help each camp understand their who their audiences are, what their behavior means and how campaign tactics are performing. Hopefully the candidates are learning from Obama’s winning practices and constantly running AB tests in order to optimize their sites.

    email marketing

    As part of my research, I signed up for emails from both campaigns. In a one-week window:

    • I received 30 emails from HillaryClinton.com, all from email address [email protected] The sender name varied between HillaryClinton.com, Staffer name w/ Hillary Clinton.com, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
    • I received 15 from the Trump Campaign. The sender email address on the Trump emails was not the same each time—some came from [email protected] and others from [email protected]. The sender names varied among Donald J. Trump, donaldjtrump.com, Eric Trump and Team Trump.

    At first, I thought I wasn’t receiving any emails from the Trump campaign after the initial “thanks for signing up” email hit my inbox. When I checked my spam folder, however, I found all 14 other Trump emails waiting for me. All but the initial email were from sender address [email protected]. Our resident email specialist, Alex Corzo, says it’s likely that the word “donation” in the email address flagged it as spam. He also noted that this shift in sender address is a misstep, since engagement with the initial sender address would send the ISP a signal of a warranted message.

    The emails I received from both campaigns were personalized and targeted. On both candidate’s sites, voters sign up with their email and zip code. That zip code is surely used to segment their lists—someone living in 90001 (Los Angeles) is sure to have different priorities and political identities than someone living in 73101 (Oklahoma City), even if they are supporting the same candidate. This type of database profiling is what many say won the campaign for Obama in 2012.

    search engine marketing

    With a quick Google Search of the two candidate’s names, the search results page shows that the Clinton campaign is doing paid search on both “Hillary Clinton” and “Donald Trump.”

    On my initial “Donald Trump” search, I didn’t see any paid ads; however, my coworker in Tampa, Florida received an ad … in Spanish, which she does not speak (and no, her browser is not set to Spanish). The Trump campaign may be targeting paid search more granularly, but it does seem that there is a need for some cleanup of that. A search for “Trump for president” does have a paid ad that takes you to a donation page; from there, it’s actually a challenge to find your way to the campaign site (you have to click the privacy policy link at the bottom of the page).

    The contrasting “Clinton for president” search also has a paid ad that takes you to a sign-up page for campaign emails; the logo in the top left corner takes you to the official campaign site.

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    source: Trump, Google Search, October 2016

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    source: Clinton, Google Search, October 2016

    In regards to search engine optimization, I enlisted our SEO specialist, Lisa Martino, to help me evaluate these campaigns for SEO best practices. We began by doing a search on Google for “Hillary Clinton” and “Donald Trump.” For Trump, the first natural search link is to the Trump Organization, and not his official campaign site, while Clinton’s is. In trying to understand the ranking of Trump’s Google’s search algorithm, Lisa noted that www.trump.com has been around longer than www.donaldjtrump.com and therefore may have more authoritative links pointing to it. It’s also possible that the middle initial in the campaign URL may be skewing the search ranking.

    Interestingly enough, Trump has accused Google of manipulating search results against him, and a recent memo posted to Wikileaks implies that Google CEO Eric Schmidt has been working with the Clinton campaign, but not on sabotaging results. (Schmidt had worked with the Obama campaign and helped set up the technology consulting firms that would continue to work with the DNC.)

    Both campaign sites have outdated robots.txts files (files that give instructions about websites to web robots), and neither have an XML sitemap. Both parties also have room to improve their link texts and their URLs, which are not consistent with slashes (/) and result in unnecessary redirects. As noted previously, both sites do get stars for mobile optimization. It’s important to maintain these basics of web architecture to allow search engine algorithms to properly rank sites for the most relevant results.

    the importance of digital, on and off the campaign trail 

    Based on my research, and the DNC’s track record with data, it’s apparent that the Clinton camp understands and embraces the value and importance of digital in its campaign. The Republican camp, however, has some catching up to do, which is why the Republican party has invested massive sums of money to develop their database since 2008. And while their nominated candidate has discounted the importance of data in his presidential bid, saying he plans a “limited” use of data in his general election campaign and suggesting that Obama’s victories are misunderstood, most Republicans agree that elections are most often won on the last 1 or 2% of the voter pool that turns up (or doesn’t) because of data and digital.

    Regardless of any one candidate’s opinion, technology, data and analytics have a place in politics; political candidates and their teams had better stay sharp to keep up with the rapidly evolving digital landscape. The use of data has allowed for a more sweeping, proficient and targeted campaign of the two major parties. And with the proliferation of a growing young electorate (millennials have officially surpassed baby boomers in voter population), it’s more important than ever to strategize around digital. That being said, many of us are ready to see our social media feeds free of rancorous debate and questionable revelations. The countdown to November 8th begins!

    So what can we learn from all this, and how does it apply to digital marketing efforts off the campaign trail?

    • Analytics and data is important in helping understand audiences and to provide a more personalized and optimized experience to move them along the journey, whether to drive them to purchase, to fill out a form or to get to the voting booths.
    • The more data the better. Don’t assume groups are made up of identical individuals.
    • Details matter, like sender address and domain name. Follow best practices to keep your emails out of spam filters and boost page rank.
    • A thoughtful digital marketing strategy is important to maintain control of your brand, your message and your goals.

    One more recommendation: save some of tonight’s candy conquests for November 8th. No matter which camp you’re in, it’s gonna be a long night!

    key takeaways

    • The Clinton camp understands and embraces the value and importance of digital in its campaign. The Trump camp, however, has some catching up to do.
    • The use of data has allowed for a more sweeping, proficient and targeted campaign of the two major parties.
    • On or off the campaign trail, analytics and data is important in helping understand audiences and to provide a more personalized and optimized experience to move them along the journey, whether to drive them to purchase, to fill out a form or to get to the voting booths.
    • The more data the better. Don’t assume groups are made up of identical individuals.
    • Details matter, like sender address and domain name. Follow best practices to keep your emails out of spam filters and boost page rank.
    • A thoughtful digital marketing strategy is important to maintain control of your brand, your message and your goals.

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    AUTHOR

    Tu Nguyen-Brown

    Tu manages analytical design implementation to meet our client’s digital analytics + intelligence needs. She is an analytics professional with more than five years of experience using data-driven analysis to guide clients in optimizing their site and increasing revenue. Previous to smart panda labs, Tu was a Senior Analyst for YP (formerly AT&T Interactive), where she was responsible for deep-dive analysis across multiple platforms and analytics project management on yellowpages.com, m.yp.com and YPMobile apps (phones, tablets) and at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Online, where she was lead analyst for several Disney sites including disneyaulani.com, and hongkongdisneyland.com. She is an Adobe Analytics: Reporting and Analytics Certified Expert and is Google Analytics Certified.

    All stories by: Tu Nguyen-Brown

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