Big Data

Election Tech: Why social media is more powerful than advertising

In a confusing and unconventional presidential campaign primary cycle, one clear trend emerged: Data-driven marketing is the future of politics and business.

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Image: iStock / Kagenmi

As the 2016 presidential primaries conclude it is clear that technology, and social media in particular, is a dominant force in politics. Although Twitter's user numbers were eclipsed long ago by social networks like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, the social media service remains top of mind by candidates, the media, and voters. Mainstream candidates relied on time-tested corporate fundraising tactics. Insurgent campaigns—Sanders and Trump especially—used Twitter to raise awareness and raise funds to great effect.

Trump used Twitter and social media to avoid big TV advertising spends and reduced the cost of campaigning significantly, said Gretchen Littlefield, President of Infogroup Media Solutions. "Candidates have leveraged social platforms, especially Twitter, to not only broadcast messages but to build excitement around their respective campaigns," she said.

Littlefield explained that candidates also use social networks to disseminate messages and inform voters about policy, and that voters are listening to social signals. "Voters, donors, and U.S. citizens in general are turning to social to make election decisions, and if candidates haven't built up a strong or engaging enough social presence, they will miss out on the votes they need."

How do campaigns use data from digital platforms like Twitter, in lieu of traditional media, and reach voters directly?

It's no secret that social media has had a major influence on the 2016 election like we've never seen before. Donald Trump, for example, has made Twitter itself a major component of his marketing strategy, instead of leveraging traditional tactics like TV ads.

Politicians use social platforms to gauge voter interest and identify what truly matters to him or her. If an individual is regularly advocating for women's rights and posting about it on Facebook or Twitter, for example, social data can pick up on this and help politicians better target these individuals with the right messaging. With the right data-driven strategy, candidates identify the right audiences on social media for both donating and voting.

READ: Seven ways to build brand awareness into your digital strategy (Tech Pro Research)

Obama was the first presidential candidate to tap into social networking as a resource and a way to create conversation back in 2008, proving that politicians who don't utilize social are missing out on a significant opportunity to gain influence without spending big bucks.

Today, social media has never played a more powerful role in an election. Some politicians and voters are still learning to adjust. Because this is the first year that social has had a major influence, it leaves room for candidates to make improvements [in future elections].

Data-driven marketing is the future of politics across all channels, especially on social.

What types of data is used by campaigns?

Campaigns are using all kinds of data during this election, particularly voter file data. It's important to know if an individual is registered to vote and their party affiliation. If someone has been an active participant around environmental issues, for example, a politician can leverage this information to better target him or her. The most important thing you can do in a campaign is communicate the right message to the right audience, and identifying issues using data that are important to an individual can help candidates more effectively communicate.

And do campaigns use social media to raise money?

Presidential candidates are predominately using Twitter and Facebook as their main social platforms, but others are taking to Instagram, Snapchat, and even Reddit to engage with audiences across all demographics.

Donate buttons on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube make donating to a campaign easier than ever. After these users make donations, they also have the option to post about it on their given platform, causing the donation to go viral across their networks. [Users who donate] become surrogates for a campaign that candidates can use to their advantage, especially when factoring in big data that already exists within social platforms. This data is unique in that it can help politicians target potential voters and donors.

Generally, those who donate to political campaigns on social media also plan to vote in the upcoming election. Again, candidates can leverage available data to determine whether or not a donor has voted in previous elections.

What can companies learn about social media fundraising tactics used by campaigns?

Small and medium-sized businesses can easily start using data to communicate to people that are interested in their products and services the same way candidates do. This means utilizing a data analytics platform that helps them identify the most important influencers, and those who can be evangelists for their brands. Knowing which customers will speak positively on your behalf is as important for businesses as it is for any political candidate.

In the long run, this kind of earned media is so much more powerful than a paid advertisement.

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About Dan Patterson

Dan is a Senior Writer for TechRepublic. He covers cybersecurity and the intersection of technology, politics and government.

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