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Canada's First Digital Election Will Change How Campaigns Court Votes

09/04/2015 08:11 EDT | Updated 09/04/2016 05:59 EDT
John Lamb via Getty Images
Overhead of workplace with multiple digital devices

The 2015 election has been largely considered Canada's first digital election. You may recall that back in 2011, Twitter didn't dominate the chattering class landscape and Facebook had yet to become your mother's favourite website.

But this understates how momentous the shift has become. In the four years since Canada's last federal election, digital marketing has gone from the awkward teen at the table, to a full and equal member of the board. Facebook, for instance, is no longer a mere peer-to-peer social network with admittedly questionable ROI. It has grown into a robust, multibillion-dollar advertising platform that has given rise to the most powerful and accurate targeting tools advertisers have ever had at their fingertips. And it does so cheaper, faster and more precisely than traditional advertising.

Yet, improbably, digital remains the outsider. Traditionalists still suggest it distracts from the core campaign. It is either a frill or a potential landmine.

These naysayers aren't all wrong. Has a hashtag ever influenced a vote? Probably not. Did a Twitter meme ever sway a key voting demographic? We will have to ask #bathrobeguy, but I'll wager no.

But when we talk about digital, we're talking about strategy far beyond these primitive social tactics. We're talking about a suite of tools that reinforce, strengthen and improve traditional and key campaign functions.

Testing the Message

Campaigns still spend millions on traditional research to craft and test messaging to find opponents' Achilles heels and to ensure the advertising about to hit prime time airwaves works. But digital has also given way to a new form of message test -- the simple but powerful A/B test.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in our email inboxes. Each campaign email is an opportunity for the campaign to test messaging. Does an email from the candidate get opened more than from a campaign manager? Does a personal appeal generate more donations?

Along with email, campaigns test images, headlines and even configuration of key action buttons on websites. If Test A gets more conversions then Test B, you have a winner.

Voter ID

Door-to-door canvassing is still one of the most important tools and functions of a campaign. Armies of volunteers knock on doors for the sole purpose of identifying possible voters (and ruling out those who will never vote for you). And phone canvassing? While we may carry one in our hand 24/7, it's harder and harder to get anyone to pick up a call. Most troubling is that canvassing is resource-intensive.

Digital helps here, too. Voters can be identified in advance online. This is why campaigns are always after two data points -- postal code and email.

The purpose of many online ads is not about moving the undecided. It is to identify voters. Is terrorism your top issue? Give us your email. Is universal child care the solution for Canada? Give us your email. This data is then built into campaigns' powerful data management systems and coordinated with local candidates and local canvassing teams.

This, of course, is crucial come voting day, when the only metric of success is whether you get the vote.

Targeting

Mass advertising is all but dead. Just ask journalists how many companies are lining up to place full page ads. Television remains effective, but even there advertisers are asking for more robust and tailored strategies -- leading that charge are political campaigns.

Digital allows for the most finely tuned targeting of any platform. Additionally, it allows you to more accurately track and measure the success of these targets.

Campaigns can quickly adjust buys depending on performance. What demographic targets led to conversions to the website, or more donations? Why do you see a certain ad, and not others? Your demographics (and online history) have helped campaigns target ads directly to you.

Big Data

The role of big data in Canadian campaigns is still muted compared to the United States. The Obama team was famous (and successful) for building huge teams of data scientists who found seemingly random correlations between all the A/B tests, digital ads and other metricsthey had to maximize each action their campaign took.

Canada is a different landscape. As digital advances, it isn't only the information we volunteer. Our online identities can and do tell campaigns (and marketers) more about us than even the best canvassers can capture. With the right analysis, this data allows campaigns to determine who is likely to vote for any party based on information they have never given anyone.

Scary? Maybe. Effective? Very.

So, how will we know who is best using these tools? This digital work is often the work never seen by the public. Like traditional campaign activities, the research, data and targeting are some of a parties' most closely held secrets.

The campaigns that neglect digital do so at their own risk. If 2015 was the year digital went mainstream, 2019 will be the year it may just lead the campaign and deliver the real-life votes needed to get a party across the finish line.

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