By Michael Edwards
The next federal election is just a year away, but you’d be forgiven to think that we just had one. That’s because in recent years Canadian political parties have adopted a more continuous election cycle akin to that of our neighbours to the south.
It used to be that when a party would win a majority government, they’d dive right in to governing with the prospect of the next electoral contest but a speck in a distant horizon. The traditional ebb and flow of politics and governance was the result of pragmatism. Unlike the glossy and well-funded political parties in the U.S., Canadian parties run on shoestring budgets and within stringent spending confines. It’s the bane of many political operators, but arguably a sound asset and quality of the Canadian tradition of good government.
The emergence of continuous engagement through digital channels has shifted this paradigm. Continuous metrics and real-time feedback on content and policies have morphed political operatives into hyper-sensitive data scientists. In turn, this shift has fueled greater demand for ever more cost-efficient ways to acquire, sustain and convert supporters: who are the lifeblood of political movements. Without an efficient acquisition strategy, parties will find themselves bereft of members, donors and volunteers who are crucial to their success in “getting out the vote” in local ridings.
With more data in hand, political parties have become more nuanced in how they approach the broad coalition of support they need to be successful at election time. Parties are becoming less dependent on traditional regional structures and traditional demographic targeting. Instead they are more focused on targeting voters based on interest and support of specific policies and positions.
A hybrid digital + traditional channel approach
Interest and audience-based targeting has opened the door for significant growth in list building at reduced costs. Canadian political parties have begun to develop a hybrid approach to supporter acquisition, which grounds itself in the Internet game.
Digital channels have proven to be more cost-efficient than telemarketing and direct mail because parties have realized that online they can persuade voters, acquire support and generate revenue simultaneously. Being able to reach a broader audience exposes undecideds and non-supporters to persuasive messaging while also providing actions for otherwise unknown supports to self-select and join the campaign.
Parties use this self-selection to narrow the voter pool and prioritize and/or segment caller and mailing lists for traditional solicitation activities. In practice, this means digital exposure through marketing activities augments the traditional research process to figure out who a party should and should not contact directly.
The modern Canadian political party has adapted to the digital age by creating more flexible databases that merge online and offline support. This melding of tactics has created a continuous campaign cycle that culminates at election time instead of beginning.
When the writ drops and parties are able to spend meaningfully on marketing, all of the tracking and lead generation activity they have done prior to the actual campaign allows them to operate with unprecedented efficiency.
As we turn our attention to the 2019 federal election race, we will see smarter and more targeted political parties who prioritize efficient acquisition above all else. We will also see greater innovation and the result of drastic changes in how parties operate come to light.
Here are four key developments you can expect to see all four major political parties doing today in preparation for the 2019 election:
1. Anchoring in digital basics. Each political party will no doubt attempt to pursue at least one or two “innovative” new tactics. They need to try new things in order to evolve. However, at the end of the day, you should expect to see impeccably executed lead gen ads (social and native) coupled with targeted landing pages and automated e-mail marketing programmes dominate the bulk of acquisition strategy.
Expect also for parties to use Facebook and its tools to their fullest extent. Facebook is an oasis for political marketers because so much of the electorate lives there and products like lead ads and lookalike audiences dramatically drive down exposure and acquisition costs. Cheaply acquiring support improves overall cost per acquisition and cost per dollar revenue metrics. Larger audiences make it easier for teams to get their message out and verify they are reaching the audiences they need to win over in order to fare well on election day.
2. 1:1 messaging + Messenger ads. Emergent platforms and services like Hustle are changing the game for political parties. Dubbed former U.S. Democratic party presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ “secret weapon”, 1:1 SMS/text platforms enable supporters to engage other supporters with prescribed asks and encourage greater political participation. This creates more authentic engagement in a structured manner that aligns with parties’ broader strategies.
Messaging is king and you can expect to see parties take greater advantage of Messenger ads, artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots and real-time response across social channels as ways to convince and convert potential supporters.
3. Building social and socially augmented databases. Political parties are building and integrating sophisticated social listening and data scraping capabilities to bring in social data into traditional databases. Platforms like NationBuilder have risen in political circles because they empower campaigns to supplement lead scores with social media and e-mail marketing engagement.
Parties are using social media to target and acquire individual supporters at the micro level while simultaneously developing a greater understanding of trends and preferences at a macro level to influence traditional direct marketing tactics.
Sophisticated parties are going beyond this by working with data agencies to use information generated to create even more sophisticated voter archetypes and targeting profiles, which feed into offline tactics like calling, direct mail and even door knocking strategies.
“Closing the gap” between online and offline strategies is paramount to success, including driving the financial viability of campaigns that need to generate fundraising dollars to support larger digital video and television buys in the final weeks of the election.
4. Micro-targeting and micro-influencing. Adaptive targeting is a pillar of success for modern political parties. Winning campaigns know their audience(s) and masterfully test and measure messaging against them. We can expect to see a continuation of this trend with even greater importance placed on issue targeting as a way to keep specific individual voters engaged.
Expect custom direct mail, targeted voice endorsements and segmented e-mail campaigns to bombard mailboxes and inboxes across the country with unprecedented volume and sophistication.
Parties know that reaching people is not enough. They must reach individuals on specific issues that matter to them in order to win the vote, turn supporters into donors and “get out the vote” on election day.
Micro-influencing will enhance this in the 2019 election cycle. Expect to see micro influencers endorsing parties and those endorsements filtering their way through a plethora of direct marketing products to solidify support and get supporters to donate, volunteer and commit to vote.
The 2019 federal election won’t feel fundamentally different from elections in the past and maybe that’s the point. Political parties have seamlessly enhanced “how” they go about prospecting, marketing and acquiring support. The underlying strategies are enhanced and more sophisticated and new methods of marketing have emerged, but live alongside more traditional marketing tactics.
For the direct marketer with an interest in political strategy, the key is to watch how political parties blend traditional and digital tactics to create a more cohesive and targeted strategy, which centered around the individual. Arguably the largest shift will be the continued gravitation toward more measured and cost-efficient direct marketing approaches at the expense of more traditional awareness and volume advertising.
Michael Edwards is the digital and creative director at Sussex Strategy Group (www.sussex-strategy.com), a Canadian government relations and public affairs agency. He is an experienced campaign practitioner and his campaigns have won awards in Canada and the U.S. Michael is also an adjunct-professor at Seneca College, teaching a course on digital government relations. He is an active member of the Canadian Marketing Association (www.the-cma.org). Michael can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.