I’ve always thought of my firm as being pretty cutting-edge. We were one of the first to give the Internet a central role in campaign strategy — organizing, registering voters, circulating petitions, posting streaming video and using e-mail aggressively. In fact, The New York Times once cited us for the best use of the Internet in campaign history.
But that was a decade ago. Now I’m having a hard time keeping up.
It is not just the explosive use of the Internet that makes it harder for consultants to stay on top of their game. It is that digital technology is changing the way we all communicate, which means there are new sources of information and myriad ways for voters to avoid the messages we so carefully craft.
For example, what are we going to do about podcasting?
Actually, this trend could be a boon for those of us in the message-crafting business. Only a few million early adopters are downloading CNN now, but those numbers are growing rapidly. By this time next year they could be at critical mass. And if you want to reach opinion leaders, where better to look than on the cutting edge of information technology?
If I can produce a 15-second “preview” that will run whenever someone downloads a story to their iPod relating to my issue, I’ve found the ultimate in narrowcasting. I can’t tell my whole story in 15 seconds, but I should be able to intrigue them enough to link to a website that does.
Cable television is experimenting with another technology that could help stretch ad budgets and increase the efficiency of political messaging. Time Warner and Comcast are both preparing to test a system developed by a company called Invidi Technologies. To simplify, a set-top box uses a more sophisticated version of Amazon.com, recommending books or music based on your purchasing history.
The box can figure out the age, sex and, they claim, interests of viewers — even individual viewers watching different programs in the same household. Then, when a commercial break comes on, the box matches ads to viewer. The theory is that viewers are less likely to zap through ads that interest them.
The boxes can predict age plus sex with 75 percent accuracy, about 10 times as well as the best media buyer can today. With the added benefit of tracking viewer interests, this is an obvious benefit for commercial advertisers.
I think it has great political potential as well. If I can screen out everyone under 18 and know if I’m talking to a 35-year-old woman with a household income of $120,000 or a 65-year-old man earning $50,000, I can be a lot smarter with my media buy. I won’t show any spot to the kids channel surfing and distinctly different messages to the affluent soccer mom and the guy about to retire.
Right now, the system only works on digital cable, but the number of those systems is increasing rapidly with the conversion to HDTV now having a hard date. (In the interest of full disclosure, we represent the broadcast industry, not cable, in that dogfight.) The real power of this technology will be if broadcasters agree to play along. There are some “minor” political hurdles, such as must-carry provisions in the telcom rewrite, that will have to be cleared, but eventually the ability to hypertarget voters will change political advertising in a very big way.
Now what about the goal of influencing voters and calling them to action? In the issue-advocacy arena, where I spend most of my time these days, digital politics has dramatically changed the game. Back when we did the Harry & Louise campaign, we were immensely proud of the 500,000 contacts we generated with members of Congress. Not a drop in the bucket today. In 2004, there were 200 million communications to Congress, according to the Congressional Management Foundation. Ninety-one percent of those were on line.
The problem, however, is that the vast majority of them are identical messages. Even the greenest intern can figure out those have a lot less credibility than unique communications. It is not that hard to devise ways to have your coalition’s messages show some individuality.
Decades ago, Marshall McLuhan wrote that “the medium is the message.” That has never been more true than in the world of digital politics. Those who understand the new media will heard. Those who don’t, won’t.
Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org