The success of Senator Barack Obama’s online organizing and fundraising has brought widespread attention to the use of digital tactics for political campaigns. In January, Obama raised $36 million, of which about 80 percent came from online donations. Such staggering numbers confirm the importance of online strategies in politics and make me wonder: is there a place for behavioral targeting in the political arena? After all, political strategists, much like marketing strategists, utilize targeting techniques to break down large numbers of people into smaller portions of like-minded people. Instead of segmenting people based on purchasing decisions, they dice up the electorate to identify and reach out to campaign supporters.
To further explore my curiosity, I sat down for a chat with Mark Skidmore of Blue State Digital, the Washington D.C.-based Internet strategy firm that’s often touted as “Obama’s secret digital weapon.”
Vicky Chen: Tell me about Blue State Digital (BSD). How did you guys get involved in the Obama campaign?
Mark Skidmore: BSD is a full-service digital firm. We offer integrated graphic design, Web site development, technology development and implementation (via BSD Online Tools), and strategic campaign and program management services. Basically, we take an integrated approach and work in collaboration with our clients to ensure the success of a project from start to finish.
In February 2007, Obama’s campaign retained Blue State Digital to build and manage an online tool set that includes their donation and social networking platforms. Joe Rospars, who is a partner at BSD, is also the campaign’s first ever new media director. In addition to the technology resources and experience BSD brings from our portfolio, Joe has pulled together an additional team of organizers, advertising planners, outreach experts, etcetera, to work on the overall digital strategy.
VC: What is BSD’s approach to targeting? Does it have any behavioral targeting tools?
MS: We have an innovative proprietary tool called True Match, which is a gift-matching program that brings together new donors and their matching donors personally so they can meet, communicate, and reinforce each other’s commitment to a common cause.
The information collected from donors (e-mail address and Zip Code) gets put into a CRM [define] database. That means the technology can then use donors’ data (including donor history information) as selection criteria when developing e-mail and advocacy campaigns for our clients. From the very first point of engagement, we begin to measure our audience and segment them based on their donation level and online behaviors. Did they open the mail? Did they donate? Did they forward it to friends? Basically, the technology can silo the users based on what their actions are on the Web site.
VC: Sounds like BSD goes beyond just targeting and actually incorporates social networking to expand the target audience.
MS: Yes. The fact that our donation solicitations include a “send it to a friend” link makes our approach very viral. With campaigns and donations, it’s not just about presenting a particular message; it’s about getting people to take action and make that contribution. True Match gets people involved and gets them to meet up in real life. It links donors who contribute the same amount together, first in the online space, then in the offline space. In a way, it’s like Meetup.com for politically-minded people.
VC: Do you take other actions to target and really go after prospective new donors?
MS: For prospective new donors it’s mostly about building awareness, so search marketing, rich media and social media strategies are applied. We geotarget specific regions to build up new constituent bases. We also generate extensive keyword lists, target relevant sites, blogs, and social networks to find the most relevant user base.
VC: Is there anything that the commercial world can learn from the political world with respect to targeting?
MS: From an online advertising point of view the political arena really hasn’t embraced online as much as the corporate marketing world; BSD is one of the only technology firms in Washington D.C. using search and other such ‘corporate’ technologies for political, advocacy and nonprofit campaigns. However, social media is one area that the political space has learned to utilize better than the corporate world. By leveraging the power of social networks, social news and blogs, we have learned that we can reach out to specific audiences to mobilize grassroots support. We have also learned to cultivate relationships with bloggers, forums, social networks more so than corporate marketers.
VC: One last question: do you think behavioral targeting can drastically change the effectiveness of online political efforts?
MS: I think we are already seeing the effects of behavioral targeting in the political environment, from new donors to participation on social networks. From here it is about truly understanding what users are interested in, where it makes sense to advertise, and further using this data to customize messaging to mobilize support.
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