Staying relevant on scale: How content targeting in the US election helped Obama secure a second term

The US election reached a frenetic climax this week, with the two main candidates leaving a huge digital footprint in their wake. From ubiquitous search-and-display advertising to virally seeded videos and social-media trends, an estimated 12% of a collective $8bn campaign spend (or $960m) has been poured into digital over the past few months.

As any technologically minded cynic will tell you, messages of empathy and conviction were crafted with greater relevancy than ever to carefully segmented audiences. For instance, micro-targeting enabled Obama’s team to direct radio ads to specific mining communities in Ohio. New data points from Facebook meant both parties were able to reach subsets of their millions of page fans with assurances on the policies that mattered most to them. Advances such as these have made segmentation more central than ever to communication strategies. At the same time, however, candidates have also had to meet new levels of user expectation in receiving only the most satisfying content. In the high-stakes world of political campaigning, are these two realities on an ominous collision course?

With both campaign teams operating across up to 10 separate content platforms, not to mention a network of bought media, the temptation to somehow overstate an agenda, even in an era of digital accountability, seems too great. Content streams must already be straining against unified party values like tectonic plates with each passing news cycle.

Evidence of this frequently emerged from the Romney camp, whose ‘flip-flopping’ was a persistent point of attack for critics. Attempting to offer more than a hollow-sounding universal message such as ‘change’ can soon become too divisive on a large scale. These communication challenges are no different to what marketers grapple with on a daily basis for brands on a global scale. So what lessons can brands learn from this election race?

Be a brand of the people

If a potential new audience doesn’t share similarities with the ones you already have, don’t try to make short-cuts to earn the sentiment and engagement you’re craving. Some intriguing – if not audacious – US research has attempted to map the social web for political reference, providing a rich source for parody and stereotyping.

Mobilise your biggest supporters

At the outset of Obama’s campaign, his website funnelled visitors into 18 different community groups for future contact. He also devoted particular attention to his most loyal audiences and regions, knowing that they would be his loudest advocates. It’s not hard to imagine a time when social networks allow similar targeting points – such as ‘maturity’ or ‘responsiveness’ – based on a fan’s relationship to a brand.

Don’t forget where you came from

If you’re willing to sell out on your brand values for short-term benefits, take a step back and look at yourself. Are these people really your target audience?

Matt Brown is a strategist at Zone.