There’s a new political battleground in 2016: your phone.
Next year’s election presents a new opportunity for politicians to harness a slew of technologies — from video to demographic data — that will help them reach voters.
The drive toward connecting with potential voters on their smartphones is playing out, in part, because so many people have one this election cycle. About two-thirds of Americans own a smartphone today, compared with just 35% in the spring of 2011, according to the Pew Research Center. For about 10% of Americans, their smartphone is the only form of high-speed Internet they have access to at home.
“Now everybody has some form of data plan and are doing some form of browsing 24 hours a day,” said Scott Goodstein, the founder of Revolution Messaging, a company that was recently hired to work with Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders. Goodstein also worked with the Obama campaign in 2008 on its social media strategy.
Digital technology, including text messaging and social media, was a crucial part of President Barack Obama’s electoral success in 2008 and 2012. Hillary Clinton, Obama’s primary opponent in 2008, was less digitally competitive during her first White House bid, but she’s making a bigger push now that she’s back on the campaign trail, hiring a number of former Obama tech operatives to lead her team, including Teddy Goff, who ran the digital strategy team for Obama in 2012.
“Everyone is implementing mobile solutions right now,” said Larry Huynh, a partner at Trilogy Interactive, a digital consultancy for political campaigns and advocacy groups. Campaigns that aren’t using mobile technology to reach voters “are doing it wrong,” Huynh said.
That means voters should expect more political ads as they scroll through their phones next year — much as they’ll be bombarded with ads on television.
Aaron Smith, a senior researcher at Pew, said that the use of mobile technologies by political campaigns in 2016 could be similar to the way campaigns embraced social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter in the 2008 campaign.
“I suspect what we’ll see is where mobile becomes a standard facet of how people interact with and get news about what’s happening in the political process,” Smith said.
Many of the mobile ads will look like pitches that most people are used to seeing on their desktops or laptops on the edges of an article they might be reading. Those ads, known as display ads, are typically the shape of a square or rectangle.
But unlike what someone sees on a desktop computer, display ads can take up the entire screen on a mobile device, said Andrew Lipsman of comScore, a digital analytics company. That makes it more likely that someone will actually click on the ad.
“Ads tend to be more effective in mobile,” Lipsman said.
Zac Moffatt, the co-founder of Targeted Victory, a digital advertising company that worked on digital strategy for the Mitt Romney campaign in 2012, said he expected much more money to be dedicated to mobile advertising leading up to 2016.
“Some campaigns will invest in digital and mobile, and others will still act like it’s the 1990s,” Moffatt said. “They still want to believe that people watch television as a family at 8 p.m.”
Tailoring messages to voters
One of the biggest advances in reaching voters on their phones since 2012 has been the increased amounts of data on potential voters in this election cycle and the ability to better connect what voters are doing on their desktop computers to what they are doing on their cell phones.
A campaign could decide it wants to reach a certain group of people with ads in both places, Moffatt said. But each of those ads would need to have a different approach, where the smartphone ads allow voters to volunteer, donate or read about the candidates in one click, while the desktop ad may take you to the candidate’s website.
Other forms of data available to campaigns include potential voters’ geographic locations and what websites they visit. Campaigns could use that data, in the aggregate, to target specific groups of voters with specific messages.
For example, during a 2012 campaign in Los Angeles supporting a labor union, Goodstein of Revolution Messaging said his company was able to send messages to Spanish speakers who took certain bus routes to work. A campaign could also decide to send ads to the phones of people who live in a specific apartment building or other geographic location.
That same technology could be used to send messages to potential voters who may have downloaded the candidate’s app and happen to be at a rally. The campaign could send messages to the people who are at the rally with more information on the candidate’s policies or information about the next rally.
The 2016 election season could also herald the era of more mobile video ads. The trick there, however, will be to make sure those ads are short enough to maintain the attention of a supermarket shopper.
“People only have a certain tolerance for ads,” said Lipsman of comScore. “It doesn’t really work when you put 30-second ads online.”
Technologies like Snapchat and Vine have gotten consumers used to watching — and creating — short videos. And on Facebook, which averages 160 million mobile users a month in the United States, videos begin playing in a user’s newsfeed automatically, increasing the likelihood that a person will see at least some of the video before scrolling past it.
But for all the technical opportunities that campaigns will be presented with, they will have to make sure they don’t overstay their welcome by sending too many messages, repeating the same message too often, contacting people without their consent or making ads that are so personal they may turn off potential voters.
“People are used to ads now, but if it’s clear that you are hyper targeting this person, that’s where you might get people to start to cringe a little bit,” said Lipsman of comScore. “You do have to protect against backlash.”