Lost in technology: The struggles of the modern political campaign | Ben Lewis

Why do some political campaigns and social justice movements seem to have such a hard time taking advantage of new technology? Why do expensive communications firms never seem to deliver? Reflecting on a decade spent working in technology and politics, What's Left contributor Ben Lewis provides some insights. The bottom line: no one knows the goals of a campaign better than the organizers involved, and the best path forward is to build the internal capacity needed to take advantage of constantly changing technologies. Though focused on political campaigns, these strategies are also useful for small not-for-profits and large unions.

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When Barack Obama became President in 2008, many pointed to his campaign’s adoption and investment in social media and digital tools as a key reason for the victory and as a watershed moment for political campaigns. No longer could these tools be ignored if a politician had any hope of being elected.

Suddenly, previous campaigns and “old” organizing models were archaic. They were missing numerous opportunities to capitalize on new technologies that could keep track of an increasingly connected public – a public using the internet as a “fun” and “easy” way to engage in politics.

This narrative is problematic. It’s important to realize that good political campaigns have always been sophisticated in their communications and analysis. Identifying potential voters, their voting intentions, and the issues informing those intentions have a long history. Whether through phoning or on the doorstep, political parties have always worked hard to collect this information and use it to inform their campaign strategies.

One of the reasons Obama’s 2008 victory was so important, was because his campaign was so effective at integrating digital tools into established and effective communication, data collection, and data analysis strategies. It gave the Obama team a marked advantage and showed just how effective online outreach and digital analytics could be in helping to win the hearts, minds, and dollars of potential supporters.

Since that victory, political parties around the world have been attempting to copy the Obama campaign playbook and invest more effort in digital tools. They have doubled-down on social media and email engagement, tried to optimize online fundraising, and attempted to build sophisticated voter, donor, and volunteer tracking systems – all with the goal of winning.

Despite (and in some cases because of) these efforts, many campaigns have struggled to improve their results. As it turns out, there was a lot more to Obama’s victory than just the incorporation of new technologies. The reason Obama’s campaign succeeded was not just because it invested in digital tools, but because those tools were developed and managed by people who understood how they could best compliment existing organizing strategies. They understood not just how these tools could be used, but how they should be used to achieve the goals of the campaign. They ruthlessly focussed on the things that worked. Yes, they built a vibrant presence online, but they also built a vibrant presence on the ground, using new technologies to train and organize thousands of volunteers.

With technology continuing to evolve at a rapid pace, the possibilities for political campaigns have multiplied exponentially. New and old communications firms have thrived in the years following Obama’s victory, selling attractive and sexy solutions to campaigns right around the world. While politicians and parties buy these solutions hoping they will pave the path to victory, having the technology isn’t enough.

In many cases, these campaigns are so obsessed with all the ways these new technologies can be used that they don’t spend enough time learning how they should be used. Often, instead of supporting the campaign and providing more tools for on-the-ground organizing, attempts to use new technologies gobble up significant resources and money.

Money is always a limiting factor in political campaigns – there is never, ever enough. That presents a challenge when developing new communication tools and data tracking capabilities using new technologies because to do this right requires a significant investment in both technology and people.

A lot of these tools are sold by eager, for-profit, third parties quick to point out the long list of awesome things their products can do. Unfortunately, these sales pitches are often done without considering which tools a campaign actually has the capacity to effectively employ. But, like any good sales pitch, this is glossed over. This is pretty good strategy for selling a product but, most of the time, the campaigns buying the product are paying for a lot more than they actually have the ability to effectively use.

The other danger is that decision makers lose focus on the ground game. New technology is so enticing that in many cases it’s easier to justify paying a company $100,000 to build a new website (that does nothing to further the goals of the campaign) than it is to invest in on-the-ground organizers and volunteer training (tangibly increasing capacity for winning arguments on the doorstep and getting the vote out).

Properly taking advantage of new social media technologies means understanding the specific ways in which they will compliment the campaign. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, different mediums are better adapted for different messages. Social media and email communications need a completely different approach compared to the existing strategies used in media releases and paper mail. Some of these new approaches run completely counter to existing best practices. They require new skill-sets and more agile and responsive teams. That means more resources and money for training. Interestingly, because many of these technologies are free, the cost of training staff to use them strategically is often not contemplated in campaign budgets.

This results in Twitter feeds and Facebook pages that merely regurgitate campaign press releases and post the odd video. This approach, like a canvasser leaving a pile of flyers at a voter’s front door, fails to engage the public in meaningful discussion. The most active and influential users of social media are engaging with their followers regularly and having online conversations. Unlike television, radio, and flyers, social media is a two-way medium and not engaging with followers represents a failure to properly leverage it.

Of course, the other struggle is the sheer number of social networks available. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Medium, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Instagram, Vimeo – all of these networks have thriving communities. Some people are active on some and dismiss others as silly, but figuring out which are worth using in a campaign should be a strategic, not personal, decision.

Any campaign will have several concurrent goals, including voter outreach and engagement, volunteer identification, fundraising, and “get out the vote” campaigns. Different tools will be better for achieving different goals – because some will work far better than others. It’s critical to focus investments on the digital strategies that are most effective and put aside the ones that aren’t.

New online communications tools are one area where modern campaigns can excel at communicating directly with supporters and potential voters, but there is another important, but complicated, area where campaigns have been making major investments: data collection and analysis.

Reliable data is critical to a successful campaign. With good data, it’s possible to tell which campaign messages are resonating, who they’re resonating with, where those people live, and the best ways to communicate with them. This data can tell a campaign what issues should be featured in the next million dollar ad-buy, how many volunteers can be recruited in a given region, or, based on previous donations, exactly how much money a donor should be asked for as a way to convince them to give more money.

Some types of data are easier to measure than others. It’s easy to count how many people voted for each candidate in the last election, or how much the average donor gave during the last calendar year. But other types of data are harder to measure. Support for certain issues can be notoriously difficult to measure. As polling pundits know, the way a question is asked can dramatically change the results. Did an email perform well because of its subject line, its content, the time of day it was sent? How many conversations should be had with a friendly voter in order to secure their vote? Are there key talking points that can make this happen faster? Is there a threshold at which a potential voter becomes so aggravated that they decide to vote for another candidate or to not vote at all?

These are all questions campaigns wrestle with, and comprehensive data collection and analysis offer possible solutions. There are hundreds, if not thousands of other questions that might be answered by collecting other pieces of data. Some of these could be invaluable when improving a campaign’s chances of winning, but some of them are useless. Trying to account for them all is overwhelming.

Just like there are numerous types of data that can be collected, there are just as many ways that data can be analyzed and interpreted. Having the technology to conduct these analyses is one thing, but having qualified analysts who also have political campaign smarts is another. Sometimes, campaign managers can struggle in understanding the best ways to invest in online communications, or they struggle to understand the data that is most useful for meeting the goals of the campaign. While there are billions of pieces of (possibly important) data bouncing around, it is completely infeasible to collect and analyze even a fraction of them.

Data has many limitations. In order for a campaign to make decisions about the issues it should talk about, it’s always important to consider questions from multiple perspectives and understand underlying biases. Issue-based data might show that a principled position is unpopular (perhaps an anti-war stance), but it’s important to understand that this may be due to the current political context and not the position itself. A month later, the public might resoundingly shift opinion. Alternately, a position may be unpopular because it is not properly understood. While campaigns often strive for short sound-bites and simple narratives, sometimes taking more time to understand why a position is unpopular will reveal ways messaging can be refined to better communicate a position’s importance.

Data can be biased in numerous ways. For example, data shows that the wealthiest people are white and are men. A simplistic analysis of the data would say that white men are far better at understanding the economy and running businesses than others. Obviously, that is not true. The fact that white men are the most wealthy is the result of years of racism, sexism, and exploitation. That’s an extreme example, but many attempts at demographic analysis are biased based on pre-existing factors. Understanding them is important.

While it’s easy to take data results at face-value and sell them to the public, considering the issue carefully and digging deeper into the data can sometimes yield more useful results, such as pointing to (often important) underlying issues the campaign might be able to address. It’s critical for campaigns to have experienced analysts who understand these issues.

Sometimes, the answer isn’t in the data. It’s easy for campaign managers to look at nice “hard” numbers and believe the results represent an absolute truth. They will often trust those numbers over the instincts and experience of local organizers. But, just like an individual organizer, these numbers only represent a perspective. It is critical to keep this in mind.

In some ways, the obsession with the possibilities of technology has hurt campaigns. Building databases in particular can quickly spiral in complexity – making campaigns less effective. More complexity requires more training and time to enter data. More complexity means a greater likelihood that people cut corners or enter incorrect data that distorts results. More complexity means increased time and costs for development, both now and in the future. After all, in order to take advantage of future digital tools, a campaigns database will need to continually evolve.

New communications, data tracking, and data analysis technologies are important tools for campaigns, but it’s critical to realize that they are just tools. Having them is not enough – campaigns need to know how to use them effectively.

Ultimately, to leverage new technologies, political campaigns first need to understand how online communications differ from those of the past and which tools are going to be most beneficial to their efforts. Throwing words into the online abyss does not win a campaign or leverage the qualities that make social media so appealing and engaging to people.

Similarly, campaigns need to sit down and think long and hard about the most critical pieces of data they should collect. This means understanding not just what data can be collected, but how it will be analyzed and acted upon. After all, if a campaign can’t use the data, then the effort put into its collection will only consume precious resources. Starting with the most beneficial pieces of data, and building on that strategy during current and future campaigns, has the best chance of producing positive results.

External communications firms can be helpful in identifying strategies for moving forward, but it’s important for campaigns to reflect on their own goals and then build the internal capacity and expertise required to leverage technology to achieve those objectives. Sometimes, additional internal capacity is just needed to properly take advantage of an external firm’s expertise.

Successful campaigns are built by engaged and passionate activists. By training organizers and volunteers on the effective use of digital tools, and hiring to fill gaps in technological expertise, sophisticated campaigns will emerge and thrive in the rapidly changing digital landscape.

Investing heavily in modern technology has been seen as a panacea for many modern campaigns, but the truth is, most campaigns struggle to integrate these technologies effectively. Instead of getting distracted by the magic of all the things that might be possible, they should be ruthlessly focused on how technology can be used to communicate with the public and improve the traction of their on-the-ground organizing.

The message to campaigns is this: You understand your goals better than any communications firm that sells products or services. Strategic advice and specialized products can be helpful, but it’s important to carefully evaluate how this advice and technology will be implemented. Building internal capacity and expertise is critical to ensuring a campaign is able to adapt to new technologies. It’s better to invest resources in a few things that are working well and then build on those efforts organically as capacity expands. And, finally, it’s always important to look beyond technology as being the best solution, and consider whether the next investment might be more effectively spent on to hiring and training more organizers on the ground.