Decision 2012: It Was About The Technology, Stupid

In the wake of Mitt Romney’s loss last week, big Republican donors are wondering why they saw little to no return on the billion dollars they invested during the 2012 election cycle. The answer not only provides insight into President Obama’s victories in key swing states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Virginia; it’s an omen that foreshadows the future of media utility in an era where familiarity, credibility, and the ability to forge personal connections trump traditional advertising at every turn.

To be clear, the professionals running the Romney campaign are far more adept than my headline might infer. But they did make one crucial mistake in underestimating how technology has fundamentally changed voter outreach.

For instance, take Karl Rove’s super PAC American Crossroads. Along with its nonprofit component, Crossroads GPS, it spent $180 million on advertising. That media buy represents only a drop in the bucket when we consider the fortune that the Romney campaign and independent Republican groups spent on TV. Twenty years ago, that spending advantage would have likely had a tremendous impact on electoral outcomes. Today, however, three factors have converged that significantly diminish the air war’s effect. As a result, studies show that groups such as Rove’s saw only a one percent return on their investment.

The first factor is the general decline of TV. Republicans pinned their hopes to the TV at a time when it is falling to at least fourth place in the small screen hierarchy—behind personal computers, laptops, tablets, and perhaps even mobile phones. Consider that Sharp has “material doubts” about the future of its business; that Panasonic has reported an $8 billion loss for the first half of this fiscal year; and that media buying networks have slashed their TV advertising revenue growth forecasts. Those indicators alone should have given pause to any campaign that put all of its eggs in the TV basket. The fact that 2.7 million people viewed President Obama’s “You Didn’t Build That” comment on YouTube ought to do the same moving forward.

Then, there is the DVR technology that is now a staple in the majority of voting households. What good is a TV ad blitz when even those that comprise TV’s declining audience can simply record their favorite shows and fast-forward past the deluge of political messaging?

Second is the polarization of the electorate. Exit poll analysts are reporting that as many as 91 percent of voters made up their minds well in advance of the campaign’s final days. If that figure holds up, it means only 9 percent of voters were susceptible to the influence-oriented TV advertising that made up the lion’s share of Republican resource allocation in the campaign’s final month.

That’s an important audience to be sure; but as the Obama campaign amply demonstrated, the last days of a polarized presidential campaign are more about action than influence, as the need to ensure that solid supporters actually get to the polls trumps all other considerations. As we will see below, TV may influence, but other media are far more effective when it comes time to translate influence into action.

Third, and most important, is the ascendency of social media. In 2008, we learned about its importance. In 2012, we bore witness to its dominance. Today’s voters are flocking to social media in droves because they provide a more personalized and controlled political messaging experience. Voters no longer have to settle for static, one-way communications from sources they don’t know and don’t implicitly trust.

They now have the freedom to engage in two-way conversations with familiar and credible connections that share their unique points of view and outlooks on life—whatever they may be.

As a result, campaigns that dominate the ground war fought primarily on social networks are those that achieve the dual goals of influence and action simultaneously. Insights provided by Democratic media strategist Peter Fenn for a recent Election Edition of LEVICK Weekly illustrate the point.

“The Obama Campaign did a tremendous job of leveraging social media to connect with voters in ways that were genuine, authentic, and exceedingly likely to establish strong personal relationships,” says Mr. Fenn, who heads up Fenn Communications Group, a political media operation that has advised more than 300 national, statewide, and local campaigns. “Voters weren’t just being contacted by campaign personnel; they were being influenced by their friends. In the end, that made all the difference in getting out the vote and aptly demonstrated the declining value of traditional advertising.”

Mr. Fenn shares an anecdote that is particularly telling. “For instance, Obama supporters could download a mobile application in the final weeks of the campaign that enabled them to reach out to Facebook friends in swing states to ensure they got to the polls. The campaign found that when five of a potential voter’s friends reached out, that potential voter was transformed into a real voter because he or she was contacted by someone familiar, rather than via TV or an anonymous email address.”

Simply put, Mr. Fenn’s outlook crystalizes the wisdom that, today, the messenger is just as important as the message itself. Mass communications may be expansive in reach; but they are often too easily ignored because the audience has no skin in the game. There is no feeling that the message is intended solely for the recipient. As such, the audience is cloaked in a form of anonymity that creates no real consequences for inaction.

Conversely, there is no ignoring the intensely personal, micro-targeted messages that social media facilitate. There is no question that the message is meant just for the recipient, and it comes from a family member, friend, or acquaintance who is depending on you to make a responsible decision. That kind of outreach infuses emotion into the equation—and it’s emotion, not logic, that ultimately gets a voter to the polls—or a consumer to the point of sale.

We will no doubt see more political TV advertising in the future, for no other reason than that campaigns feel they need to do it to run a truly credible and authoritative campaign. But as TV plays a smaller role in our lives and social media continue to redefine the ways that credibility and authority are both communicated and perceived, we will no doubt see less and less of it in 2014, 2016, and every election to come.

If there is one lesson that the business community should take to heart from the 2012 presidential election, it’s that they might be very wise to follow suit. After all, consumers are consumers—whether they are considering questions of public policy or which products are most deserving of their hard-earned dollars.

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Richard Levick, Esq., President and CEO of LEVICK, represents countries and companies in the highest-stakes global communications matters—from the Wall Street crisis and the Gulf oil spill to Guantanamo Bay and the Catholic Church. Mr. Levick was honored for the past four years on NACD Directorship’s list of “The 100 Most Influential People in the Boardroom,” and has been named to multiple professional Halls of Fame for lifetime achievement. He is the co-author of three books, including The Communicators: Leadership in the Age of Crisis, and is a regular commentator on television, in print, and on the most widely read business blogs.

[Image: Flickr user Nicolas Nova]

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