While the 2012 election results are still being evaluated, one thing is clear: Republican failures at the polls were a direct result of an inability to adapt the party’s messaging and outreach to the digital age.
Not only did the GOP fail to disseminate its message beyond its reliable base of voters, it also relied too heavily on traditional advertising campaigns, while neglecting innovative voter identification methods and persuasion tactics.
But the party’s problems are deeper than a failure to employ any specific technology, tactic or tool. The GOP must overhaul its entire outlook on digital communication. Only by investing in digital will the party generate the kind of support that leads to electoral success. From where I sit, there are four fundamental areas we need to focus on.
1. Creative Consumption
The rising popularity of Instagram, YouTube, Vimeo and other photo and video-sharing websites underscores how hungry online audiences are for content that not only informs but also entertains and motivates. Online behavior, especially in social media, is most effectively driven by creative design, emotionally riveting visuals and content that inspires action.
The Obama campaign firmly grasped the relationship between creativity and engagement in 2012. In fact, Organizing for America has used catchy videos, personalized media, and other creative tactics to grab the attention of their target audiences since 2008.
Republicans simply haven’t invested the necessary resources into appealing to audiences (especially young voters) that respond to compelling media and design campaigns. It's simply not enough to put out a statement, send a news release or write a Facebook post. Creativity must be incubated by enlisting the work of more graphic designers, creative writers, videographers and musicians who can help the GOP appeal to more voters in more ways.
Democrats were far more effective than Republicans in advertising to key demographics this past cycle. Democrats sent custom messages to specific audiences on television and online. Republican candidates, meanwhile, failed to embrace targeted messaging strategies that localized their elections, relying instead on single-issue national messaging.
The left succeeded because it had the data. Obama’s team spent months recruiting target state data managers to focus on list building activities. Republicans didn't. That was the game change. In today’s digital age, data is the most precious commodity. The possibilities for optimizing, segmenting and communicating information from data are nearly endless.
From the presidential level on down, the results exposed how far off Republican data were. The reliance on traditional polling methods, and the lack of understanding of non-traditional voters skewed what Republican campaigns were learning about voters. To compete, Republicans must make major investments in data consumption. They must build algorithms for matching data to develop demographic models that will help them identify valuable voter behavior. This information must be gathered and shared by each campaign and party committee.
It is equally important to identify contact attributes (i.e. Twitter profile, areas of interest, geo-location) that tell us more about voters and potential voters. Fortunately, new technologies are constantly released, such as the Facebook OpenGraph, which offers opportunities to derive data like never before.
After 2008, Republicans believed they understood online and social media strategies for targeting voters. They didn’t. Republicans did increase their presence on social media and advertising on digital platforms in subsequent elections, but it appears they were still communicating with the same reliable voters they were communicating with in traditional spaces.
The party simply wasn’t using these platforms to engage new voters, and a social media strategy is only effective if it focuses on constant growth and engagement. Audiences must be fed spoonfuls of varying content that keep them informed, engaged and ready to share with their respective networks. This feeding serves to bring more audiences to the trough, inviting new networks of people to the feast.
The web isn't a broadcast medium like television or radio, where one power structure simply transfers information to the masses. The web is made up of social networks that trade in information sharing. Delivering engaging content that prompts individuals to share it across networks creates value.
4. The Operative
The niche approach is collapsing in the consulting world, and it needs to collapse on campaigns and committees too. It's time the Republican political establishment started placing a premium on digital acumen. The GOP doesn't need more operatives who are defined narrowly as the “political guy” or the “internet gal.” Today’s political environment requires a new breed of operatives who can do both, hand-in-hand.
Smart campaigns blend both traditional fieldwork and grassroots with databases, social media and mobile in order to engage and mobilize voters. The party committees shouldn't leave all the digital outreach to the digital folks; they should have political directors and senior advisors who are equipped with both a digital and field background.
Campaigning is a little bit art and a little bit science. But, at its core, it is an intangible movement of energy and a medium of information. A campaign by definition is a vehicle for transmitting information in an attempt to motivate people to vote for or against a particular candidate or issue.
A new technology or new platform is not going to win elections. A new culture will. Republicans must not resist new ways of communicating just because they challenge preexisting beliefs. The way forward is found in a party culture that truly believes in adapting in the digital world.
New technology, new media and new tactics are shaping how campaigns are being managed. And Republicans’ long-term viability depends on their ability to harness these new trends in technology and communication. The future of political warfare is online. Republicans must learn how to exploit new strategies for ongoing voter communication and campaign organizing. Any operative who doesn’t will be left in the dust.
Brian Donahue is a founder and partner at Craft Media Digital.