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The midterms and fights in Washington will dominate news coverage in 2018, but the day-to-day stories will play out against a fast-changing backdrop. The electorate is evolving, and so is the technology campaigns will use to reach the people in it. Digital politicos should watch these three big digital campaigning trends in the year to come.
Adapting to a brave new Facebook
For the Trump team in 2016, Facebook eclipsed TV ads and phone banks as a way to reach voters. But for campaigns hoping to emulate their social-media success, the rules changed early in 2018.
Facebook announced as the year kicked off that the all-important News Feed would now emphasize posts from friends and family, particularly ones sparking conversation. These "engaging" posts from friends would push out content created by Facebook Pages, including those run by political campaigns and advocacy organizations. How will campaigns react?
Some will try to leverage the new reality by actively recruiting supporters to join in social media outreach. Rapid response team members would sign up to receive notice, usually via email or text, when a campaign has high-priority photos, videos, donation asks or other content that could benefit from grassroots amplification.
More broadly, campaigns will experiment with integrating social media into their overall field outreach, perhaps replacing envelope-stuffing with Facebook messaging and texts. And since Facebook is encouraging Page owners to create Groups for person-to-person conversation among their supporters, campaigns may find them a good venue for social media organizing.
But many campaigns may decide that organic content distribution is simply no longer worth the effort. Instead, they'll rely on email and other channels they can control to mobilize their members, while spending on Facebook advertising to reach voters not on their list. A potential winner? Facebook lead-generation ads to collect those email addresses in the first place.
Data and automation
Facebook advertising naturally leads into the question of marketing automation. While few campaigns are likely to hire an army of Russian bots, look for some to learn a lesson from the Trump campaign and use technology to target Facebook ads at specific slices of the electorate on a large scale. Creating a feedback system as intricate as the one Brad Parscale built for Donald Trump will be out of reach for most. But the basic approach -- run many different variations of words and pictures at targeted slices of the electorate and put money behind the ones that work -- will scale up and down the ballot.
Meanwhile, campaigns will turn to voter file-targeted banner and video ads, which run on many different websites depending on where the intended viewer spends time online. Instead of targeting specific websites, systems like DemocraticAds.com and their Republican equivalents automate the process of showing ads to the right people regardless of what sites they visit.
Marketing automation is coming to the inbox, too. Data-driven "adaptive email" promises to boost response rates by tailoring messages to individual recipients based on what a campaign knows about them. This level of sophistication may be beyond most campaigns. Still, even people running for local office can set up "triggered" emails in many mass-email systems, like welcoming new members to the list, or giving them a first set of actions to take.
Finally, let's not forget the 2018 tech that we can’t predict because it hasn't been invented yet. Perhaps Trump's most striking "achievement" has been his inspiration of a mass movement against him and his agenda, which has already borne fruit in upset Democratic victories in special elections from Alabama to Oklahoma.
Also ripening on the vine? Tech innovations large and small, enabling grassroots political organizing across the country. Technology doesn't have to be new to be newly useful in politics, either: the explosion of Indivisible groups in communities large and small proves the power of Google Doc activism. At the higher end, companies like the ones championed by Higher Ground Labs hope to revolutionize the way campaigns do the work of reaching out to voters.
Democrats have no monopoly on innovation, of course, and Republicans are building new small-dollar online donor networks and field programs to try to hold on to governorships and congressional seats in November. But the energy seems to be on the left this time around, and it's not limited to party-driven initiatives.
Some will see the lack of central leadership in the Resistance as a fatal flaw, but with no big trees to block the light, a thousand green sprigs are thriving. Most local activists started with little more than determination, but they're learning fast about the tools, technologies and tactics that facilitate change. Who knows what they'll be teaching the professional political class a year from now?
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning website Epolitics.com, a twenty-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org.