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Let’s say you have this client — a huge, huge client — that conducts a defining event every two years.
For one of the events, the response is so-so. It’s not terrific by global standards, merely OK. For the other event, the response is pitiful … and dropping.
Your assignment: Turn the response around for both events. Boost engagement. Lift the numbers.
But in this scenario, your “client” is the United States of America, the “events” are the elections — the recent midterms and the presidential election — and the response is the abysmal voter turnout that now characterizes America’s defining event.
Tech companies that create demand, including marketers, analytics, engagement, and data integrators, have demonstrated time and again they know how to generate interest and close the deal.
So, how can the lessons of digital marketing be used to complete this assignment?
Defining the problem
The problem definition is fairly clear.
The recently completed midterm elections carved out a new bottom. The percentage of eligible voters actually voting was 36.4 percent. This was the lowest since 1942, a time when much of the country was busy elsewhere.
It wasn’t uniformly at that low level. Maine, for instance, had the high mark in turnout of 59.3 percent and Wisconsin was 56.9 percent. New York tied with Utah for the lowest turnout, with 28.8 percent.
This means that, in New York and Utah, as few as 14.5 percent of the voting-age population could win elections and referenda.
While some might argue that majority-based democracy belongs to those who actually participate in elections, it’s hard to see how governments and laws will remain credible when the majority in some states creeps down to, say, 9 percent of the eligibles — a level to which it is surely headed.
Maine’s turnout rate of 59.3 percent is closer to the participation rates in the more popular presidential elections. But even in those elections, about 40 percent of eligible voters sit it out. In the last presidential election of 2012, for instance, average turnout was 61.8 percent. In 2008, it was 63.6.
Let’s tackle this assignment as a digital marketer would.
A digital marketer looks at the process, from knowledge to demand to action, as a “customer’s journey” for which the marketer must reduce “pain points” that block completion — or the customer will simply do something else.
#1: The American voter registration system
Considered as a journey from eligible citizen to voting citizen, the electoral process has three basic pain points: registering to vote, generating interest, and voting.
In most states, voter registration is unnecessarily complex, paper-based, error-prone, and time-consuming. And you have to do it again whenever you move.
Despite the ongoing land wars between the two major parties over registration — Democrats focus on registering their base, Republicans try to make registration as difficult as possible — it may actually be the easiest part of this assignment to solve.
In large part because of the 19th century way in which we conduct voter registration, about 71 percent of the eligible American population is registered. In our neighbor Canada, for instance, it’s 93 percent. Most Western democracies have automatic voter registration. Even Iraq, under a system the U.S. helped implement, has automatic voter registration.
In this digital age, the solution to this pain point is evident: Automatically register everyone. And automatically send every registered voter an ID.
Data-matching is a skill that countless tech companies have perfected. It can merge existing voter rolls with databases of driver’s licenses, veterans benefits, public assistance, tax rolls, and others into a single list covering the overwhelming majority of eligible citizens.
Oregon’s Secretary of State has proposed an automatic registration system that, by simply adding unregistered citizens in the driver’s licenses database to the current registered voter list, could bring registration there to over 90 percent.
In France and many other countries, everyone who turns the voting age of 18 is automatically registered in public schools. So the simplest route could be to register every high school senior in the U.S. when they turn 18, and that pain point is eventually removed as the younger generation becomes the oldest.
One additional “duh” that’s a facepalm for any digital marketer: Make voter registration available online. Only 10 states offer online voter registration.
#2: Wanting to vote
The main hurdle in this customer’s journey is also the most difficult: generating enough interest to get people off their duffs.
But that’s what digital marketers do. And their focus is usually on the more tech-savvy younger generations, who also have among the lowest voting turnout rates.
John Andrews, the chief marketing officer at North Carolina’s Ignite Social Media agency, told VentureBeat that a key message of any digital marketing campaign is, “This affects your life.”
To bring home that message, Andrews suggested employing social marketing’s key energy source: friend power.
“No candidate will get me engaged like a friend will,” he noted. “What I haven’t seen is sharing ideas with friends.
“Let me identify the people who are most socially influential, and then engage their circle,” he said. Using a tool like Sprinklr, he proposed, the top 200 or so “influencers” — people on social media with 10,000 to 20,000 followers each — could be “so much more powerful” than the massively saturated mass media campaign that flooded North Carolina in this past election. The influencers could help drive self-reinforcing efforts, where friends encourage friends.
Although North Carolina’s turnout was up by 2 percent over the last midterm, it was still only about 41 percent. Andrews said the advertising saturation level there must have turned potential voters off. All he saw and heard during the senatorial campaign there, he said, “were talking points” that each campaign wanted to hit.
Instead of talking points, he imagined socially based voter-education efforts that emphasize “shareable conversations” resulting from a bottom-up aggregation of election-based conversations people were having.
Brad Shimmin, an analyst at industry research firm Current Analysis who covers social media and big data, would take that idea further.
“People don’t believe ads,” he said, but they might be interested in election issues that affected their lives if their intelligent software assistants paid attention.
“Five days before an election,” he suggested, Google Now, Siri, Cortana, or another intelligent agent could show a reminder that “you are registered to vote, or it might ask you to please check your registration” by going to such-and-such link. The agent would, of course, tell you where your voting place is.
The agent, Shimmin envisioned, could also “tell you if there is a bill up for a vote” that could be affected by the election and which most likely interests you, “according to your search history.”
“You ought to vote on that bridge repair [referendum]” or for the candidate in favor of it, he said the agent might suggest, “because if you don’t, you’ll won’t be able to get to your favorite watering hole again.”
Shimmin also endorsed a broader use of social reinforcing tactics, where checking-in at the voting booth via Foursquare and similar services becomes more of a social event.
#3: ‘Conversion’ to voting
Esha Shah, a strategy manager of mobile marketing agency Fetch, addresses the problem of creating voting demand through one of digital marketing’s basic tools: targeting.
“By using trusted data from sources like the Census Bureau and leading third-party providers,” she told us, “we can target fractions of the electorate based on a broad range of key identifiers,” with such targeting tactics as “demographic targeting, behavioral targeting, and geographic targeting.”
She noted that “insight-driven reporting [can help] to understand what type of user segments are likely to convert,” which in this case means converting to voting. Performance patterns over time would show what works best for “message type, demographic info, geographic region, day of week, and time of day.”
These digital marketing tactics, in use every day by marketers, were first employed widely for political purposes in the groundbreaking 2008 Obama presidential run, and they are now common in most major campaigns. But Shah is here proposing using them for the broader purpose of encouraging voting in general.
All of these demand-drivers, however, have to overcome the biggest damper on voting enthusiasm, which most often is expressed as, “My vote doesn’t matter.”
Political scientist Mark N. Franklin calls this “salience” — the perception of how much effect your vote will have.
But tons of people “vote” for the winner in the American Idol TV show, and how much effect does that have?
James McQuivey, a Forrester analyst specializing in media tech who was a PoliSci major in college, told us that it’s really a problem of cost-benefit.
“The brain is wired to exaggerate some types of benefits and to exaggerate certain costs,” he said. The “cost” in time and money to send a text to American Idol is negligible, compared to the benefit of expressing your support for a contestant.
In politics, he said, the perceived benefits are low, either because “you are content with the way things are going, [or] you believe no matter who wins it won’t change your life.”
The traditional method of driving these non-voters to the polls, McQuivey noted, is “by raising the perceived stakes” of what will happen if the other guy is elected. Hence, the deluge of ads in North Carolina and elsewhere.
“But after years of that same pitch, people are generally weary of it,” he said. “The better way to get some of those people to vote is not to convince them that it brings more benefits, but to reduce the perceived ‘cost’ of voting.”
Mitch Joel, the CEO and cofounder of the Toronto-based social marketing firm Twist Image, has the same view, except he describes it as “too much friction” to vote. He noted that voting on American Idol is nearly frictionless, because texting is something people do all day long.
“They made [American Idol voting] as simple as checking your bank account online,” he said.