As the Obama camp celebrated its victory over Mitt Romney last November, the campaign’s digital side received an outsized share of praise. To some, the 2012 election was the birth of a new form of campaigning, where precise digital targeting and data reliant outreach proved itself over big budget media buys spread across the country’s swing states.
While the Obama campaign rejoiced, the Romney campaign’s digital team was left to wonder what happened. And in silence for the most part. As the head of Romney’s digital effort, Zac Moffatt, told us, “If you win, you get to talk about it.” So, interested in what Moffatt had to say, we jumped on the line with him to try get a read on what the past year has been like.
Have you seen the Washington Post – ABC News poll that found that if the election was held now, Romney would win? How does that make you feel?
I think the more interesting thing is for people to look at what Mitt was saying last year, and it’s frustrating. The things he said would happen are exactly what is happening. The media needs to reflect on why it didn’t look at these things. Campaigns have become about decimating the opposition on a personal level as opposed to policy discussion. Now that people are realizing the impact of policies, they’re realizing not only that Obamacare doesn’t work, but maybe the way it works is problematic. Look, people’s premiums are going up. These are things that people who were probably low information voters who never really engaged didn’t think were a big deal, they’d rather talk about big bird or binders full of women as opposed to realizing that these elections have massive repercussions on people’s everyday lives.
As a digital guy, what do you make of the healthcare.gov debacle?
Communicators are taking advantage of the people’s lack of understanding of technology to gloss over what is a huge product problem that’s facing this country. We’re talking about one sixth of the United States’ economy. This is pretty amazing. The fact that this was not ready for a launch date when we all knew it was coming, this is not a Republican or a Democrat thing, this is bad for the country. This stuff should be expected to work.
It’s been twelve months since the election. What’s the past year been like for you?
This past year has been about taking the lessons from 2012, reflecting upon the things we learned and really trying to figure out how to solve for some of the problems that we were unable to solve for in ’12. Now that we have some time, we can take a step back and ask things like what I would build now that I wish I built or had someone else build in 2012.
And what have you concluded?
I think some of the things we built this year like Targeted Engagement, which is our self serve ad platform which can be used to increase the longtail of online advertising for political campaigns. It really focuses on political geography and political affiliations to allow for higher targeting. It’s take the best parts of digital and empowers more people to leverage them, versus my fear in the digital space is many people take the worst efforts of television and field and try to superimpose them on digital. That’s what we have to guard against.
So does digital’s role in politics really come down to advertising?
For advertising, your targeting capabilities and your analytics capabilities are going to improve exponentially, especially now that you’re moving towards real time buying and audience buying which we were doing extensively in 2012. Many people wanted to buy IOs (insertion orders) and buy display but the marketplace is catching up.
Romney was running a data management platform in 2011 and now you’re seeing Fortune 500 companies move to it. So, I think it’s a testament to the ad-tech play we made two years before the election. The other thing people are solving for is that infrastructure for campaigns to be build upon, ways that you could be more successful at building your website or fundraising tools. These are things that everyday the barrier to entry gets lower because more companies are getting a hold of tools coming out.
Meaning taking the friction of getting involved with the campaign out also comes into play.
I think the job of the campaign, especially at the presidential level, is that you’re looking to reduce the friction for someone to participate. Now you’re seeing that consumption of email is 40% mobile but on political campaigns anywhere from 3% to 8% is mobile donations, so there’s a disconnect there. You have to build tools to solve for that. A lot of what we spent this year looking at is what tools that we built for Romney but were only unique to Romney. We took a step back and said what can we use to empower the right? What can do to build better tool sets? That’s the genesis of Targeted Engagement, is that all the plumbing and scaffolding in place for a presidential advertising program, that we can take that down to a house race.
How granular do you think the targeting is going to get? Targeting in 2012 seemed fairly general with two main buckets: likely voters (mobilization messaging) and on the fence voters (Persuasion). Does it get more precise?
Mobilization and Persuasion, I think ultimately exist as roll ups, the umbrellas list building lives under. I think you’re right, it’s going to get much more granular. You’re going to get clusters of thousands of people or even hundreds of people conceptually, But the problem then becomes not a data problem, it becomes a content problem. We’re quickly moving to a space, especially in politics, where we’re going to be data rich and content poor. The next big problem I see for campaigns is going to that you have create enough content to actually be able to message to these groups. Just because I know that single women in northern Virginia are an issue group I need to speak to, If I don’t have the appropriate message to say to them, then I’m just taking my TV message and running it to them. I think that’s where the disconnect is occurring right now. People are focusing on data, they’re not focusing on the content that needs to be produced to talk to those people.
So it seems like digital is barely reaching its potential. Can you envision a time where it supplants knocking on people’s doors?
I actually don’t think it’s either or. If I only had one touch for a person, a face to face contact from a door to door is going to be the most powerful thing. The question is, how much longer do we buy 1,000 gross rating points a week versus maybe 600 and then amplify that with the equivalent of a couple hundred gross rating points on digital. Or potentially 500 of each. Can you get to that? I think congressional is another discussion. You look at the average congressional seat, you have two DMAs. The is that DMAs were built for corporations to sell products, not for politicians. You have two DMAs in a congressional district, you might only be hitting thirteen cents on the dollar. I would hope the marketing community is smart enough to find that is where they need to make the change. To continue to put emphasis on door to door and peer to peer outreach but to use digital as a way to make audience targeting and outreach more efficient, rather than just living in a broadcast world when we no longer consume content in a broadcast way.
Has the Republican Party gotten that message?
It’s like anything with the party. There will always be groups within it that totally get it, there will be groups that are coming around and there will be groups that don’t believe it. But that’s not a party mindset, that could be generational, it could also just be experience and exposure. I don’t agree with this belief that Democrats completely understood digital, because I don’t hear anyone talking about New Jersey and all the great things they did for digital in New Jersey in 2013. You know what i mean? I know for us in Alabama 1, we probably ran a more sophisticated targeting program for digital in the statewides Trying to superimpose learnings in 2013 is a little bit of a misnomer.
The Democrats have done some gloating about their digital superiority. Does that upset you? Are you playing with a chip on your shoulder?
If you win, you get to talk about it. I have a lot of respect for the bully pulpit team and the folks that are over there. On the flip side, when I talk to them, I think they have respect for targeted victory. I would rather great firms do good work than bad firms talk about it all the time. I think that’s the bigger challenge. Some firms just talk and don’t actually produce things or have good products and they use the press as a way of justifying what they did. I don’t see this a a republican democrat thing, I just wish better products were out there.
There are only a few people working in the digital politics world. It takes a certain kind of person to do you type of work. So is there any friendship between the Democrat and Republican digital professionals?
I spend a lot of time talking to my counterparts on the Democratic side. I make an effort to make sure I check in with the bully pulpit guys and others. People whose work I respect, I make an effort at knowing them. When we’re not competing, we could always be learning from each other. I don’t think that’s a tactic that all people take in politics. Also people superimpose mass learning incorrectly. I spent a lot of 2013 trying to figure out what other people did well and I believe still, on the online advertising front for Mitt Romney, it ran the most sophisticated program at the time. But of course, that’s going to be lost in the post-narrative because it doesn’t fit neatly into the data story that they all wanted to tell.
We’ve discussed advertising, but social media has changed a lot over the year as well. How do you think campaigns will adjust to a shifting social media landscape?
I think campaigns always adjust to where there’s audience. People want to put these brands on each election. 2008 was the Facebook election and 2012 was the Twitter election. Does that mean 2016 is the snapchat election? I don’t know. I think what you’re seeing is Twitter has become a far more powerful medium now that it can be used for direct response with the lead card and lead gen. On the flip side, Facebook has an audience side no one else can compete with. You can build hundred thousand person communities in a matter of days on Facebook, where nothing else has that type of platform capability at that scale. You look at Google Plus, it can change if you can suddenly start to it. For us, Google Plus had a value but it was organic and you could build out groups, but there are certain things that are more difficult if you don’t have the right advertising capabilities to go into it. FBX (Facebook’s ad exchange) is a huge component. The fact that you could bring in you data and create clusters and do targeting. If anything, they’ve become more efficient and more valuable. If Facebook and Twitter had the ad targeting they have today in 2012, we would have spent a lot more money with them because they’ve just become much more powerful.
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