When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, Scott Goodstein made sure the Obama for America campaign was the first to have its own mobile app, text-messaging program and ringtone-and-wallpaper marketing effort.
It all sounds a little quaint today. The Blackberrys and flip phones of that era are all but gone. “Everyone and his brother has some kind of smartphone with access to the mobile Web, and people are comfortable with donations via mobile,” says Goodstein, founder and CEO of Revolution Messaging, who has spent the past decade managing digital strategy and technology for political campaigns.
In 2016, mobile has taken the lead in elections strategy. It’s how voters get their news and information. It’s how they engage with social media. It’s how they donate money and time. In many states, it’s even how they register to vote. And in a year when campaigns have gone 24/7, mobile technology is a critical enabler.
“Mobile, in terms of ubiquitous use, was very new in 2012,” says Tucker Bounds, president of the text-based political-analysis platform Sidewire, who worked on the campaigns of John McCain in 2008 and Meg Whitman in 2010. “Four years later, products and behaviors have matured to the point where the presidential election is truly happening on mobile devices—whether it’s highly targeted mobile ads, candidates participating in the news cycle in real time on their phones or the emergence of entirely new media types.”
Typically new technology emerges in one presidential election cycle and becomes dominant in the next, says Andrew Lipsman, vice president of marketing and insights at comScore. “In 2004, Howard Dean was the first candidate to collect meaningful online donations, and in 2008 e-commerce became a huge part of the Obama fundraising platform. Social media emerged in 2008, and by 2012 [it] became hugely influential in how candidates gathered and messaged to their audiences,”says Lipsman. “In 2012, mobile first became an important piece of technology for campaigns, and in 2016 it is the dominant technology.”
Campaigns must reach voters where they are, and today that’s on their mobile devices. “In terms of getting your message out there, the majority of digital media time is spent on a mobile phone,” says Lipsman. “That’s where the eyeballs are.”
A recent survey by the Interactive Advertising Bureau found that digital media has reached parity with TV among registered U.S. voters as a primary information source about presidential candidates (61 percent for both digital and TV) and about political issues (67 percent for digital vs. 69 percent for TV).
What’s more, mobile is the only way to reach some key demographics this election cycle. “The Hispanic electorate, and more specifically Hispanic millennials, are the most likely of any demographic to be mobile-only Internet users,” says Lipsman. “The Hispanic influence on the election is likely to be bigger than it has ever been, so you can’t underestimate the importance of mobile.” More than two thirds of Hispanic voters and 60 percent of African-American voters visit political sites on a mobile device as opposed to 49 percent of voters overall, according to the IAB survey, and Hispanic voters are significantly more likely to take an action after viewing a digital or mobile ad for a candidate, with 87 percent of them saying they have done so. The IAB also notes that those individuals who consume political information on mobile devices are younger and more likely to vote.
“Presidential election years have a great percentage of young voters and voters of color participating. Those communities are mobile-heavy, so cracking that nut is crucial,”says Larry Huynh, partner with the digital agency Trilogy Interactive, which worked on the 2012 Elizabeth Warren campaign and is currently working on marijuana legalization in California. “If you’re trying to reach millennials and people of color, particularly if you’re a down-ballot campaign and don’t have a gazillion dollars to spend on TV—which is probably not the best way to reach them anyway—you ought to be thinking about how to reach them via mobile.”
Choosing mobile ads over TV spots—especially in markets where television time is pricey—is almost a no-brainer for Congressional races, Goodstein says, since half the TV audience may not even be in the candidate’s district. “Digital makes a whole lot of sense and mobile even more.”
Campaigns are also harnessing mobile technology in the field with apps that give managers real-time oversight of their operations and enable more seamless data sharing and collection. “The use of mobile to more effectively help people canvass is a big change this year,” says Huynh. “It reduces friction by putting data in the hands of canvassers to make the whole process more efficient.”
The 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign proved to be an early adopter of some emerging mobile capabilities, like the Hustle app, which enabled his supporters to initiate and then manage a large volume of text-message conversations. The Sanders team also created a rapid-response digital program to capitalize on key events in real time. When the candidate stated in a debate that people were sick of hearing about Hilary Clinton’s “damn e-mails,” the Sanders campaign had sent out a text to supporters before the candidates left the podium. “They were able to make $3 million thanks to that rapid response and being able to move to audience in the moment,” says Goodstein.
Mobile could also prove to be a powerful get-out-the-vote tool on Election Day. “You could argue that [the 24/7 news cycle] has created a more polarized environment and [that] a smaller and smaller portion of voters that are truly persuadable,” says Lipsman. That may make texting and other mobile approaches even more important in November, he says. “Campaigns can send out targeted messages to spur them to actually vote.”
This election cycle, “every political campaign that’s smart has a mobile-optimized website that can take signups or contributions via mobile,” says Goodstein, whose company this year introduced text-to-donate technology. But campaigns can take their mobile approaches a step further and think about how to provide an end-to-end mobile experience for voters, he adds—connecting them from a mobile ad to their mobile calendar to insert an event reminder or to the candidate’s app, where the individual can sign up to volunteer or to a phone bank to canvass for the candidate. “You can take that mobile army and turn them into mobile activists,” says Goodstein. “It’s not just a mobile ad-unit buy, but a mobile ad connected to a phone which is connected to a human being in a real way.”
Elections, Bounds says, are great incubators for new communication tools. “Because campaigns set up shop and grow so quickly and their window of existence is just two years, they’re focused on speed and experimentation,” he says. “They’re trying everything they can to win at the margins. They move quickly and experiment with new technology because it’s life or death.”
The returns on these mobile investments won’t be clear until November. “It will be interesting to see whether the campaigns were actually able to use these tools to reach folks more efficiently. Did they get better data as a result? Did they get more voters to the polls? How did mobile improve field operations,” asks Huynh. “We won’t know until after the election.”