With the exception of the accountants at the TV networks, there are probably very few people who are sorry to see this election season come to an end. Most pundits have declared it a campaign like no other, and it certainly has had its share of “firsts” and “worsts.”
But for those of us on the communications research and measurement side of the house, it provides a treasure trove of ideas and data that will shape how we communicate and campaign for years to come. Here are five ways the current election season will affect the future of measurement:
1. Research is cool, thanks to high-profile poll aggregators
My favorite headline of the campaign was in Wired: “I just want Nate Silver to tell me everything’s fine.” Now, I am a total Nate Silver Fan Girl. To me, he’s the data geek equivalent of Tom Hanks, George Clooney, and Bill Murray all wrapped into a single package. But then again, I’m a total poll addict myself, constantly drilling down into the data and reading every detail of how it was conducted. My ultimate interrupter is an email from FiveThirtyEight or The Upshot.
The reason is simple: they’ve made really good data both interesting and a necessity. This election has elevated to mainstream news discussions the importance of data quality and data integrity. On the Media even wrote a consumer’s handbook for it. For a great non-geeky explanation of why the results differ, read this at Slate.com.
Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but I think, long-term, all this attention will raise the level of discussion about research data in general. Sure, there will be greater skepticism, but with awareness will come an understanding of why good quality data is worth paying for.
And, of course, what will all these data geeks do to keep up the level of engagement when it’s all over? I’m sure they’ll be telling us soon. Not only are poll aggregators attracting clicks, they’re also capturing the email addresses of all of us politically-addicted data geeks who want the latest numbers delivered to our inboxes. And, here’s another implication: smart PR firms and marketing departments will have plenty of applicants to fill their data analyst positions.
2. The hot job of the future will be fact checker
FactCheck.org, and PolitiFact have seen their traffic double in these crazy times, and no doubt all the major publishing houses are trying to figure out how to replicate those engagement levels. Mainstream news sites like NPR now have their own fact checking teams. Those sites are killing it in terms of clicks, page views, and engagement. Could it be that, after all the lies and distortions in this campaign, facts will become important again? Just sayin’…
3. Earned media will never be seen the same way again
No one argues that Trump’s overwhelming dominance in “earned” media won him the nomination. Who needs to buy space when you can get it for free, right? But as soon as the media turned skeptical—starting at the GOP convention—there was an inverse correlation between media exposure and support for Trump. The more exposure he got, the worse he did in the polls. Proving that the quality of news coverage matters far more than the quantity, something the measurati have been demonstrating for years. The concept may now have gone mainstream.
At the same time, this election has shown us that advertising still works, even though total ad spending plunged during the 2016 cycle. Local TV stations saw their expected revenue go to Facebook and popup ads everywhere.
My hunch is that the campaigns that invested in advertising had the data to know just which eyeballs they needed to reach and just where those eyeballs were at any given moment. And those weren’t the eyeballs of sitting-down TV-watching people in non-swing states. They were the eyeballs that were on their devices, checking the polls, the facts, and shopping.
4. Stats and research are more important than shouting ever louder
Statistics and research have played an even more important role in at least one other campaign. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was the first to truly rely on data science to win an election. He perfected it in 2012, and most of the team moved over to the Hillary campaign in this election cycle. Never has data been shown to trump (sorry) gut instinct as much as in this campaign.
Because time is your most precious commodity, the ability to slice the data to identify exactly whose door needs to be knocked upon or what group needs to be targeted is critical in any campaign. Relying on volunteers to canvass requires knowing exactly how many doors need knocking upon and then how many canvassers you need at any particular time during the campaign. The Clinton campaign has been collecting that data, at least in New Hampshire, since April of 2015.
5. Relationships beat ad spending every time
I should know; I’ve been one of those canvassers, in 2008, 2012, and again this year. The data was much cleaner and more accurate than it was just four years ago. But more important than the data is the proof that relationships matter.
In 2008 Barack Obama opened the first-ever campaign office in Durham, New Hampshire. It’s a town of 7,000 full-time residents, but also home to 25,000 University of New Hampshire students.
The Obama campaign staff realized that relationships mattered more than simple exposure. The office didn’t just send me and the other canvassers out to random neighborhoods. They sent us out to places where we had friends, and where our names and/or our faces would be welcomed. It’s a lot harder to slam the door in the face of a neighbor.
And in 2012 they didn’t buy ads, like the Romney campaign did. They invested in buses to drive students to the polls. It didn’t matter whose button they were wearing, they were greeted, picked up, and driven to the polls.
As a result not only did Obama win, he did it for a fraction of the cost, spending $6,024 per Electoral College vote vs. Romney’s $2,389,464. The Clinton campaign may not be as efficient, but it was as effective. They had that secret sauce—data—to get us to the right doors to talk to the right neighbors about the right issues at the right time. ∞