How Digital Marketing Will Decide the Next President

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Email, social, and addressable TV allow nontraditional candidates to enter the race cheaper and stay in longer.


“Friend, I cannot tell you how much digital marketers like you mean to my chances of sitting in the Oval office next year.”

That email message was never sent by any of this year's presidential candidates, but it might as well have been. In 2012 the Obama for America campaign brought targeted, direct marketing to the political arena at a level that had never before been imagined. By Election Day there were 40 million names on the President's email list, compared to just 4 million on Mitt Romney's. The Obama campaign's creative also was revolutionary, calling recipients “Friend,” and divining what key issues most impelled them to vote. So aggressive was the Obama organization's use of segmentation to elicit both dollars and votes from Americans that email has become the foundation channel for presidential bids. Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Ted Cruz all have been emailing their “Friends” since the day they announced their candidacies.

“We saw the start of this in 2007 with Obama. Digital has lowered the barrier of entry to get into the race,” says Michael Beach, cofounder of Targeted Victory, a digital political agency that worked for Romney in 2012 and represents Ted Cruz in this year's race. "You can communicate to people at a much lower cost and that allows nontraditional candidates to connect to a lot of people and raise a lot of money."

One candidate, Bernie Sanders, collected $5.2 million dollars on his website within a day of his New Hampshire victory, a veritable torrent of grassroots greenbacks. The average donation was just $34. “Raising this much money in that amount of time was unheard of before digital,” Beach says.

Not all candidates have been equal in email prowess. An analysis performed last month by eDataSource, which tracks billions of branded emails daily, found wide variances in list sizes and open rates. Ted Cruz's list numbered 3.6 million people with a fairly average read rate of 15%. Donald Trump was registering an exemplary open rate of 26%, but his list was small—less than half a million people. The only candidate not in need of ready cash for Iowa and New Hampshire, Trump has not worked email as intensely as his opponents. That's bound to change as primary season marches on and email becomes as important for getting voters to the polls as for getting their money.

Thanks to the digital revolution in political marketing, it's not too late for the Trump campaign to influence voters via their inbox. His list of 500,000 is a strong one, because it was built largely from Trump fans who attended his rallies. “That's an earned list. That's pretty impressive. It's not hard to spend some money and build the list,” says Jordan Cohen, CMO of Fluent, a lead acquisition-focused ad platform that is in the employ of more than one candidate in the current campaign. “This works the same in politics as it does in business. The bigger the brand equity, the bigger the advantage take rate, or opt-in rate. National brands like Target and Walmart have the highest take rates, and Trump is a national brand.”

Beyond the inbox

But email is hardly the be-all and end-all of Presidential digital channels, especially as the remaining candidates move into phase two of their digital campaigns. According to Targeted Victory's Beach, digital political marketing has three

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