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Election 2004: Weapons of Mass Persuasion — the DNC and RNC Mobilize Voters Through the Internet

With less than 10 percent of the electorate in the undecided column, the focus of both Democrats and Republicans in the last months heading toward Election Day is a massive effort to get out the vote.

However, in this election, getting out the vote is taking on a whole new look. Traditional methods like television, radio and print advertising lack the precision, cost-effectiveness and immediacy of the Democratic National Committee’s and Republican National Committee’s newest weapon of mass persuasion: the Internet.

Through the use of specific targeting and optimization technologies, campaigns can ensure that specific messages reach the right voter at the right time. And with the tremendous fragmentation of audiences and media in this country, the ability to optimize messaging is critical. The difference this time around is that new technologies let political parties target specific audiences rather than buying large volumes of impressions in the hope that their message gets through.

Since its inception, the Web has touted its most valuable features as being its immediacy and intimacy. Howard Dean’s effective use of the Internet to attract more than 600,000 supporters and raise more than $50 million got the attention of both parties, who have gravitated to the Net with the enthusiasm of a teenager getting their first laptop. The next few weeks will offer a glimpse of how Net-based political campaigns are likely to be run from now on.

Both online and political advertising are booming. According to Jupiter Research, online advertising is expected to reach $8.4 billion in 2004, a 27 percent increase over 2003. According to TNS Media Intelligence/Campaign Media Analysis, in 2000, Democrats and Republicans collectively spent $100,000 online for advertising, whereas from March until the end of May each party spent $400,000 online.

So why is the Internet a more effective means to reach constituents? More than 150 million Americans are online for hours each day from both work and home. The Web offers major advantages over traditional media, including cost, speed, targeting, interactivity and lack of filtering. With these tools, the potential to reach the most relevant constituents is immense.

And it is not just about getting out the message and the vote. The Internet has proven an extremely cost-effective way to get donations, create awareness, mobilize volunteers and generate interaction on specific issues.

E-mail is especially effective when a particular issue is time-sensitive. Many pundits also predict a major push using e-mail to get voters to make their choice for president online, encouraging them to cast their vote early, using pre-filled absentee voter applications.

And it’s not just the two major political parties taking advantage of the targeting power of online technologies. Tax-exempt, issue advocacy and voter mobilization groups, which are prohibited from running broadcast ads, are readying online ads to ensure they are heard on their issue of choice. This should get very interesting in the next presidential election when Internet ads with the same capabilities as 30-second television commercials will be readily available.

Even the protesters at the Republican National Convention used Web-based technologies to promote their cause. In addition to the use of Web sites and e-mail to coordinate activities, protesters are using SMS to organize groups at a moment’s notice in a technique dubbed “flash mobbing.”

The Internet’s power is that it lets marketers target viewers based on an enormous amount of behavioral data that can be measured and acted on in real time. Use of the Internet is smart also because new technologies let politicos break down and target by areas of interest rather than more obvious viewer attributes such as geographic location. This division by interest rather than by geography is critical because it can be extremely effective at persuading the all-important undecided voters whom many pundits think could decide the election.

The ability to target audiences is just one of many applications of the Internet that politicians are discovering. New online technologies provide an unparalleled level of engagement, interactivity and measurement. For example, the ability to take the public’s pulse on specific issues in real time, and at a fraction of the cost of traditional polling and survey methods, is a huge advantage for data-hungry campaign strategists.

No doubt, the ability to quickly and accurately measure audience attitudes on everything from John Kerry’s war record to George Bush’s record on the war in Iraq will have the newly hired legions of online optimization and analytics geeks very busy between now and November.

And after November? Partisan or independent, blogger, pundit or protester, use of online tools and technologies to reach and influence the voter is in the political play book to stay.

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