Election 2016: How Big Data + Social Data Will Determine the Next President

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Image copyright AKIllustration

The presidential election means big business for the ad industry, with a whopping $6 billion spent on 2012 election ads last year across all media according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Last year’s election broke records, both at the poll and in the boardroom, with recent figures confirming the 2012 election as the most expensive in history, about $700 million over the next most expensive election.

As our nation ramps up for 2016, the role of big data + social data in influencing election decisions cannot be ignored. Social data drove the 2008 presidential elections and big data drove the 2012 election. In 2016 it will be the marriage of the two that will determine the next President of the United States.

Back in 2008, online social impact was still in its infancy and while people flocked to social channels like Facebook and Twitter to share their thoughts and influence others, there was not yet a way to measure impact beyond overall sentiment. Social media was akin to guerrilla marketing, and yet these tools were extremely influential in giving people a voice in the policies being discussed that swayed the outcome of the election. People wanted change and were not afraid to share their opinions in public conversations, and the global discussion encouraged others to step into the polling booth to cast their ballots.

It’s a Numbers Game

2012 showcased the rise of political data science and big data, how campaign managers and pollsters gathered public opinions about each candidate, compared this with state-by-state election data and wove all the pieces into a comprehensive political campaign for each party. What social media was to 2008, data-driven campaigning was in 2012. Math quants and data crushers were able to disseminate the mounds of campaign data at their fingertips into actionable targeting information to persuade prospective voters across the nation, and within strategic swing states.

As an example of 2012’s focus on numbers, probably the most important datum of the election is 7.9 percent. That was the national unemployment rate and it was the lowest of Barack Obama’s presidency — though by a hair, and higher than the 7.6 percent unemployment rate Obama inherited in January 2009. By playing up this one number, Obama’s campaign was able to highlight the strides toward improving the national economy, building confidence in voters that he was on the right track.

As Wired reported, by winning the nerdiest election in the history of the American Republic, Barack Obama has cemented the role of Big Data in every aspect of the campaigning process. His ultimate success came from the work of historic get-out-the-vote efforts dominated by targeted messaging and digital behavioral tracking. Savvy campaigns of the future will build off this success and spread these approaches to every part of the electoral process, continually accumulating whatever new types of data are available in the future.

Big Data + Social Data = Your Next President

What the big data equation is missing is how social influence, mobile data and CRM assets can impact the results of a campaign when harnessed quickly and effectively. Data-driven marketing is taking the guessing game out of advertising, and new technologies like hashtag targeting are turning earned media — like tweets and social sharing — into paid media like the presidential banner ads you see on your computer and mobile phone.

During last year’s election, everywhere you went online, the Obama and Romney campaigns followed you using ad retargeting technologies. You may have noticed that Romney ads started popping up in your browser just because you visited his website once to pull a stat. This was due to the custom ad targeting browser tools the candidates used or built to harvest data, but this is only the beginning of what emerging technologies are able to do.

Big data algorithms allow advertisers and political managers to better target consumers online based on their social interactions across the Web and on Facebook. It uses this important social data, along with mobile geolocation data and CRM data, to fuel display ad campaigns delivered online, via mobile, video and Facebook.

With over 10 billion sharing events taking place each month over social media, big data is being created every second with each like and share, and wherever we travel across the globe with our mobile devices. Smart campaign managers and brand advertisers are finding new ways to sort through this data to provide audiences with a seamless user experience as they move between channels and touch points, across their computer, mobile devices and tablets.

Social data is fundamentally changing how advertisers approach the art of marketing. Now, we can track pretty much anything online — our campaign decisions are influenced by factors that extend far beyond the impression and conversion metrics that permeated the ad industry just five years ago. This data-centric shift in advertising has enabled political parties to hone campaign approaches toward predicting outcomes and undeniably, it is this elegant blend of social data, big data, and targeting that will determine the 2016 Commander-In-Chief.

Gurbaksh Chahal is a die-hard Internet entrepreneur. In January 1999, he started his first company, ClickAgents, at the age of 16. In September 2009, Chahal launched gWallet, now re-branded as RadiumOne.


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