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How social media and analytics have redefined politics

Recent elections have shown the power of social media and analytics for voter turnout and engagement. But how have analytics affected the enterprise?

If there was any doubt that social media and analytics have changed the face of politics, the presidential campaign of Barack Obama eight years ago solidified the fact that social media and data about the electorate were two technology trends that would define the campaign.

Social media and analytics have changed numerous industries. Gathering data about constituencies and how they use social media has helped nonprofits save lives during natural disasters and helped retail companies gain insight about which products fare well or poorly.

But social media and analytics have had a particular effect on electoral politics, enabling campaigns to engage constituents nearly immediately and learn from missteps quickly.

Part of the effect of social media has been the benefit of real-time communication. The sheer volume of messaging that's possible on social media has made it possible to engage with voters with immediacy. Obama's team was active on twice as many social media platforms, out-posting the John McCain campaign 3:1.

All the while, team Obama was pulling in analytics from its communication channels. Obama had not just a political base, said David Carr of The New York Times, but "a database of millions of supporters who can be engaged almost instantly."

It wasn't just an edge in communications. Electoral analytics, simple as they were, rapidly took on strategic importance. Candidate mentions captured via social monitoring were far more important than polling data; tracking topic trends and issue coverage became central to day-to-day campaign planning. More accurate profiling of voters made targeting those voters far more effective -- and via the emergent analytics, the Obama team learned how to identify nonvoters and present them with effective messages persuading them to vote.

Thousands of short-form interviews helped the team perfect algorithms crawling the resulting data for patterns between the interview results and data points being tracked for every voter, enabling them to do individual-level predictions. Digging into individual voting patterns and clusters of voters has enabled campaigns to reach previously disengaged voters, such as Millennials, and boost voter turnout among critical cohorts of voters. Research indicated activity on social media platforms can have tangible effects on voter engagement and turnout. A 2012 Nature study, titled "A 61-Million-Person Experiment in Social Influence and Political Mobilization," for example, found certain messages increased turnout directly by several hundred thousand votes Close ties were far more influential than weaker ties, as well. Another study found 41% of young people between the ages of 15 and 25 had participated in some kind of political discussion or activity online.

The Obama campaign introduced a completely new way of organizing supporters, raised an astonishing $700 million, and generated online video content that pulled in millions and millions of views, changing politics forever.

Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, summed it up: "Any politician who fails to recognize that we are in a post-party era, with a new political ecology in which connecting like minds and forming a movement is so much easier, will not be around long."

What social media and elections teach us

In essence, modern political campaigns and the modern enterprise are engaged in the same exercise: to identify people out in the world whose attention and loyalty they wish to attract.

Election data bears important lessons for how companies can use marketing dollars to isolate and target the most effective use of their budget, rather than having to spend on blind, general-purpose campaigns that yield few new customers. Instead, companies can use analytics to find the right prospects where they are most likely to do the most good.

New tools have made marketing vastly more efficient in terms of identifying new prospects. Much like analytics has enabled political campaigns to hone in on real prospects, it has helped marketing campaigns to target spending in the right areas and narrow down wasted time on prospects who will never buy or aren't ready to buy.

Marketing analytics has also enabled companies to be more granular in their approach to marketing, targeting campaigns and content to the specific stage of buying lifecycle that defines them. Analytics also helps capture customers in real time, sometimes based on new factors, such as location. A sports-apparel store can send targeted messages to customers at a nearby sports arena, because it has learned they are in proximity of the store. This kind of real-time analytics can allow companies to send messages and capture audiences based on their concerns in the moment.

In essence, modern political campaigns and the modern enterprise are engaged in the same exercise: to identify people out in the world whose attention and loyalty they wish to attract. This is a valid and useful ambition, tailor-made for social media monitoring and its suite of tools. Just as these new data channels can proliferate political messages from citizens excited about a candidate, they can also be exploited by brand ambassadors the enterprise can identify and cultivate among its customers, creating a productive synergy unique to the age of social media.

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