Before you read any further, a disclaimer: this is not a post about politics. This is not about which party is better or who should win the election or whether or not insert candidate’s name here is a raving idiot. This is a post about targeted marketing and how understanding your audience can increase your response rate.
Now that we’re in the right frame of mind, I can tell you about a letter I got in the mail that I thought was simply brilliant.
A little more about me before we open that letter. I’m a single white female (but not the crazy kind). I’m in the 25-29 age bracket. I live in an urban area, sweet home Chicago. I have voted in every major election since I turned 18. I tend to vote Democrat (remember, not about politics—just helping you get an idea of how I’d be viewed by a political campaign). However, I vote for Republicans when I think they will do a better job. I have even voted for third party candidates when I think both the major party candidates are nuts.
I regularly give to and volunteer for charitable organizations—particularly Girls on the Run Chicago, a program that helps girls develop self-esteem and healthy lifestyles by training for a 5K race. I run. I recycle. I believe in girl power.
(I also have plenty of annoying tendencies, but luckily those are more visible to my friends and family than political campaigners.)
So back to the letter. Little old SWF 25-29 me opens her mailbox. Inside is an envelope, on nice, thick paper stock. I can see a return address in a script font.
I pull the envelope out of the mailbox. It’s from Michelle Obama. I squeal.
I happen to think that Michelle Obama is the bee’s knees for reasons that have very little to do with politics. I think it’s badass that we have a First Lady who is just as educated and professionally successful as the President. I have a lot of respect for her initiative to help kids lead healthier lives. I love her down-to-earth yet refined fashion sense. And regardless of what side of the aisle you’re on, you have to admit that she has killer arms that should probably be memorialized in some type of bronze statue.
I was so excited to get mail from Michelle (even though I’ve lived through enough campaign seasons to know that the letter wasn’t really from Michelle) that I did something quite unique—I opened the envelope.
I never open mail from political campaigns. I file all postcards, envelopes and mailers directly into the recycling bin. They’re usually naked pleas for donations or vague platitudes about how this candidate will be great for me, my family and America. Honestly, I wouldn’t have opened a letter from the President. There’s only one political figure that I would have opened a message from with an equal amount of enthusiasm, and that is Bo the Dog.
My Michelle letter is evidence of many things, including that I get way too excited about receiving mail. But above all, it’s an indicator of how powerful targeted marketing can be. The Obama campaign took in all the information it could about me as a person and voter, and used that data to craft a message with the best chance of getting a response.
It’s hard to say if a political campaign would know all the demographic and psychographic information I shared above, but it’s safe to say that they know a great deal. Political campaigns are using microtargeting to send messages to voters based on not just their age and voting record but the issues that are most important to them.
Slate provided a great example of the microtargeting strategy in their article “Obama’s White Whale.” The article introduces us to a young woman who lives in a socially conservative corner of Ohio. In January, the woman received an eblast touting the part of the Affordable Care Act that requires insurance plans to fully cover contraceptive costs. Said the email, “Think about how different that is from what the candidates on the other side would do. Our opponents have been waging a war on women’s health—attempting to defund Planned Parenthood, overturn Roe v. Wade, and everything in between.”
The woman had never directly provided the campaign with any information other than her name and zip code. If the campaign had just gone off her zip code, it would have never sent the email—as Slate notes, “her ZIP code could easily mark her as the type of traditionalist Midwestern woman who would recoil at efforts to liberalize access to birth control.” However, the Obama campaign was able to use the other information it had collected about the woman to determine that she was likely to agree with Obama’s views on the issue—making the email a persuasive message.
Based on the letter that I received, it’s very likely that the Obama campaign used information in their database to craft a message tailored to my particular views and beliefs. The Obama campaign couldn’t know that I think Michelle is awesome and covet her J. Crew dresses, but it could make an educated guess about the types of messaging that I would be most responsive to, based on a careful analysis of the data it was able to access about me. It makes perfect sense to use the First Lady as an ambassador to reach out to a young professional female who supports charitable organizations with missions very similar to Michelle’s own initiative.
The Obama campaign is not the only group using microtargeting to tailor messaging to voters. The Mitt Romney campaign has created different versions of the same video ad: one version targeted at loyal party members, the other at independents. The ad you see depends on the cookies stored on your computer. Rick Perry targeted his religion-centric commercials to people who labeled themselves Christians on Facebook.
Microtargeting can have its downsides, though. People don’t like to feel like they’re being watched. Just as it’s creepy to see banner ads that too closely reflect your recent browsing history, it’s disconcerting to receive political emails or direct mailings that seem to know too much about you.
The New York Times reports that there’s an overall discontent with microtargeted ads. Furthermore, 64 percent of respondents to a survey about political campaign microtargeting said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate if his or her campaign purchased information about the respondents and their neighbors for the purpose of sending them different messages. Seventy percent of respondents said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate they supported if the candidate’s campaign used Facebook to send ads to the friends of someone who had “liked” a candidate’s Facebook page.
This last point is an important lesson for us marketers: while targeting can help you reach a person with the right message, it’s also important not to cross over into stalker territory. Like political campaigns, we can be more persuasive and increase our response rates if we tailor our messages. But if we come across like we’re going through our recipient’s trash, targeted messages will have the opposite effect.
My Michelle fangirl reaction may not have been the typical response to a microtargeted campaign message. However, I would argue that the letter would be successful with other similar voters, even those who don’t have secret dreams of becoming BFFs with Michelle Obama. The mailer was targeted enough to resonate with the recipient, but subtle enough to seem natural, like the effortless charm of the First Lady. Ahh, Michelle. Let’s go do an upper body workout the next time you’re in Chicago.
More reading on political campaign microtargeting:
“The 2012 Tech Primary” (Politico)
“Campaigns to Track Voters with ‘Political Cookies’” (Technology Review, published by MIT)
“Obama’s White Whale” (Slate)
“Online Data Helping Campaigns Customize Ads” (New York Times)
“Reverse-Engineering Obama’s Message Machine” (ProPublica)
“Voters Say They Are Wary of Ads Made Just for Them” (New York Times)
More reading on Michelle’s popularity:
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