Key takeaways

  • With election campaigns under way in both Australia and the US in 2016, mastery of big data analytics and modern digital marketing could be key to securing victory.
  • Tactics include revealing individual voter opinions and identifying personality types via social media networks.
  • In both politics and business, effective microtargeting is now the frontier that can make or break a marketing campaign.

It is an artefact of most Western-style democracies these days that winning election to high office requires a sophisticated campaign strategy. In a game with a Byzantine rulebook, in which victory can rely on extremely narrow margins, there has emerged the need to target and reach the very individual, on a personal level, to secure their favour and allegiance.

In 2012,  the Obama campaign’s expert use of social media – in particular, platforms Facebook and Twitter – set the digital standard for presidential politics. Four years, however, is a long time in cyberspace, and digital marketing methods have only become more sophisticated in the interim.


It’s no longer enough to simply deliver a message; now, it must also be the right message. That means knowing, ahead of time, something about whom you’ll be speaking to and what they’d most like to hear. In the digital marketing space, this is called ‘targeting’ and involves massaging your messaging so as to appeal specifically to each one of a handful of likely personas. These may be identified through data analysis and/or market research.

The finer the detail you’re able to acquire, the more personas you can define and the better you can tailor your messages. When this process is taken to the extreme – down to the level of the individual in some cases – it’s referred to as ‘microtargeting’.

Essentially, it’s all about telling people exactly what they want to hear.


Writing in 2008, journalist Steven Levy defined microtargeting as “a way to identify small but crucial groups of voters who might be won over to a given side, and which messages would do the trick”.

In its basic form, the process is roughly as follows: combing through consumer research and other survey data to shortlist people who would be likely to support your candidate (but, as yet, don’t), and reach out to them through as many communications channels as possible. e.g., letter writing, flyer drops, phone campaigns, eDMs, advertising and interacting on social media (and, of course, kissing babies).

comes of age

While political microtargeting may sound very new and cutting-edge, it’s actually been de rigueur since the 60s. Having lost the presidential race in 1960, Richard Nixon’s campaign team acted strategically for his 1968 run, changing their candidate’s positions on specific critical issues in order to sway voters in crucial states.

This decision to tailor to appeal specifically to disaffected, white, southern voters was dubbed ‘The Southern Strategy’, and it heralded the dawn of the political microtargeting era.

In 2016, as both Australians and Americans face impending federal elections, a big deciding factor will be the extent to which each candidate can use these methodologies most effectively in getting their message across in a way that will actually get people to listen.

for efficiency

While microtargeting can be extremely effective, it is not cheap. It cannot be done manually without incurring overheads that even this year’s wealthy US presidential hopefuls would likely consider excessive. As such, pressure has been mounting for technological advancement to yield greater efficiency dividends and increase return on investment.

And, so it has.

A widely publicised story on the US campaign trail this year was about Republican Party candidate Ted Cruz’s digital marketing full-court press, in which his team deployed state-of-the-art, data-driven, microtargeted marketing techniques across Iowa in the lead up to February’s caucus.

What made it particularly interesting wasn’t so much the novelty of the techniques they used, but rather the decision to talk about it so transparently.

the gamble that paid

In a December 2015 interview, Cruz told The Guardian that his “is very much the Obama model – a data-driven, grassroots-driven campaign – and it is a reason why our campaign is steadily gathering strength”. If that’s so, there’s strength in numbers: Obama reportedly had a 100 analytics staff working behind the scenes of his 2012 campaign.

The Cruz team were fearlessly upfront about their aggressive microtargeting campaign. It appears the decision was sound, as voters responded very positively to what they considered to be acts congruent with an admirable fighting spirit – the very quality, they rightly assert, necessary to win a US presidential election.

The validity of both their transparent approach and the marketing techniques they employed was borne out. Before Trump went on to become the presumptive nominee, Cruz leveraged the power of microtargeting to secure a decisive win over his party rival. Cruz collected nearly 28% of the vote to Trump’s 24%, winning 56 of Iowa’s 99 counties.

The key
is to categorise

While a chasm separates the strategic landscapes of those trying to court customers for their products from those vying for the most powerful seat in the world, both are petitioning the oracle with a similar question:

How do I communicate my message most effectively with the least effort, at scale, and at minimal cost?

The answer: reduce and generalise – and do so in a clever way.

The Cruz team sought to firstly categorise Iowans into a set of personality types that would inform the campaigners as to which approach they should use in making the case to them for a Cruz presidency.

For ‘timid traditionalists’ (one of their categories) the talking point would be ‘local pride’; for ‘temperamental’ voters, economic concerns were to be held salient; meanwhile, ‘stoic traditionalists’ would be courted by promises that national security would receive even more funding.

According to Cruz data and analytics chief Chris Wilson, the end result of cross-correlating all data points was 167 ‘voter universes,’ each defining a psychological subgroup that would each receive a unique message. Wilson told NPR:

“Demographics and geographics are important, but really what’s important is to start clustering people by personality. Your decision-making is based on your personality, and not on your gender. Nor is it based on your age or your wealth or any other demographic or geographic factor.”

The art
of persuasion

To further optimise the operation’s efficiency, voters would be targeted according to their persuadability.

The trick, in Team Cruz’s case, was to firstly identify that subset of potential voters torn between Trump and Cruz – i.e., those amenable to a change of heart – and then to uncover pain-points at the local level that could be leveraged for brand marketing purposes.

This was achieved by posting business-card sized display ads (which had no explicit Cruz connection) to their Facebook accounts, each calling for action on a specific issue; for example, a recent state ordinance banning the use of fireworks. Users could click ‘Act now’ on the ad that resonated most with them. Cruz then engaged with that subgroup of voters on that particular issue, proclaiming, for example, that he would seek to repeal the fireworks ban.


in Australian politics

Ted Cruz was not the only aspirant to public office to closely observe Obama’s microtargeting efforts. For the 2013 federal election, both Labor and the Liberal Party employed microtargeting as part of their campaign strategies in Australia.

Labor combined the technology with an extensive grassroots campaign involving door-knocking, phone calls, emails and social media. While it didn’t result in victory, the party managed to raise more than ten times the amount of online donations compared to the previous election in 2010.

Rather than matching Labor on the ground, the Liberals, taking advantage of each party’s position in the wider electoral cycle, focused on a social media campaign. This campaign later went on to win an award at the American Association for Political Consultants.

Since the 2013 election, social media platforms such as Facebook have unlocked electorate level ‘audiences’ for the 14 million Australians active across Facebook and Instagram. It remains to be seen if, not to mention how well, the parties use these capabilities in 2016.

Hearts and minds
for the taking

Of course, very few of us are vying for the highest office in the land – not this year, anyway. But, if the ability of modern, data-driven digital marketing techniques to deliver political victories is any indication, businesses wishing to disrupt the prevailing balance of power in their particular market ought to take note: the deeper you drill, the more likely you are to strike oil.

Imagine, for instance, that you wish to grow a product’s user base or market share. Using microtargeting, new, potentially receptive areas and audiences are illuminated. Not only does this concentrate resources to where they will have the most impact, it ensures all new conversations are had with those most ready to lend their ears.

With the hearts and minds of customers all over the world just waiting to be won, the competition will be fierce. Of course, no amount of microtargeting can compensate for the quality of the end product, nor shield from wider political or economic forces. But for those who can balance these variables, victory will belong not to the owner of the biggest billboard, but to whoever knows their customers best.



Philip Otley

Philip Otley is a former partner in PwC Australia’s Experience Centre.

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