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Digital Marketing and CRO in Political Campaigns

A/B Testing

Running for political office has never been cheap, or easy. Running for US president is an extremely expensive business. So far in this presidential race, candidates have raised over $500 million and some estimate that the total figure spent by the end of the race will be as high as $10 billion. A good proportion of donations that fund these campaigns come from private organizations and wealthy individuals, but still a large amount is raised through grassroots fundraising.

Gone are the days of canvassing donations simply by grabbing a clipboard and going door to door to ask for contributions. Increasingly politicians are reaching potential voters online, and this makes sense – if done right, you can reach more voters more cost effectively than sending armies of fundraisers out into the streets.

As the US election reaches it final fevered stages; I thought it would be an interesting time to look at the digital campaigns that candidates in political races run, and how sophisticated and effective their testing and conversion rate optimisation tactics have been.

Some background: that Obama campaign and the dawn of A/B testing in politics

Though perhaps difficult to imagine now, back in 2007 Barack Obama was trailing in the polls and a relative unknown in US politics (at Presidential level anyway). He did have a website, and an understanding of multivariate testing, allowing the campaign to try variations on the site content to maximize the number of sign ups. Prior to this, little to no organised effort had been made to use the approach of conversion rate optimization on a political campaign, letting data and experiments decide the best messaging and website layout, rather than the decisions of a small group of campaign managers. In the run up to 2008, that changed.

Admittedly it’s a piece of PR gold dust for the founder of Optimizely to be involved in the campaign, but in this article, Dan Siroker, then Director of Analytics for the Obama campaign summarises several experiments they ran on the Obama campaign page. They tested combinations of landing page media (videos and images) and calls to action on an email sign up.

Screenshot 2016-09-08 09.40.52 They tested four button variations and six different pieces of media (videos and pictures) to find the most effective landing page to convert visitors into sign ups.

They managed to increase the sign-up rate of the homepage by 40%, from 8.26% to 11.6%. All other things being equal, the trickle down effects of this improvement were an extra $60 million in donations. That’s not to be sniffed at. And as mentioned in the article, this success was driven by data, rather than campaign managers opinions.

Given the success they found in 2007, it’s unsurprising that in 2012, the Obama digital team put Optimization at the heart of their digital campaign. They ran 500 A/B tests on their web pages which increased donation conversion by 29% and sign up conversions by 161%. The Obama campaign also ran experiments with their email campaigns on subject lines, email content, and calls to action within their emails. In short; ‘The campaign staff knew what they were doing, tested aggressively, and emailed aggressively, with great success.’ [Source]

For us at Formisimo, there were also some interesting experiments with the donation forms themselves in that campaign.

Screenshot 2016-09-08 09.42.59

A long, single page donation form was split into 4 smaller steps, they increased form completions by 5%. As Kyle puts it:

“Turns out you can get more users to the top of the mountain if you show them a gradual incline instead of a steep slope.”

Surely a take away for any online business looking to optimise their form conversions. Splitting up forms can make a marked difference to completion rates. Given the success of the above, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Romney campaign followed suit and ‘borrowed’ the idea of shorter, multi-step forms, leading first with a donation amount.

Since the 2008 US election, how has the attention paid to digital changed?

The state of digital spend in politics

As internet and social media usage has increased since 2007, so too has the spend on digital campaigns and advertising. Take the following prediction, as cited in emarketer:

Screenshot 2016-09-08 09.55.04This year spend on digital ads will reach $1 billion, a whopping 5000% increase from 2008. And that’s just on ads. In short it seems that whilst back in 2007, digital campaigns may have seemed a curiosity and an add on to the more traditional campaigning techniques. Obama’s 2008 campaign showed the potential impact and power of a great and organised online presence. As Arianna Huffington, editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post said;

“Were it not for the Internet, Barack Obama would not be president. Were it not for the Internet, Barack Obama would not have been the nominee.”

Digital campaigns now play a small but rapidly growing part of political campaigns. Though total spending is up and is set to continue to rise, the relative importance and budgets that particular campaigns put on digital differ drastically, as we are about to see.

The UK 2015 election

One that sits closer to home for us at Formisimo was the 2015 election, won by a majority by the Conservative party. The monetary amounts spent however are dwarfed by the US elections, with labour spending £12million and the Conservatives spending £15.6million. The Conservatives spending on Facebook ads was significantly higher than their rivals, with £1.2million of its budget handed over to the social network compared to Labour’s’ £16.5k.

These figures, taken from The Drum, also show that ‘The Conservatives stumped up £312,033 (including the price for its YouTube pre-rolls) compared to Labour’s much smaller billing of £371.54’. It’s hardly surprising to hear that Craig Elder, Digital Director at the Conservative Party told Econsultancy that ‘digital played an absolutely vital role in our success in 2015’.

The shift from PR hits to results driven activity saw the conservatives use Facebook, Youtube and local newspaper sites to push out targeted messaging out to both those already loyal to the party and undecided voters. Interestingly, email still played a huge role in the Conservative campaign, with 1.4million signing up to their mailing list and a further 100k people becoming volunteers.

The above figures are also interesting because in the run up to the general election there was much talk of Labour making the most out of digital marketing to ‘out-campaign’ the Conservative Party. In a New Statemen article, Labour were described as having ‘invested heavily in building its digital strategy and hiring a top team […] Labour has calculated, wisely, that online advertising has the potential to reach greater swathes of the population for less money’. Less money perhaps, but their budgets are significantly lower than the parties’ campaign.

So at least in terms of the UK’s last election, digital seems to have played an important role. Whilst we cannot attribute the victory solely to digital spend, the Conservatives’ output eclipses that of the Labour party. Interestingly, across both parties, no mention was made of Conversion Rate Optimisation or testing of messaging. So although in the UK 2015 may have been the first digital election, their digital practices in terms of CRO lag behind that of the private sector.

The 2016 US Presidential Election

As we near the US election itself, our readers will no doubt already be acquainted with many of the candidates and campaigns that have led us into the home straight of the US presidential election. We won’t know the results of the election and also how effective the digital marketing efforts of each candidate are until after the election in the Autumn, but it’s still fascinating to see the various approaches to digital messaging and online campaigning.

Having a big budget certainly helps when launching an online campaign. Other times, using a smaller budget wisely can reach more people and more effectively, although this is not always a guarantee of success. In fact, in Bernie Sanders’ campaign, it did not even secure him the democratic nomination.

Alhan Keser has written a great article on the (many) tests that Bernie Sanders seems to have tried on his site.

He’s tested imagery:

Screenshot 2016-09-08 10.10.23


Screenshot 2016-09-08 10.10.56


“We need your help…”

“Stand With Bernie”

“Make History with Bernie”

And supporting copy:

If everyone visiting this site donated, Bernie would have more resources than all the billionaire-backed candidates put together — and he’d use them to get money out of politics forever. Take back your country from the billionaire class.

They have the money, but we have the people. If everyone who visits this website joins our movement, there’s nothing we can’t accomplish together.

Check out the article for full analysis. It’s interesting to see Bernie’s campaign using A/B tests as a way to drive more sign ups. When digital budgets are lower, an effective optimisation and testing strategy can ensure ‘more bang for your buck’, although as with Sanders, this still will not guarantee that David triumph over Goliath. If you’d like more information about both the Clinton and Sanders wider digital marketing campaign you can find an analysis of them here.

Fellow Democrat and now official nominee Hillary Clinton seems to be taking a similarly data driven approach to her digital political campaign, which sources noticing that

The campaign has posted job openings for digital, analytics, and engineering spheres, which include an email writer. Requirements included having previous knowledge and experience of mass distribution program familiarity with A/B testing, and optimizing content and headlines.

Other sources have noted that

Precision digital-marketing data, a person’s online footprints, have become an electoral science that Democrats have dominated, and Republicans have chased, for a decade. Campaigns used the data at first simply to track supporters. The information now guides a range of decisions, such as the types and volume of advertising, where to deploy campaign staff to mobilise voters and where a candidate should visit.

Trump in contrast has said that the use of data is “overrated” and he planned “limited” data use. The Trump campaign has spent over £1million on caps, and less than a third of that of data and data retrieval functions such as telemarketing.

It’s perhaps not surprising therefore to examine the state of each candidate’s approach to email marketing. Given the success of email campaigns in the previous Obama campaign it’s surprising to see the small email lists that Donald Trump’s campaign has built, and the number of the emails actually sent out that are marked as spam. ReturnPath has pulled together some fantastic data on this (the purple bars below are Clinton’s, the others Trumps’):

Screenshot 2016-09-08 10.11.35

So Trump’s campaign seems to differ fundamentally in its approach to Clinton’s, although I did notice one similarity. Remember the previous mention of shortening of a single donation form into steps? Seems the current candidates’ teams were paying attention:

Screenshot 2016-09-08 10.11.45 Screenshot 2016-09-08 10.11.54

Both adopt a short first step that contains a message, fixed amounts and a next button. So Trump’s team clearly have at least adopted some of the best practices of previous political campaigns.

The future?

It’s impossible to predict the outcome of any election by the sophistication or budget of a digital campaign, it seems that certain candidates perceived different amount of value in them. As internet, smart phone and social media use continues to rise, no doubt future elections will continue to see new digital approaches emerge and new ways for politicians to reach potential voters. As someone with a vested interest, I’d like to see more testing and optimisation of messaging and websites. Perhaps we’ll have to wait for the next election.