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The new problem for US election campaigners (and what we in the EU should learn from it)

The American campaigners are currently facing a major problem: their most powerful weapon is being snatched from them. At a conference on political marketing in Washington, I felt a massive change in mood among US campaign consultants. In Europe, too, we can learn something from this.

Data: The holy grail of American campaigners

What is it about? About data! Data, data, data are at the heart of every American election campaign. No campaign team can do without data scientists. At the beginning of every campaign, there are extensive analyses of a gigantic amount of data that we in Germany and Europe would not even have access to. In Germany, many are shocked by the fact that a lot of other information in addition to age and gender can be used. This includes, for example, household income, voting behavior, certain interests and preferences, profession, membership in associations, and much more. In Europe, the collection and analysis of such data is largely illegal. In the US, on the other hand, there are practical tools that visualize this data and break constituencies down into target group segments, which can then often be accessed with a single click via a wide variety of communication channels. Telephone, SMS, WhatsApp, Facebook, websites, email, home visits, TV commercials, and so on.

Data analysis runs through the entire campaign — every step is coordinated with it.

When I first attended a political marketing conference in the US a year ago, it felt like there was a kind of gold rush atmosphere. The possibilities of digitization had intoxicated the US election campaigners, and new tools are still coming onto the market to evaluate or market data even better.

Data protection also arrives in the US

In 2019, however, the wind began to turn. The scandals of recent months have led to both American politics and the public becoming much more critical. Television images of a robotic Marc Zuckerberg at hearings in the US Congress are quite widespread in the US, as is the keyword “Cambridge Analytica,” for example. And, yes, discussions about data privacy in Europe more than just registered in the US. The abbreviation GDPR was omnipresent at this year’s CampaignTech Summit.

There is still no comprehensive data protection in the US, not nationwide. But California made a strong beginning and issued very tight data protection regulations – at least tight for US standards. And worse for US election campaigners: the major online services are beginning to dramatically restrict their possibilities for political advertising. Twitter has just completely banned political ads. Google has announced that it will virtually abolish microtargeting for political ads. Everyone is afraid: Facebook (with Instagram) will follow.

What to do without data battles and microtargeting?

And then what? What if this is only the beginning of a bigger wave at the end of which today’s data battle and sometimes extreme microtargeting are no longer allowed for politics? It was precisely this fear that was present at the conference and in all discussions in the surrounding area. The conversation was mainly about which alternative channels could be used. But very quietly, some voices started to ask: do we perhaps have to change something about our basic strategy?

The political message is missing!

The problem with American election campaigns is similar to that of many European campaigns: the big political message is missing. Ideas, proposals, and much more are lacking. Some concrete election campaign measures are even limited to collecting donations. A tip: subscribe to the email newsletters of various American candidates. Apart from constant requests to donate money, there is little information about their concrete political ideas. In Germany, too, we often lack the political ideas and concrete messages. We cheerfully put up our meaningless candidate posters, post colorful pictures on Facebook (but nobody notices them anyway), and above all we raid our political opponents.

The solution: Political content marketing

In my opinion, the long-term solution is that candidates and campaign managers have to give more thought to the quality of their content. We need real political content marketing. This is not yet the case in the US, Germany, or Austria. The commercial world has long recognized the power of content marketing. At a pure digital marketing conference I attended at the end of October 2019 in Boston, content marketing was everywhere. Why don’t we learn from it? If we can’t continue to use abbreviations, such as the use of data or massively purchased reach, then we need to deliver better content. We need content so attractive that people want to consume and share it. For example, search engine optimization is a powerful content marketing tool and virtually unknown in politics. Why?

Back to the roots: Let’s make election campaigns political again!

An election campaign based on content marketing becomes much more political. We have to focus on political ideas, proposals, and values and optimize them so that people are interested in them. I believe that such an election campaign would not only be extremely effective, but would also benefit political culture and thus our democracy. The US election campaigners must now learn this. Let us Europeans imitate them—or, best of all, let us be the pioneers of such election campaigns!

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