Transform politics with big data


Kathleen Wynne speaking at the Ontario Liberal Party leadership convention in Toronto, Ont. Saturday, January 26, 2013. (CP/Kevin Van Paassen)

Kathleen Wynne is standing at the podium, beaming out at 2,000 Ontario Liberal party delegates gathered inside Maple Leaf Gardens. After a three-ballot convention contest, she has just become the province’s new premier, and she wants to thank a few people.

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Wynne gives a heartfelt thanks to her campaign team and her spouse, Jane Rounthwaite. Then she calls out her eldest son.

“Christopher, who is my tech support—Christopher, thank you so much. I actually have no idea what he does, but he does it really, really well with a great team of young people!”

Three days earlier at the back of a storefront campaign headquarters, Chris Cowperthwaite sits at a fold-out table next to boxes overflowing with Wynne T-shirts. He doesn’t share his mom’s last name, but the friendly eyes behind the glasses and wide easy smile are unmistakable.

Soon after Wynne declared her candidacy last November, Cowperthwaite pulled in Geoff Sharpe, a digital strategist at communications firm Navigator Ltd., on the recommendation of a friend. Sharpe recruited Taylor Scollon, a digital strategist at Counsel Public Affairs, who was in Virginia volunteering for the 2012 Obama campaign. They built and designed Wynnne’s website and social-media presence in less than two days.

Their efforts helped Wynne attract the most donors and most new members, including a full third of those enrolled online.

They took advantage of new products launched by former members of Obama’s campaign team, such as NationBuilder, a system that organizes everything from supporter databases to donations to social media. Another is Optimizely, an “A/B testing” software that figures out the most effective web page designs and e-mail outreach.

“It’s an exciting time,” says Cowperthwaite. “Obama’s first winning team included a lot of guys from Google and Apple. It’s all filtering up here, and there will be a lot of change in how elections and politics operate over the next decade.”

Modern marketing and consumer-research techniques, combined with the tools and strategies learned from Team Obama, are transforming Canadian politics. Winners will be determined not just by their financial war chest, but by the size of their voter information database. Partisans now create products to help their campaigns, then transform their work into successful startups helping campaigns the world over. “Information about individuals is the new currency in politics,” says former NDP national director Brad Lavigne. “Money is important—it always has been and always will be—but the new currency is information.”

It’s why federal Liberals were celebrating news that Justin Trudeau’s leadership run had signed up 150,000 new supporters before the party’s deadline on March 3. Beyond the party’s internal race, that’s a lot of new voter information to bulk up the Grits’ database capabilities for the next federal election. Parties now know who you are, what issues you care about and where to reach you—and often you didn’t have to say a word.

 (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

(Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

In 2008, Barack Obama used data analytics, technology and social media to help run one of the greatest campaigns ever in American politics. He built a Delta Force of tech support, a team packed with some of the brightest minds from the likes of Google, Apple, Facebook and more. Since his first election, many of these former volunteers have gone on to commercialize the technology and software the Obama campaign paid them millions to create. They now make it available to any politician or party for a fraction of the cost. In addition to NationBuilder and Optimizely, there’s Organizer, a mobile campaign-organizing software, and a social-fundraising tool called Amicus. Boston-based NGP Voter Action Network (VAN), a platform that integrates fundraising, volunteer organization, new media and social networking, was built under the guidance of Obama for America and now counts most of the Democrats in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House as clients. But perhaps the best evidence of how of the worlds of consumer marketing and politics are merging was last December’s acquisition of Blue State Digital, a firm founded by former staffers of Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, by WPP, the world’s largest ad-agency holding company. Blue State had led Obama’s landmark online fundraising and social-networking efforts in the 2008 election.

In Canada, the major parties are using varying combinations of purchased and in-house-built technologies. The Conservative party was first to find Big Data religion and remains ahead of the pack. Back in 2004, the recently formed CPC purchased a shiny new toy called Constituent Information Management System and began packing it with as many voter names, addresses, political leanings and anything else they can learn about you from your attendance at political meetings to any calls, complaints or requests made to your MP’s office.

“The Conservatives have been the most successful at fundraising, so it’s no surprise they’ve been the leaders in using technology here,” says David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data and a political-science professor at Carleton University.

The New Democrats aren’t far behind. Lavigne says no other factor has been more important or transformative for the NDP than the recognition of gathering, cataloging and then using the information.

“Nothing came close to it,” says Lavigne, now a vice-president at Hill+Knowlton. “A political party that has identified a target audience, aims to find out where that audience lives, what their e-mail address is and as much demographic, social and attitudinal information as possible,” he says.

For example, the NDP has bought consumer research data by postal code that outlines how much a group of houses on any given street spend on childcare, after-school activities, health care, prescription drugs, and whether or not they’re retired.

“Brands and marketers use this type of information to understand where their potential consumer market is,” says Lavigne. “In politics, it’s used to tailor your message. So if there’s a postal code or neighbourhood where the proportion of income spent on child care is quite high, you know that your child-care policy is relevant there, and you can adjust your marketing materials aimed at that area accordingly.”



(The Liberal party is the laggard among Canadian federal parties when it comes to the Big Data game. The silver lining to being, as one senior party official called it, “asleep at the switch” for so long is that now the party’s starting out with state-of-the art technology. It purchased the framework for Liberalist, its new “voter identification and relationship management system,” in 2009 from NGP Voter Action Network and is desperately playing catch-up.)

Political parties are now accessing the same sources as marketers in the quest for valuable details about consumers’ lives. Your information is everywhere. Liked a politician or party’s Facebook page? Bingo. Subscribed to a magazine? Got it. Industry, cultural club and association memberships? It’s all out there, usually for a price. One former policy adviser even swears by Harlequin’s romance-novel subscription list, calling its level of consumer detail “just awesome.”

The result of more accurate and robust voter information is finding key voters within swing ridings. “Within those swing ridings, we can look for specific voter types through demographic and psychographic segmentation,” says Josh Somer, a strategic planner at Toronto advertising and design firm Reason Partners and longtime Conservative campaign worker. “Maybe it’s seniors, parents with young children or blue-collar workers, and we can pinpoint who the key people in that riding are that need to be convinced, and then see who among those might be receptive to our message.”

Even when they’ve collected reams of data about you, the parties still need to eventually talk to you. That’s where social media has changed the game. Consumer marketing has been hyping the idea of the “always on” campaign, in which brand advertising is constantly in touch with consumers. Look no further than the level of interaction on Twitter between consumers and brands like Nike, JetBlue, McDonald’s and Starbucks. Each reply or retweet is an exercise in brand-building and customer service. That approach has now made its way to politics. No longer do we have to wait for a politician to knock on our door or drive a campaign bus through town to get their attention.

Treasury Board president and Conservative MP Tony Clement is one of the most active Canadian politicians on Twitter. He says social media hasn’t changed the job, just added a very useful new element to it. He cites his experience as industry minister when Twitter helped him quickly respond to concerns over usage-based billing by telecoms.

Two years ago, the CRTC made a ruling on usage-based billing permitting large telecom companies to cap bandwidth for smaller Internet service providers. After hearing immediate feedback online, Clement came out against the decision and forced the regulator to revisit the issue.

“My Twitter account got more than 5,000 tweets from people concerned about usage-based billing and wanted to know the government’s policy on it, in just over a 48-hour period,” he says. “That was a very powerful feedback mechanism.”

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair’s chief of staff, Raoul Gebert, says this era of politics will mix the best of traditional tactics with new technology. “When we think of American politics, we see all the millions of dollars being spent on the advertising, micro-targeting, and what-not, but what we don’t often see is the fact that an average voter’s door in a swing state would’ve been knocked on many times during the campaign by countless volunteers physically talking to people in their neighbourhood,” he says. “Campaigning via social media is very cheap, but you still have to translate that into support at the ballot box.”

U.S. President Obama celebrates with the first family at their election night victory rally in ChicagoThe whole all-that’s-old-is-new-again sentiment is a common one. Former NationBuilder president and co-founder Joe Green worked with the Obama campaigns after creating Causes, a Facebook app for non-profits to raise donations and awareness through social media. NationBuilder’s software is affordable—its basic package is $19 per month—and aimed at passing on Obama-style organization to all levels of the political spectrum, from federal campaigns down to local town halls. Beyond Wynne’s campaign, the company’s Canadian political clients have included candidates for the B.C. Green party, Saskatchewan NDP and The Alberta Party. Green says technology has enabled politics to step out of the ivory towers of mass media and connect more effectively with individual voters.

“We went from the few-to-few era last century, to the few-to-many broadcast era, and now we’re getting into this era of many to many,” says Green. “Which is the idea that everybody has the ability to affect the people around them, and it’s not about having access to the big channels, it’s more about organizing people.”

Optimizely is the other Obama startup used by the Wynne campaign. In its ideal world, every website would be customized for your eyes. During the 2008 campaign, it crunched data to find out that people were 40% more likely to sign up when Obama’s website featured a picture of the Obama family with a Learn More link. It also told Wynne’s team the green Donate button on its site worked significantly better than a red one. It enables campaigns to alter the design or messaging of a site, depending on who is looking at it, based on their location.

“Many voters go to the polls and have only a few issues they really care about in a platform that may span 30 or 40 issues,” says Optimizely’s director of marketing, Jodie Ellis. “So for a candidate to be able to deliver the messaging for the issues that each voter cares about probably makes for a better experience overall for both the voter and candidate.”

Coletto says there is strong debate within political-science circles about whether democracy and government should be separate and unique from business and marketing. But really, that was decided long ago. Consumers now demand customization, interaction and dialogue from the brands they interact with, and those demands are now a part of our politics.

“Time and again, the candidates who are more market-oriented will be more successful simply because they are better at responding to voters’ needs,” says Coletto. “You can’t just be product or sales oriented anymore. It’s not enough to say, ‘We’ve got an idea, you should buy it.’ You now have to design your political product and service to match what the consumer wants.”