The Times: Lib Dem digital operations “closest to Team Obama”

The way the parties approach digital campaigning is examined in today’s Times (£), which is very complimentary about the Liberal Demcorats’ operation, saying that it is closest to the gold standard in this area, the Obama campaign.

Thanks to their strong ground intelligence, the Liberal Democrats have been able to come closest to the “micro-targeting” of individual voters pioneered by Team Obama. Yet data protection issues and lack of money present stumbling blocks for British parties as they try to match his campaign’s success.

Soon-to-be Marathon Man Austin Rathe is quoted:

Closest to the Obama model are the Lib Dems, who have a wealth of data gleaned from a long focus on door-knocking and detailed canvassing. In 2011, the party decided to shell out a “seven-figure sum” on Connect, a voter database used by the Obama campaign. It then paid a data company to identify the Facebook profiles of as many voters as possible. Rather than asking the site to target a broad range of people, the Lib Dems can provide lists of individuals to be targeted with a particular message.

On the day of the autumn statement, the party paid to push a story about a road expansion in front of 11,000 target voters in Berwick. “We will never put out a blanket email or Facebook post,” says Austin Rathe, a Lib Dem staffer. “We will make sure you see something you care about, whether it’s on the environment or climate change.”

What? You mean there are things I don’t see? Definitely in the huff now.

The use of sites like Facebook, Twitter and You Tube is interesting. Now I know that the Tories are paying for the pre-video advertising, I’ll feel even happier when I press “Skip Ad.” Austin is cautious about spending a fortune on social media advertising, though.

Sceptics say the lack of precision targeting risks presenting voters with the wrong message. “We wouldn’t spend a single penny on Facebook likes,” said Mr Rathe, the Lib Dem strategist.

That seems wise to me because I tend not to “Like” things on Facebook if I don’t like them. While I’ll follow things and people I don’t like on Twitter, I just couldn’t bring myself to “Like” the Conservatives on Facebook. I know that their page is followed by lots of Liberal Democrats, so it might be just a quirky thing with me, but I doubt it.

I think the other thing to mention is that everything that is ever sent out by email or shared on social media is tested to destruction. The nerds in LDHQ know exactly what works and what doesn’t. It’s all very different from the days of writing these brown Election Communication envelopes, one per household.

 

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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29 Comments

  • Tony Greaves 8th Apr '15 - 3:50pm

    But is this really the kind of politics we want to see in this country? Politics as public relations, as advertising rather than open, full and honest debate.

    I may be old-fashioned but I do not like it.

    Tony Greaves

  • Charles Kennedy as to ask members for £5,000 in donations so he can afford posters in his fight to hold his seat. In 2011 LibDems pay out a 7 figure sum for a voter database. I may also be old fashioned, but that seems crazy to me.

  • Stephen Hesketh 8th Apr '15 - 4:37pm

    Tony Greaves is right.

    Is this the path to a participative democracy?

    No wonder people are increasingly cynical and emotionally detached from politics and professional politicians.

  • Simon McGrath 8th Apr '15 - 4:40pm

    @tony Greaves
    How does this “On the day of the autumn statement, the party paid to push a story about a road expansion in front of 11,000 target voters in Berwick differ from the way you would have done it , putting a LD success on a piece of paper and putting through doors?

  • Simon McGrath
    Are you suggesting that you know a better way of campaigning.? If so will you share it with the rest of us and tell us of your success with your approach so far?
    Or are you saying that you agree with switching to a politics which is dominated by public relations, advertising and spending a fortune on opinion polling which in the two most recent parliamentary byelections bought us the magnificent results of around 1% of the vote?

    I thnk you should tell us what your opinion is.

  • Beware. No one likes being micro-managed, and certainly not knowing they are being micro-managed!

  • Simon McGrath 8th Apr '15 - 7:03pm

    @John – what an odd comment. I was simply pointing out that celebrating a LD success in Govt using social media is no different from doing so in a leaflet. Or do you think there is a difference?

  • Tony Dawson 8th Apr '15 - 7:10pm

    I emailed team Obama and completely unvetted canvassed a chunk of Philidelphia and Cincinatti for them, the year he first got elected. Do we do anything like that?

  • Tony Dawson 8th Apr '15 - 7:11pm

    @malc:

    ” In 2011 LibDems pay out a 7 figure sum for a voter database. ”

    This cannot be true,. A five figure sum, perhaps.

  • Don’t understand those who have a problem with this. We’ve done target leaflets and letters for years and years. Why is it ‘wrong’ to send the message electronically?

  • Steve Comer 8th Apr '15 - 8:00pm

    I’m not sure there is an either/or in this debate.
    In 2010 it was clear that the EARS system was not able to compete with more spohisticated software being used by Labour and the Tories to target voters and record their interests. We had to get something better, and the Obama campaign had outperformed the Republicans in two successive Presidential Elections.

    But the obvious point is that all this depends on the information you can put into the system, and if you’ve only got 2 or 3 really active members then however many people they can canvass on the doorstep of on the ‘phone, its about as effective as trying to melt an icecube with a blowlamp! You’ll just have not much data on a more spohisticated database.

    What does concern me in this campaign is the boiling down of activity to ‘KPIs’ and the like. Anyone who lived thorough the old CPA regime in Local Government will be aware of how much time was wasted in producing performance statistics that meant nothing.
    (I remember a Chief Executive telling me proudly the Council’s call centre was answering every incoming call in less than 15 seconds. I asked him what happened if someone got through quickly but didn’t get the answer they wanted did that still – ‘tick the box’ as a response? He said it did, I said in that case the target was totally meaningless……………….)

  • Tony Dawson

    “This cannot be true,. A five figure sum, perhaps.”

    I just took the 7 figure sum from Caron’s article, but it does seem a lot.

    “Closest to the Obama model are the Lib Dems, who have a wealth of data gleaned from a long focus on door-knocking and detailed canvassing. In 2011, the party decided to shell out a “seven-figure sum” on Connect, a voter database used by the Obama campaign”

  • Stephen Donnelly 8th Apr '15 - 8:12pm

    Somebody has to make the point that the problem is the electoral system rather than the means of delivery of information. Political parties have adapted to target the most important voters by the most efficient means. No surprise really.

  • John Tilley – I think you should tell us what evidence you have the putting un-Focus-sed pieces of paper through people’s doors is any better than other campaigning methods.

  • Tabman – well arguably a number of years of experience. Though very few campaigns were relying entirely on unfocussed campaigning. Connect may be feeding through at the tech end but in ground based campaigning it is not an easy to use package – it requires a large number of intricate steps (with a real risk of error) to produce a targeted mailshot. (When I was running a key seat I told party HQ that the system at the time was unusable when it came to producing targeted mailings in the heat and pressure of a campaign – not sure if things have changed since then)

    But comparisons to the Obama campaign are meaningless as there is one big difference between the Obama campaign in 2012 and the LIb Dems in 2015 – the clues in the name. Nothing in the US experience suggests that tech campaigning and micro-targeting by themselves are a silver bullet – the Obama campaign without Obama is basically Rick Perry.

    Steve is right on KPIs – these were all there in 2010 but were more focussed about literature delivery. But the basic flaw has not been addressed, you are measuring activity, not the effectiveness of that activity. In 2010 a number of seats were ticking the boxes of having done enough direct mail etc and frankly some of the stuff that was put out wasn’t worth the cost of the envelope.

  • Tony Greaves 8th Apr '15 - 9:43pm

    I have no idea who is or was or will be “Rick Perry”. Am I sad?

    Simon McGrath – I have an old-fashioned idea that you basically say the same thing to everyone. I have an old-fashioned idea that this is an honest way of doing things. If I push a piece of paper through the door in my ward, or part of it, it’s the same piece through every door. The only exception is functional (ie letter to postal voters) or a squeezing message at the end of a campaign. But the political and information stuff is the same to everyone.

    Tony

  • Tony Greaves – a squeeze message is a differentiated message.

  • Philip Thomas 8th Apr '15 - 9:58pm

    Personally, I like having messages to me that are focused on what I am interested in. I can make allowances for the fact that people are targeting my vote, but I’d rather read information about policies I care about than otherwise.

    When Canvassing, I don’t say the same things to a soft Con as a soft Lab. Not that I’m lying to either- I just have different points I stress.

  • Simon McGrath 8th Apr '15 - 10:53pm

    @Tony – you don’t do street letters then ? Where you cover something in a particular street or streets ?

  • Rick Perry was a wannabe republican presidential candidate and governor of Texas. He pioneered a lot of cutting-edge microtargetting etc techniques in his Gubernatorial campaigns but it didn’t do him much good in his presidential campaigns. The point is there isn’t some magic Obama formula anymore than there was a magic formula when laser printed letters, or phone canvassing, or emailing, or robocalls or… or… or…..

    Election campaigns have been about three things, Persuade people to vote for you, Identify who your supporters are and Get them to vote since (and before) the Gladstone was fighting Midlothian and Lincoln Illinois. New technologies have been about ways of doing one of those three.

  • Tony Dawson 9th Apr '15 - 12:42am

    Steve Comer,

    It is true that EARS missed its promised upgrades several times. It was and is, however, considerably-superior to Connect in several ways. The front end is easy to use for proper politicians who have a limited interest in geekery. There is a capacity to view data as one scrolls through the electoral roll and to make proper subjective as well as objective assessments. There is no stupid central algorithm creating notional ‘yellow Tories’etc.The data is controlled locally so no subject to meddling by people centrally who would be better out pounding the streets or drinking coffee somewhere.

    It is my impression that Connect, though it has now been improved in various ways, was ‘sold’ to the Lib Dems’ by certain individuals as having much better capability than it actually had at the time. It was and still is essentially a geek programme which can be used by some politicians rather than a politician’s programme.

    What is the point of a political Party which concentrates on navel gazing software while becoming increasingly more inept at politics?

  • Philip Thomas 9th Apr '15 - 8:40am

    @Tony Dawson
    “What is the point of a political Party which concentrates on navel gazing software while becoming increasingly more inept at politics?”
    It keeps software developers happy?
    I don’t think we are currently becoming “increasingly more inept at politics”: compare this General Election campaign to the 2014 euro election campaign, for example. We have made mistakes over the past 5 years. We have lost supporters. But the mistakes have been apologised for and we are no longer losing supporters at anything like the rate we lost them between 2010 and 2014 (some recent polls suggest we are gaining them, in fact).

    More importantly, as you know better than me, our activists on the ground are still committed and still willing to fight for the ideals of the preamble against the other parties’ increasingly hostile attitude. Accusing those on the ground (and the activists on the ground are the political party) of “increasing ineptness” is hardly helpful.

  • @ Tony Greaves. I agree with you. Otherwise winning the political argument is in danger of becoming like just another marketing exercise – we are not selling Mars bars. People are tired of being patronised by politicians and can see through these tactics. I think we can trust the electorate to see the bigger picture. I personally do not respond positively to ‘Dear Judy’ emails. Dear supporter would be better.

  • Tsar Nicholas 9th Apr '15 - 10:00am

    The Lib Dems getting close to Team Obama? Does this mean Clegg has a kill list and that we can expect a drone attack on a wedding party in Witney?

  • “I personally do not respond positively to ‘Dear Judy’ emails. Dear supporter would be better.”

    All the research suggests the opposite – though there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that some people will object no matter how they are addressed 🙂

    My big criticism of the party’s campaign innovation approach is just how conservative it is. I’m sure there is a lot of good ideas being developed but all that seems to get handed down is an approved and fairly regulated model of “the way to do things” (and that is VERY Obama – there was a session at a party training event in early 2013 which carried a very strong undertone – from people returning from the Obama camapign – that organisers would now be expected to be the agents of delivery for the national campaign not people who were responsible for running their own campaigns)

    But that has a number of issues – the main one being that when you are fighting 57 individual campaigns you need to have some understanding of the rationale behind any targeting groups – otherwise you end up with a 2015 version of 2010 with people just putting their caniddates name and address on a standard bit of artwork and thinking this was a good thing.

    But more importantly it completely cuts off any further innovation at “the grassroots”. At our best the party was a huge lab of developing campaign ideas with people adding new tweaks and ideas to ideas developed in other parts of the country. And most high-powered campaign techniques developed in key target seats will scale down even to a ward level campaign.

    And finally it does seem to be all about the cyber – for example no information coming out about different motivational language and phrasing which can have a 2-5% difference in the effectiveness of GOTV campaigns.

  • @Hywel. I know it’s just a mailshot so – despite all the research – that approach doesn’t convince me. I know thousands of other people are getting the same message too!

  • Cllr Martin Hunt 9th Apr '15 - 2:38pm

    Here goes then. Connect and eveything about it is why after 50 years as a Liberal/LibDem activist and councillor I am packing it in on May 7 and going out to pasture. When I was asked if I had Minivan I thought it was particularly ironic as that what was I drove around in during my early campaigning years. I remember later when I first got elected in the days of the Alliance we canvassed door to door, took numbers on polling day, transferred them to shuttleworths, struck them through with a thing called a pencil, then ripped the top sheet of and went knockibg up. And do you know what, we won seat after seat that year and in the years following culminating in electing an MP who has been there ever since. And it was fun. This year all I hear is that Connect wants data, you have to have Minivan on your mobile (which is difficult as I don’t have one), we send out shedloads of targeted letters to people who I have personally written on the sheets as Anti ever since we ratted on our tuition fees promise. No Connect, they’re not Soft Yellows, they are bloody Anti – why waste time on them. And all this dictated to us by a Party HQ via a computer programme designed to get a President elected. The news is HQ that getting MPs and councillors elected is not the same as getting a President elected. Goodbye. It’s not fun any more.

  • “we send out shedloads of targeted letters to people who I have personally written on the sheets as Anti ever since we ratted on our tuition fees promise. No Connect, they’re not Soft Yellows, they are bloody Anti – why waste time on them.”

    Who was doing this and what training had they had before using it? One of the biggest issues people have with Connect is thinking that you can just “pick up how to use it” without reading or using any of the (pretty comprehensive) training material. In any other sphere would you expect to be able to use a fairly complex database system without doing that?

    Similarly people need to (a) produce and (b) read canvassing instructions so they know what they are asking and why. Again I don’t understand why this is seen as being a bad thing – but I’ve had numerous people out canvassing asking questions about how to record information which was completely explained in the briefing (which they hadn’t read)

    And you don’t have to have Minivan to go canvassing either.

  • Cllr Martin Hunt 9th Apr ’15 – 2:38pm
    “…………..we canvassed door to door, took numbers on polling day, transferred them to shuttleworths, struck them through with a thing called a pencil, then ripped the top sheet of and went knockibg up.
    And do you know what, we won seat after seat that year and in the years following culminating in electing an MP who has been there ever since. And it was fun. ”

    Yes we won seat after seat.  We were in constant communication with ordinary human beings.  We were not drones slaving away to the orders of our superiors in some remote HQ.
    We worked with people in the communities we lived in.   We worked with people to take and use power.   We got elected.  We were winners.

    We can be winners again by living out our values and campaigning as Liberal Democrats.

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