Doubts about micro-targeting
Jennifer Lees-Marshment is a world-wide expert in political marketing who was visiting professor at McGill University in 2009, and who has conducted research and published on Canadian political marketing.
We don’t like it, and we argued in our book Political marketing in Canada that Canadian practitioners are wise in avoiding it, but there is no doubt that campaigns all around the world look to the US for ideas in how to win elections.
In an article in the Globe and Mail Andrew Steele commented that the Canadian Conservatives are copying how the US campaigns of 2004 and focusing on sending direct mail to voters in a very small section of the electorate, as little as 20 seats, as they will make the difference in the election result. Computer based voter profiling assesses voters depending on where they live, what kind of house they live in, who they live with, what they do in their life in terms of their job, hobbies and even the food and drink they consume.
This raises a democratic issue of course – as Steele noted, some voters get a lot of communication and attention, whereas others do not. Called micro-targeting, narrowcasting or hyper-segmentation, campaigns focus their resources on where they think they will count most. Academics criticise this for making some voters vote count more, eroding the idea of equality at the ballot box.
But it also raises the question: will 2004-US style tactics work in Canada in 2011? Three things make me suggest not:
- Micro-targeting relies on assumptions about voters political views based on non-political characteristics which could be completely wrong. The Tories could be spending a lot of money sending the wrong messages to the wrong people.
- The Tories are copying an old approach which may no longer prove effective in the US, let alone Canada. Hillary Clinton’s main consultant at first was Mark Penn, author of micro-trends. She didn’t win the nomination through this approach and they parted ways mid-campaign. In 2008 Obama moved away from this trend, and decided to connect with voters in every state, not just for democratic reasons but because he believed that the party could gain more support that way. He was building on the 50-state strategy employed by Howard Dean when chairman of the DNC to try to build a long-term relationship with voters. It worked – Obama won support in states where the Democrats had not won for 50 years or more.
- Having interviewed practitioners who have used micro-targeting, including those working at the RNC in Washington, this tool is not the golden bullet. At the end of the day politicians need to offer a deliverable political product that meets the needs and wants of Canadian voters better than their opponents.
No amount of micro-targeting can get around problems with the Tory brand or delivery. Harper’s advisors would do well to remember that and focus on making sure their Canadian product is superior to their competition rather than focus on copying US techniques.