What Cyber Monday told us about election day

In-store sales sagged while online shopping boomed. The next round of campaigns should take notice. Photo: Cyber Monday/ AP

WASHINGTON, December 4, 2013 — Despite shops opening their doors before Thanksgiving leftovers were stuffed in the fridge, the National Retail Foundation reports that per-shopper Black Friday spending dropped by about 4% - the first dip in four years. Meanwhile, Cyber Monday sales jumped by 36%, according to comScore, and IBM data shows that three out of every ten online shoppers were doing so from a smartphone or tablet.

These numbers don’t spell doom for brick-and-mortar retail, but it is one more sign of an ongoing trend: People are consuming on their own terms. That is an important lesson for nascent 2014 campaigns, and absolutely critical for anyone testing the waters for 2016.

As a quasi-holiday, Black Friday became a big deal because it was either a day off or a light business day for most Americans who were at the mercy of a retailer’s hours of operation. Now, 24-hour online purchasing lets shoppers set their own store hours.

Television faces a related trend: ratings for both broadcast and cable networks are falling as content consumers move to on-demand video consumption. Whether purchasing a sweater or watching a gritty serial drama, consumers like being in control.

That will apply to consumers of political information, too, and it changes what it means for a campaign to be effective. In tight or lower-turnout races, such as next year’s mid-term elections, winning candidates identify their supporters and get them to the polls.

That is the formula President Barack Obama used to fuel his re-election. In next year’s elections, the emphasis on voter engagement will be even stronger.

Active voter identification efforts, such as door-to-door and telephone canvassing, will be augmented with “passive” efforts which collect information which voters openly share. For example, campaigns will be able to identify and profile new supporters by listening closely to social media conversations or analyzing existing supporters to create profiles for future outreach. The conversation that starts with knock at the door or a telephone survey can continue as voters reveal the nuances of their opinions and preferences through future interactions.

Reaching a voter in this space can identify motivational flash points that mean the difference between sitting at home and getting out to vote.

Campaigns will need to determine not only who is on their side and who is persuadable, but how to talk to each voter. That presents a wide range of variables – everything from the medium to the issues discussed to the time of day messages are sent. The uniform mass communications of television ads, mail, automated calls, and other channels will continue set the table with over-arching campaign themes; finely targeted “micromessages” speak to individual voters directly on the issues they care most about in the way most likely to push their buttons.

While highly complex and thought intensive, this type of grassroots communication has the advantage of being trackable. Each contact yields more information about a voter – whether they respond or not, or whether they take action or not. Data begets data.

Using data to fuel voter identification and outreach isn’t just a smart strategy – it’s becoming increasingly necessary. If shoppers expect to engage retailers on their own terms, voters will expect to do the same with candidates. Campaigns will have to rely on data-driven contact: More traditional channels won’t be enough.

If votes are the currency of politics, voters are the consumers. Black Friday and Cyber Monday 2013 showed that consumers have an expectation of control. Campaigns will need to keep this in mind when they try to sell their candidates and messages next year and beyond.

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Jim Eltringham

Jim Eltringham is a Republican grassroots and voter contact consultant.  

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