2012 Candidates Playing Catchup With Mobile Tech-Savvy Voters

Call Me On My Cell?

On November 8, 2008, newly elected President Barack Obama tweeted to the world: "We just made history."

This summer, on July 6, 2011, he became the first president to tweet live during a nationwide Town Hall meeting conducted entirely through the social media platform Twitter.

But for today’s politicians, there is more to implementing a successful new technology strategy than several well-placed Tweets. Personal mobile devices now outnumber desktop/laptop computers. And if Nielsen Mobile is correct is reporting that 83% of mobile phone owners are registered voters, it could be game on for 2012 -- and a particularly challenging game, at that.

In a climate where 86% of U.S. citizens are frustrated with the federal government, according to the latest Pew Research Center statistics, political pundits are predicting that the upcoming campaign season will be one of the most intense and acerbic in decades. Thus, a skillful use of all communication platforms, but particularly mobile platforms, will be absolutely crucial for anyone hoping to win the 2012 elections. Therein will lie the true test of political skill in the tech era. The quality of mobility is today’s prime arena for anyone—particularly politicians—interested in distributing a message and connecting with people directly. This is because cell phones and tablets provide such intimate and ubiquitous access to individuals due to the consumption behavior patterns surrounding them.

In the last presidential election, President Obama made headlines by having his team place ads within digital video games and deploy SMS codes in 2008. But the average tech-savvy citizen today has been dazzled by the more advanced levels of engagement since that time, particularly from the entertainment/media industry. It’s no longer edgy, as it was in 2008, simply to utilize technology within a political campaign. The 2012 campaign season will call for innovation and creativity not typically exhibited by politicos who like to think they have a techie-bent.

There is also a great chance for error in usage simply due to the fact that the terrain is new.

Rob Stuart, President of Evolve Strategies a Philadelphia-based communications firm serving advocacy and political organizations, offered an example of how some politicians unused to new technologies may attempt to control their social power.

Recalling certain elements from the 2010 Pennsylvania gubernatorial race, which he said he watched intently, "There was nothing really out of the ordinary for this day and age [when it came to mobile technology usage]," Stuart said. "However, when Corbett, as the Attorney General, tried to secretly subpoena Twitter to release the identity of a couple of users who were posting unflattering posts about his bringing corruption cases against Democrats; Twitter (with the help of the ACLU) said 'No' and Corbett looked like a dope for having such a thin skin, and ended up withdrawing the subpoena.

"The smart thing that the Onorato campaign campaign then did," Stuart said, "was develop geo-centric targeted ads on liberal blogs like the Eschaton and Talking Points Memo, capitalizing on the subpoena story. The ads featured Twitter graphics with 'Tom Corbett Vs. Twitter.' It generated a bunch of traffic to his site and I'm told drove his Twitter numbers up in the process."

Given the Nielsen Mobile statistics showing that social media access is growing exponentially via phone, one might assume that most of this activity took place across constituents' mobile phones, though there was not a specific mobile-centric element to the situation.

Stuart said he is "undecided" when it comes to predictions about 2012 campaign strategies converging with mobility.

"The 2010 campaigns here were still stuck in the old media paradigm where the 'news' started with what a candidate is saying and spending on TV and then social media being used to replay and rebroadcast the message," he reflected. "The 2012 campaigns may be different if candidates begin to make news (because of how they are using mobile)."

The mobile platform could indeed present a particular opportunity for candidates. Tablet purchase is projected to grow to 18% by 2012, up from 6% in 2010. A tight and thorough digital game will be required due to the nature of how consumers interact with such devices and the emphasis on image and text.

Cartney McCracken, a political strategist at the Virginia-based ThinkRainmaker, remains cautious regarding the level at which candidates will take advantage of such statistics. According to McCracken, "Several candidates used (mobile) apps in 2010, but I felt the app design was basic and could have been greatly improved. An app is supposed to provide you with an experience. In a political campaign an app allows you to experience a candidate. In 2012, I think campaigns need to get more creative with how they use mobile for constituent connections."

In 2011-2012, Team Candidate will need a clear sense of who they are talking to and what approach best resonates with various segments of mobile end-users if they are to take such strides. A nationwide, post-election survey of adults by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project just after the 2010 mid-term elections found that:

•14% of all American adults used their cell phones to tell others that they had voted. •12% of adults used their cell phones to keep up with news about the election or politics. •6% of adults used their cells to let others know about conditions at their local voting stations on election day, including insights about delays, long lines, low turnout, or other issues. •4% of adults used their phones to monitor results of the election as they occurred. •1% of adults contributed money by text message to a candidate or group connected to the election like a party or interest group.

Pew also found that the mobile user group is more male than female; younger, better off financially and better educated than non-users.

African-Americans are also more likely than whites or Hispanics to be in this group, reaffirming the fact that these demographics continue to out-index when it comes to mobile technologies. Understanding of them is critical for candidates trying to connect with these growing population segments in the U.S.

Given the above, what are some possible mobile strategies?

Naturally the candidates will try to use mobile to educate, engage and enable, but the one-size-fits-all-constituents manner used in the past is an utter waste for a platform tailor-made for customization. Strategy tactics such as mobile video, mobile advertising, mobile transactions and location-based tools can be fully and seamlessly integrated into complete campaign efforts on both the local and national levels.

"The leap that’s needed for 2012 campaigns is to gain an appreciation of how to use the most powerful aspect of mobile - that it is distributed technology where anyone can be the messenger and originality in messages thrives," explained Stuart. "Not to be cynical, but given that the mobile consultants don’t make the same kind of money that polling firms, TV and direct mail shops charge - I expect we will still see the political campaign establishment plying the same type of wares in 2012 that we’ve seen over the last 20 years."

But McCracken remains hopeful.

"Younger strategists 'get' mobile - but the veteran strategists are still trying to wrap their head around the idea," she explained. "Older strategists and candidates who aren't constantly connected to their mobile devices may prefer to spend more funds on direct mail or radio…they don't always stop and think that younger generations will be the ones re-electing them in 8 or 12 years. "Effectively reaching each generation is tough for campaigns today, and expensive," she said. "Campaigns must utilize direct mail, radio, TV, newspapers, the Internet, social media, and mobile to connect with voters. Going forward, we will see some of these techniques used not as frequently, and I believe more campaign funds will shift into mobile."

We’ll be watching.

Lauren DeLisa Coleman is a contributor to The Huffington Post's citizen journalism program OfftheBus. If you would like to contribute to OfftheBus 2012 coverage of the campaign season, sign up at offthebus.org.

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