12 July 2018

The hyper-personalised future of political campaigning


It’s hardly news that political parties are using data to understand voters – what would you expect them to do? – but the sheer scale and speed in which they are accessing and using this data has been hard for regulators, and importantly consumers, to get to grips with. And it’s probably only just started. This is because politics mirrors marketing – many of the techniques now used by political parties were first developed by commercial marketers.

So where’s it heading next? We can find a number of clues in the commercial sector. Everything in marketing is now geared toward segmentation and targeting – making sure that products reach those who are most likely to buy. This means understanding more and more granular details about customers — their likes, their dislikes and more. The future is described by industry leaders as “customer segments of one”.

Once you’ve been identified as a potential customer on the basis of big data, the process of targeting those ads is a big industry. Companies iteratively test the performance of ads using ‘A/B testing’ – what results in higher click-throughs, message A or message B? Cross-device targeting is the latest trend, meaning the same campaign can follow you from your laptop, to your phone to your TV.

Political parties are already using segmentation to understand their voters, as well as cross-device targeting. You might be surprised to find out that companies already offer political parties the ability to “enhance” their voter data with data points such as “income, occupation, education” and “self-reported views on issues including: gay marriage, gun control and immigration”.

But what does this look like in our increasingly connected world? Voice assistants, smart fridges and wearables are becoming a bigger part of the fabric of our lives. These devices create even more data points for marketers to understand our habits, behaviours and attitudes. IoT advertising is seen as big opportunity to tap into “captive audiences” — for example, if you are loading your washing machine, what better time to be targeted with an advert for washing detergent?

These devices also often hold data on our emotional state — like how much sleep we’ve had and our heart-rate. While it is clear companies already offer intimate details to political parties (such as views on gay marriage and immigration) the ability to understand our emotional state in real time could mean adverts are targeted on that basis too.

Then there’s artificial intelligence: which might one day prove better than human strategists at working out exactly who should be targeted, when, and with what content, in order to maximise persuasive potential. AI would be capable of pulling together vast amounts of data from across different sources, and identifying relationships likely to remain invisible to human eyes.

It’s not unreasonable to expect political parties to jump on these techniques if they think it might give them an edge. Think about it. The problem of finding messages that resonate with potential voters is a long standing problem in politics – and these technologies could be used to dynamically monitor and improve their campaigns.

The next few years are likely to see a move to increasingly automated marketing with automated content generation. Content could be generated for unique users based on insight about their interests and concerns. Taken to its logical conclusion, this could lead to a stream of unique, personalised messages targeted at each voter constantly updated based on A/B testing.

While this sprawling and complex web of data and technologies offers new insights to companies and political parties alike, it also poses serious challenges to the privacy of individuals.

But it’s not just regulatory fines that companies should be wary of. There is much more at stake here. It’s about public trust. Recent campaigns calling on people to “delete Facebook” show that people are starting to feel strongly about their data rights. In the context of politics, this takes on a new meaning.

Rose Acton is a researcher at the think-tank Demos, and co-author of their latest report The Future of Political Campaigning.