Analyzing social data, including likes, will be the next wave. "Will people who like Lady Gaga be more likely to vote for Obama?" This is the kind of analysis all of the major campaigns will be doing, he says.
But consultant Hynes says organizations should tread carefully in this area. His clients typically build a model, then find the people who meet the model description and advertise to them through various channels, including blogs, websites and social media. But those people must identify themselves in some way, such as by making a donation or signing an online petition, before they're added to the campaign database.
Harvesting data about people from online sites without their consent is playing with fire, Hynes argues, because people find it unnerving. "If you're scraping data from Facebook, you're potentially creating problems for yourself. Build your own list through permission-based marketing," he advises.
There's still a healthy dose of good judgment that should come into play when it comes to gathering data on voters from online sources and using that for messaging. "There are activities that studies show are effective that the Sierra Club will not do," says Duvall. Often that involves sensitivities about privacy.
For example, one liberal group in Wisconsin came under fire last year when it sent a mailing during the gubernatorial recall campaign. The direct mail piece told recipients the names of their neighbors who didn't vote in the previous election and asked them to talk to those neighbors about voting. "We know these things work, but we won't do it because it crosses the line of what we think is appropriate for a public interest organization," Duvall says.
Simpson still has doubts as to whether the big data approach to campaigning is worth it. "It remains to be seen whether this level of targeting and integrating all of these data sources improves the response over traditional contextual targeting and behavioral advertising. There are a lot of concerns about privacy, being too targeted, and a potential backlash." Today, he says, "The data and the opportunity it presents are 10 steps ahead of the execution."
Predict and test
We are Ohio, a coalition of unions and other groups, didn't have to worry about finding its constituents because many voters were passionate about its goal: Overturning a controversial collective bargaining law that weakened unions' negotiating power. More than 100,000 people liked the organization's Facebook page, and more than 17,000 volunteers launched a get-out-the-vote drive that helped build an email list of more than 600,000 voters.