Americans are dramatically changing the way they receive and value information, and Republican leaders need to shift their communications strategies to match or else risk having their messages heard by a diminishing number of voters.
The shift involves not only where voters are turning for news and information, but also which sources they value. Recent election results underscore the need for Republican candidates, elected officials, consultants and campaign managers to adapt. It’s a process that’s more difficult than it may appear at first glance.
Let’s have a look at the data.
Trend #1: Voters are turning away from traditional media outlets like TV and newspapers and toward Internet and social sources. This trend is reflected among all age groups, with voters under 30 leading the way. In 2001, only 18% of voters under 30 considered the Internet to be a primary news source. Now, it’s 65%. Here are the numbers from the Pew Research Center:
Even senior citizens are going online: 14% rely on the Internet for news, compared to just 1% in 2001.
Related trend: Netflix reports 27.2 million streaming subscribers as of the end of 2012. Cable companies, which rely on premium services like HBO for substantial revenues, are responding with more on-demand services. Neither Netflix nor on-demand movies carry advertising. All those broadcast and cable spots your campaign buys are not being seen by voters watching Netflix or HBO On Demand (whether it’s on their television, or increasingly, on their iPad). And the voters watching the shows they recorded on DVR are skipping your ads too. Most people spend the majority of their video time watching traditional cable and broadcast, but the trend is one that is now too large to ignore.
Trend #2: Voters are dumping their landlines. A stunning 26.6% of US households now have no landline, only cellphones. The rate varies greatly by state. The highest rate of cellphone-only homes is Arkansas with 35.2%, or more than one in three. In California and New York, the rate is about 18%, or just below one in five households.
Have you received a sales or political advocacy phone call on your cell phone? How well do you react? How often do you send calls from numbers you don’t recognize to voice mail? If you’re not taking those calls, why do you expect voters to?
Trend #3: Half of all cellphone owners now have a “smartphone” such as an Apple iPhone or a device running Google’s Android operating system. Just three years ago, smartphones only accounted for 29% of the US cellphone market.
Trend #4: 80% of Americans with household Internet access now use online banking and/or bill payment services. The need for voters to check their mailbox daily continues to diminish as rapidly increasing numbers of Americans receive their bills and make their payments online.
Trend #5: Social networks and interpersonal influence have a major effect on voter behavior, a phenomenon heavily amplified by social media. Messages delivered by people in a voter’s network carry more influence than those delivered in bulk, such as in bulk mailings, television commercials, and bulk email.
While television pundits constantly lament just how “expensive” American political campaigns have become, in truth the amount spent on any Presidential campaign is dwarfed by the level of communications spending by the private sector. In 2012 the Obama campaign spent in total about $1 billion. Coca Cola spent $2.9 billion on advertising (in 2010, the most recent year for which information is available).
Companies relying on advertising, as well as the PR firms and ad agencies they employ, invest heavily in market research to understand how people receive information, and whom they trust. They have a strong incentive to ensure their big advertising budgets are firing arrows that hit the target. Unfortunately, much of this information never makes it to political campaigns, particularly candidates for local government offices. As a result, too many campaigns continue to allocate resources like it’s the Carter Administration.
Do these trends mean that direct mail and television advertising are dead? No. Both are important for voter contact when it makes sense for local circumstances. But campaign decision-makers need to take trends into account, diversify voter contact tactics, and personalize the message and the messenger.
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