Successful election campaigns secure power – so the stakes for political consultants have always been high and they’ve always kept a close eye on how any new technologies might provide an edge in battle.
Since the era of mass communications really began - towards the end of the nineteenth century - technology has completely reset the way political consultants work on two occasions: firstly, during the inter-war period, when radio became commonplace and politicians had the chance to speak directly to the masses; and secondly, in the 1950s and 60s, when TV ownership mushroomed and politicians could construct and project image on a massive scale.
While there have been other major innovations through technological change - cheap high quality printing to enable mass direct mail, for example, and telephone polling to test opinion cheaply - they have mostly just nudged incremental change. Only radio and TV rewrote the political playbook.
But we're now entering another period of very fundamental change that is transforming the way political communications is conducted. This period is the development of what some are calling "personalised interruption” - where consultants devise campaigns that send highly targeted, highly personalised messages to people not actively seeking those messages. It’s about interrupting people with political messages as they go about their everyday lives.
This might sound like a different way of describing what we now think of as digital or social media advertising, but this is only part of it. This new period of interruption is about breaking into the new social and entertainment habits that people are now following - habits that are locking out traditional forms of media engagement, as well as traditional forms of advertising and marketing.
Look at how people are engaging with modern media. While the numbers are still significant, fewer and fewer people are reading a hard copy newspaper or magazine, or watching live TV. Formal, dedicated news consumption is therefore dropping – but so too is the consumption of traditional forms of entertainment. Increasingly, people’s entertainment is very personal to them – a mixture of social media, games and the streaming of audio and visual content. There is enough material out there on an array of platforms for people to choose exactly what suits them.
In other words, not only are there are fewer people that self-consciously seek out news, making earned media harder to rely on than before, but there are fewer “go-to” places where you can guarantee a captive audience. As Tim Wu’s fascinating book The Attention Merchants suggests, this all makes it more complex for anyone selling anything – from commercial goods to political candidates – to get their stories and messages in front of potential customers and voters.
Political consultants are therefore having to work out how to interrupt people’s personal entertainment – times when news and politics might be the last things on their mind. This is what makes this period so challenging and which necessarily means a revolution in the way political consultants must work.
Very rapid progress is already being made on social media. The major social media sites provide political consultants with the ability to target ads at very specific groups of people – with Facebook the primary vehicle for this approach, particularly in the UK, but with YouTube a very popular vehicle, particularly in the US. The recent Vote Leave campaign under Dominic Cummings’ leadership showed how this approach can be supercharged with the use of data science.
But soon this trend will move – it will have to move – onto other media platforms. Anywhere people spend time, political campaigns will be moving. Consultants’ use of YouTube is, in many ways, the most interesting shift because it so obviously interrupts people’s fun: they go on to YouTube to watch a Taylor Swift video, and they end up with a message from the likes of Donald Trump. This form of interruption will become the norm.
Where will this lead us? Smartphones and portable devices will be the most important hardware, which will surprise few (although there will be a role for things like targeted digital outdoor advertising). But the platforms will be various: streaming services will surely offer the opportunity for targeted ads on the same basis as Facebook; video games are already being heavily used to carry ads and spending will skyrocket as immersive, highly networked, virtual reality games take off in the not-too-distant future; free and cheap services and apps for smartphones will come with ads included.
Political consultants will therefore have to become experts not just in direct-to-voter messaging, but in the future equivalent of media buying. They will need to be able to reel off voters’ preferences for entertainment and leisure time and, conversely, the demographic breakdown of audiences for every major media platform going. With fewer captive audiences anymore, everything will be about personalised interruption.