Does big data spell big trouble on the campaign trail?


104383981The timeline on the latest season of Netflix’s series House of Cards has finally caught up with the real world, and the current plot line regarding President Frank Underwood’s underhanded dealings to win the Democratic nomination has many parallels with the current US primary election coverage saturating TV and print news across the globe.

The big money, high stakes nature of US elections, underpinned by a vast campaign machinery, technology and data, paints an interesting contrast with the relatively parochial and low-tech nature of emerging market elections, such as in South Africa’s upcoming local elections.

A recent episode outlined a scenario where a fictional search engine was “collaborating” (or, more accurately, colluding) with the Republican presidential primary candidate to provide voter search history. While the search engine claimed that such data was purely used at an aggregate level, it was strongly hinted that search engine history could be used to identify individual voters’ preferences and target specific campaign messages to them.

My last post outlined how political parties are leveraging lessons learned in data-driven marketing and applying them to one-to-one voter influence. But what if House of Cards is indeed prescient and campaigners begin to take liberties with consumer data for nefarious purposes?

Why is this such a big deal?

Political parties must salivate at the thought of the data mining possibilities open to them if they could only get their hands on the data held by businesses around the country.

To start with, if a search engine were to hand over details of its individual users’ search engine history, as implied by the House Of Cards storyline, and political parties could link this individual history to a particular voter, they would be able to understand this voter’s unique stances on the issues at hand. These are insights which would not be automatically obvious from purely demographic data.

This will allow the candidate to decide which campaign message to accentuate when either knocking on the voter’s door, or else through direct mail, phone calls and even targeted emails, SMSs, digital marketing campaigns or social media posts.

The role of influence

To take this a step further, the concept of social network analysis allows telecommunications companies to identify implicit patterns of influence between individuals, such as households, social groups and business relationships based on behavioural data, such as the frequency, length and volume of calls between certain otherwise unconnected subscribers. For customers who have a high influence score, but are possible churn risks, the mobile provider invests more in retaining and servicing that influencer.

Such data would be highly valuable to a political party as the efforts invested in persuading a voter with a high influence score will have a ripple effect throughout their social network. Such methods are already available to political parties to some extent, but the rich data about inter-personal relationships held by telecommunications companies is unsurpassed.

How sentiment can help

Sentiment analysis is nothing new when it comes to elections, with social media sentiment graphs being a regular appearance in the weeks before an election.

Sentiment data is generally pulled from unstructured data sources, such as survey responses and social media posts, and uses natural language processing to determine the positive, negative or neutral sentiment towards a topic. However, such data is generally aggregated to provide macro level trends.

Political parties may also engage with individual voters via social media channels, but this can be a labour intensive process. However, President Barack Obama was hailed as “the first president of the social media age,” having used social media both as a new platform to connect with young voters, as well as a way to understand the stance of his voters on various issues.

Consumer marketers are exploring advanced ways to understand individual customer sentiment (a concept known as “Voice of the Customer” or VoC). Marketers can trawl through web reviews and comments, social media posts, automated survey responses, call centre logs, and even analyse voice recordings of customer service calls to pick up keywords, and identify the context in which these keywords were used. Such insights can give an indication of a customer’s likelihood to churn or cancel their account, as well as their likelihood to be responsive to an upsell offer in the future.

Such vital information can, when appended to the large volumes of data already described, provide even richer insights for political parties. Adding social influencer analysis to the mix would allow election campaign teams to identify high risk voters with significant levels of influence on other voters, in whom it is worth investing significant effort to attempt to change their minds (or whose existing loyalties should be renewed).

Taking it to a vIoTe

It’s hard to predict where the 4th industrial revolution, spurred by IoT and big data analytics, will take the election campaign process. Were a political party to get its hands on the vast data lakes created by health devices, connected cars, cell phones and smart watches, its ability to track voter behaviour and adjust its message to influence voter opinion would be worrying.

Data privacy rules and regulatory watchdogs, while already important to protect consumers from nefarious marketers, become even more vital when it comes to the selection of political leaders. The implications for political fraud and electioneering could be immense. But data privacy rules are often insufficient, hard to enforce across national borders, or are poorly understood by those they’re intended to protect.

Data privacy, of course, works the other way around, and civil rights activists regularly push governments to reveal their secrets through freedom of information suits. But according to the Economist in a recent article, “ironically, laws ostensibly passed to help private citizens track the government’s action turn out to be laws that help political campaigns track private citizens.”

While it’s been estimated that data-driven targeting can add two to three percentage points to a candidate’s result, this number could increase dramatically as more advanced techniques are used, more data sources are found and more money is invested.

Whether you’re a marketer or an electioneer, read this fantastic eBook about data-driven marketing to uncover some of the secret of using analytics and data to influence consumer behavior: Customer Intelligence in the Era of Data-Driven Marketing.


About Author

David Cosgrave

Director, Pre-sales

David leads SAS’s Customer Intelligence team in South EMEA. Over 15 years of experience in CRM and Customer Engagement has given him deep insights into how to delight customers and build brand loyalty. David helps large enterprises across the region to use their customer data to build insights and empower action to deliver world-class customer experiences. Connect with David on Twitter at @davidcosgrave.

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