The scandal surrounding Cambridge Analytica that broke on 17 March 2018 was a watershed moment. For many voters, it created a unique insight into how their data was being traded and utilised to target them for political influence: voters realised the effects the technologies were having on them. Despite widespread global attention, there is still very little known about the techniques that are applied to sway citizens’ political views by leveraging the data they give away.
All the data-driven methods from analysing behavioural data to A/B testing and from geotargeting to psychometric profiling, political parties are using the same techniques to sell political candidates to voters that companies use to sell shoes to consumers.
What are voter files?
Voter files are profiles of individual voters that are collected into databases for political campaigning purposes. In its most basic form, a voter file is a list of people who could potentially vote in a given election. This data can also be combined with more detailed information, like party affiliation or registration history. While voter files can vary depending on who produces them—whether electoral administrators, commercial entities or political parties—they often consist of publicly accessible information combined with more detailed data acquired from outside sources and polling.
What is A/B testing?
When Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign team was having trouble converting web visitors into subscribers, they took a page from commercial marketing’s playbook and decided to change the text on their website. They tested three different messages against the site’s usual ‘Sign Up’ prompt: ‘Learn More,’ ‘Join Us Now’ and ‘Sign Up Now.’ They found that ‘Learn More’ outperformed the default message by a whopping 18.6%.1 When they tested the prompt alongside six different photo and video options, the winning combination boosted their sign-up rate by more than 3 percentage points.
While this number may seem small, the campaign estimated that this single change contributed to nearly three million new email address sign-ups and netted $60 million in new donations.2, 3, 4 Four years later, the Obama re-election campaign ran over 500 similar A/B tests across web and email in 20 months, increasing their donation conversion by 29% and their sign-up conversions by 161%.5, 6