Targeting older voters online: Google it, baby

Liz Mair President, Mair Strategies LLC
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In recent election cycles, political campaigns’ successful leveraging and integration of technology into their political, communications and fundraising work has been increasingly evident. However, many political operations continue to treat online as simply a box that needs to be checked, or something done just to communicate with younger voters. The prevalence of both conclusions is a pet peeve of all online strategists, but data that emerged this week suggests that the latter should particularly be so, with it becoming increasingly clear that it’s not just the kids who hang out online— more and more, it’s Mom, Dad and grandparents, too.

In the wake of Sen.-elect Scott Brown’s victory, his new media operation has garnered much praise and many headlines—and rightfully so. As of the day after the election, he had about 130,000 Facebook fans, and about 16,000 followers on Twitter. The day after the election, his campaign confirmed that Brown raised $12 million online in January, alone. Moreover, ABC’s Rick Klein reported that according to a Google representative, Brown’s Google advertising garnered him 65.5 million impressions in Massachusetts, or about 10 impressions per resident. LEK Consulting, iStrategyLabs and Nielsen data should confirm for those in any doubt that a great many of them will have been those older, more reliable voters. Under different circumstances, involving a less aggressive online effort, they might have voted for Martha Coakley—or, perhaps, not at all.

According to a study released this week by LEK Consulting in which 2,000 respondents were surveyed, Web users aged 50-64 reported using the Internet an average of 8.3 hours per week, whereas those aged 24-39 reported spending just 6.8 hours a week online. But what’s arguably more interesting, and important for campaigns to understand, is what these older web users do when they are online: More than their kids or grandkids aged 18-24, they “get information.” In practical terms, that means searching, which has two important implications for political operatives.

First, don’t ignore online media and bloggers. With Google continuing to heavily dominate the search-engine market and Google loving blogs, even those not reading Daily Kos or RedState routinely will find information posted there—and it could influence their votes and opinions.

Second, don’t ignore online advertising, or treat it as a second-rate priority: Search ads feature prominently and grab attention—and as every political operative knows, for as much as every campaign wants to engage and activate younger voters, even under the best of circumstances, they continue to represent a fairly small slice of the overall voter pie.

In 2008, the Obama campaign famously made a priority of turning out young people to volunteer and vote, just as they did taking the campaign online—and, to be fair, Obama did succeed in garnering overwhelming support from voters aged 18-29 (66 percent according to exit polls). However, these voters only made up about 18 percent of the total pool in that election, whereas voters aged 50 to 64 made up 27 percent. The bottom line is, it still pays to turn out the oldies, even if bringing younger voters onside early and locking them down as Democrats or Republicans can pay off over the long term.
The good news, too, is that there’s more than one way of reaching them online—it’s not just up to “the Google.” While the LEK Consulting study demonstrates that younger respondents spend more time social networking than do their older peers, increasingly, Americans outside the 18-24 age demographic are using Facebook and Twitter (the two tools campaigns most commonly ask about leveraging). According to data released last year by iStrategyLabs, the total number of Facebook users aged 18-24 grew by about 5 percent between January and July 2009. By contrast, the number of Facebook users aged 35-54 grew by about 190 percent whereas the pool of users aged 55 and up grew by a jaw-dropping 514 percent.

This trend is not confined to Facebook, either. As early as last March, Nielsen data had demonstrated that Twitter was gaining significant traction with users aged 35-49, with almost 42 percent of the site’s audience in February 2009 falling into this category. Meanwhile, the proportion of unique visitors to Twitter 55 and older was only slightly smaller than the proportion of those aged 25-34 (about 17 percent to about 20 percent).

As ever, the data tells the story: There is no demographic that cannot be reached online.  Whether targeting the young, or the young at heart, campaigns should make new media a priority.

Liz Mair is vice president of Hynes Communications, where she advises on online communications and new media for political and public affairs clients, including Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s Freedom First PAC. She was the Republican National Committee’s online communications director in 2008.