Normally, the months preceding the Iowa caucuses are a blur of rallies, phone banks, and television commercials as presidential candidates blitz the state to turn out voters on their behalf. This election cycle, the usual flurry of activity has only just begun — even as the race has seen unprecedented volatility, with six different candidates having led Iowa polls at some point. The final result on January 3 remains difficult to predict, but the presidential primary so far has made it apparent that traditional political campaigns are being transformed by forces that can be explained through a framework that is redefining consumer marketing campaigns: Google’s “Zero Moment of Truth” concept.
The Zero Moment of Truth builds on the long-held marketing idea that the “First Moment of Truth” occurs at the store when a shopper selects a product and the “Second Moment of Truth” occurs at home when the shopper experiences that product. The Zero Moment of Truth is the decision-point after a stimulus leads a consumer to seek more information but before he arrives at the store — or in politics, before a voter solidifies his choice.
The Zero Moment of Truth is whenever technology informs an impending decision, whether buying a car, going on a date, or supporting a political candidate. A study conducted by Google and market research firm Shoppers Sciences this spring found that the number of sources used by a person for the average purchase has doubled, from 5.2 to 10.4, and shoppers use each source almost twice as heavily as in the past. In politics, the Internet provides voters with vastly more resources to follow campaign developments and view candidate speeches, debates, interviews, and political analysis than ever before.
This election cycle, “primetime” is not watching live television at 8:00 p.m., but viewing YouTube videos at lunch. Campaigns and Elections reported that a survey by Public Opinion Strategies and SEA Polling found close to one-third of likely voters nationwide said they had not watched live TV in the past week and 45 percent said live TV isn’t their primary mode of consuming video. Traditional voter contact methods like direct mail and phone calls are stimuli that drive voters to conduct further research — and the Internet provides an infinite resource to validate or refute campaign messages. Candidates this year have surged in the polls, only to face that Zero Moment of Truth for voters and then see their standing fizzle.
As the Associated Press reported this week in an article headlined “Presidential race in Iowa quieter than in the past,” voters “can go online and find information about the candidates without having to wait for the White House hopeful to show up in the town square.” Just as car-buyers enter auto dealerships knowing the exact model, dealer invoice price, and MSRP of the vehicle they wish to purchase, voters knock on doors to persuade their neighbors, visit coffee shops to influence friends, and ultimately enter voting booths to cast ballots knowing candidates inside out. The type of conversations that once happened over backyard fences now are not only informed by fresher and more detailed information, but are also digitally archived on social networking sites.
Each time a voter searches for political information online, campaigns have an opportunity for persuasion. A well-run business would never set up a toll-free hotline and let it ring. Similarly, a well-run campaign should never miss the opportunity to define itself and its opponents when potential supporters actively seek information — not just when those voters have their television on in the background or are throwing away junk mail. Zac Moffatt, the Romney campaign’s digital director, told TechPresident.com last week, “Intent marketing is obviously going to be your highest-return-on investment because someone has gone into Google and typed in a word, and they have an intent to take an action.” In other words, the only real 3:00 a.m. moments in politics are when sleepless voters surf the Internet.
How are political campaigns winning the Zero Moment of Truth? By answering the questions voters are asking. They are defining themselves with ads alongside relevant Internet search results, asking supporters to share on social networking sites, and placing display ads next to relevant online news articles and blog posts. Campaigns that excel at winning the Zero Moment of Truth jump in and move quickly — optimizing, targeting, and measuring the return on their online advertising investment faster than with any other type of paid media.
The Associated Press noted that “part of the change [in campaigning in Iowa] has been driven by Romney’s approach to the state,” and Moffatt told TechPresident.com that the Romney campaign’s overall approach has meant devoting at least 10 percent of its paid media budget to online advertising. Over the next week, pay attention to the ads next to online news stories, before online videos, and alongside online search results — and you will see endless opportunities for persuasion. How many arguments at your holiday dinner table were settled by someone opening a search browser on their mobile phone? The sales funnel is becoming less linear — and, as this first-ever Zero Moment of Truth primary shows, so are political campaigns.
Rob Saliterman is head of Google’s advertising sales to Republican political campaigns and conservative issue advocacy groups.