What shaped political technology in the 2010s

Ten years ago, we were full of hope that broadcast email and social media would bring us closer together with seamless, free connections across time and geography.

We punched out messages on our BlackBerrys, our fingers feeling their way across the raised keyboard. We lost our minds when receiving an unsolicited text message. A 60-inch flat-screen cost about six times what it does today. It’s all moving faster and cheaper than a decade ago — some of that is irritating, some dangerous, and little of it expected. Here are 10 things that shaped the evolution of political technology over the past decade:

10. Hyper-partisanship.

Identifying and targeting primary voters and frequent voters is a generation old. But our ability to deliver increasingly tougher messages to smaller and smaller groups is having a lasting effect, partly because at the same time confirmation bias is pushing consumers deeper into a fragmented, sketchy news landscape. This was the case across the board in all addressable digital media, not just the social platforms. The feedback loop of talking to primary voters with paid and organic content because they’re primary voters is playing out in real-time on C-SPAN, and it’s not good.

9. Big money, but not for everyone.

The decade saw eight- and nine-figure investments in a number of agencies and platforms. Targeted investments had mixed results, as too many investors read the topline of the Borrell Associates political spending reports without understanding this isn’t exactly a meritocracy: hundreds of millions of dollars are already spoken for, and parachuting in doesn’t work. Plus, the digital numbers in the report itself are imprecise. If you had $10,000 to somehow invest in political digital spending in 2010, it would be worth over $2 million today.

8. Email fundraising fizzles.

Check your spam folder right now. Chances are, it’s filled with political fundraising emails. But it wasn’t always that way. There was a point earlier in the decade where the promise of essentially free broadcast messaging threatened to upend two generations of political media buying process. Looking back as we end 2019, it’s clear that political broadcast emailing is past its prime and won’t be on this list in ten years.

7. Peer-to-peer text messaging.

Peer-to-peer text messaging is picking up where email has failed us. With higher engagement, reasonable cost, and scaling ease, P2P texting defined the late ’10s. (We experimented with broadcast texting firms like Distributive Networks until the early 2010s when it became obvious there was no business model.) Whether it defines the 2020s will depend on whether the carriers figure out how to regulate P2P texting out of existence. We end the decade where both parties have cracked the code on digital fundraising processing. ActBlue and WinRed — integrated with P2P texting — will pick up if and when direct mail fundraising finally fails due to its core targets dying of old age.

6. Facebook & Google, and nobody else.

At their height in 2018, Facebook and Google captured about a third of all political digital spending. The other platforms were essentially irrelevant. (Snapchat, lauded for fact-checking political ads, reported a whopping $594k in U.S. political ads in 2018. Their average order size was $1,193.) For digital agencies and other platforms, Facebook and Google were textbook fremenies, omnipresent to help and eventually make the consultant middleman as superfluous as possible. The decade ended with Google retrenching, and Facebook in a slow, money-losing march. Their high water mark is behind us.

5. Organic social engagement legitimized for politicians and brands.

It’s hard to give a brand an online persona. We did it awkwardly for a while, promoting 9/11 sales, using Twitter autoresponders with angry customers, and utilizing inaccurate stock imagery. But by the end of the decade, Wendy’s, Donald Trump, and AOC each figured out how to pwn their rivals online.

4. BlackBerrys go away.

iPhone shipments exceeded BlackBerry shipments in 2010. At that moment, we traded the ability to blindly type on a mobile device with a far richer experience, replacing a fancy beeper with an HD TV in our pockets. The Android explosion followed a couple years later, which helped put a smartphone in nearly every pocket in America and enabled most of the items listed above. Smartphone penetration was 20 percent in December 2010 and about 72 percent today. As our mobile experience got better, political professionals could also more easily work from anywhere on the planet, or said another way, never take a vacation.

3. Moore’s Law, increased processing speed, speeding up data.

The same concept that keeps Ray Kurzweil up at night worrying about the singularity is what allows us to move and process massive amounts of data seamlessly. When Campaigns & Elections first covered computers in 1983, there were tens of thousands of transistors on an integrated circuit chip. Today that count is passing 40 billion. All that computer power allows us to do things unimaginable a decade ago. Remember managing a voter file in 2010? It sucked. Shops like Blue Labs, Deep Root Analytics, 0ptimus, ICX, Applecart, or Civis Analytics couldn’t have flourished without improving processor speed and low-cost computing power. The product offering from established voter data shops like PDI, L2, TargetSmart, and I360 would be much more limited.

2. Cambridge Analytica and increased regulations.

Anyone who saw the pipes inside Cambridge Analytica will tell you it was largely vaporware. But the data they pulled on Facebook users got in our heads and forever changed our relationship with social media and data privacy. In the ensuing three years, state governments and buying platforms have enacted laws and regulations that go well beyond protecting us from foreign influence and data breaches. There’s a real danger if the people making the rules can’t get up to speed on how this all works or figure out how to train us all better to spot fake news that’s spread organically through social sharing at no cost.

1. Screen proliferation and fragmentation.

A 60-inch LG flat-screen that cost $2,800 in 2010 costs $449 today, so we simply bought more screens of every size. With this, there’s massive growth of mobile ecosystems (SMS, social, donation processing), advanced television ecosystems (CTV, OTT, addressable cable), and rapid growth of Facebook and Twitter for political and public affairs communications. Now, your toddler can learn about your political digital job from watching Ralph Breaks the Internet on his iPad while you watch Andrew Yang ads on your connected TV

Jordan Lieberman General Manager, Politics and Public Affairs at a4 Media for Campaigns & Elections