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NYC Mayoral Race Shows "Shareable Graphics Are...The New Black" in Digital Campaigning

BY Miranda Neubauer | Thursday, September 26 2013

A study released last week indicates that Bill de Blasio's messaging had the greatest resonance online leading up to the New York City mayoral primary, but much remains unknown about the broader impact of the digital campaign on the electorate.

The study was a joint project between Hill & Knowlton Strategies and the Baruch College of Public Affairs' Survey Research program.

H & K Strategies closely examined the social media and e-mail outreach of all the major Democratic and Republican candidates and established a Digital Engagement Index to compare and rank the candidates' online outreach from July 15 to September 10. The Survey Research Program also polled 1,001 random New Yorkers toward the end of August to get a sense of how the electorate accesses news about the campaign online and off and to what degree they engage with the campaign online.

For the Digital Engagement Index, H & K examined each campaign's Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram presence in addition to their e-mail output and assigned each a score with the most points going to e-mail, Facebook and Twitter. The score incorporated factors such as Facebook shares, likes and comments, Twitter retweets, favorites and replies, YouTube views, Instagram likes and an analysis of the tone and content of the campaign e-mails.

Based on that analysis, H & K found that Bill de Blasio had a clear advantage across all channels, followed by Christine Quinn, John Catsimatidis, Bill Thompson, Joe Lhota, Anthony Weiner and John Liu.

"De Blasio did a more thorough job than any of the other candidates. He invested in digital in a way that we didn't see any other campaign do," Josh Hendler, Global CTO at H&K, said at the event last week. Hendler was the Democratic National Committee's technology director from 2009-2011.

On the Republican side, he noted that compared to Lhota, "Catsimatidis was actually quite successful" on the online front, and that he seemed to bring "some of his quirky character" to social media, especially on Facebook.

He pointed out that Anthony Weiner did not seem to have much of an online strategy at all and didn't even have his own YouTube page, but that when Weiner did participate in the online conversation, for example on Twitter, he saw a lot of engagement.

Across all the campaigns, Hendler said that "shareable graphics were like the new black."

Hendler praised Quinn's e-mail content, noting that De Blasio and Quinn put a significant focus on "Pledge to Vote" efforts towards the end. "De Blasio had a really good voice talking to volunteers," Hendler said, characterizing it as "very Obamaesque" when de Blasio invoked the campaign's joint effort. Toward the end, Hendler added, de Blasio's e-mails also echoed Obama in becoming jokingly self-referential about the high number of e-mails supporters were receiving.

Given that Thompson came in second, Hendler said it was a "missed opportunity" that Thompson didn't really commit to digital media.

H & K also examined the response to the candidates' online outreach by subject matter. The research found that mentioning Mayor Bloomberg in either a positive or negative context was good for engagement. De Blasio also saw high engagement when talking about education, even though it was Thompson who had the backing of the teachers' union, Hendler pointed out. Stop-and-frisk was also an engaging topic for both Lhota and de Blasio.

City Politics Still Decidedly Old-Fashioned
Baruch's survey research found that of nearly 40 percent of New Yorkers who had been contacted by a campaign, only 9 percent had received an e-mail, compared with 45 percent who received a phone call, 30 percent who had received a letter in the mail and 10 percent who had an in-person campaign contact.

Among the survey respondents, 43 percent said they went online at least twice a week for New York political news, compared with 74 percent who mentioned TV news and 62 percent who mentioned newspapers and magazines. Among those going online for New York City political news, 71 percent said they went to TV news sites, 61 percent said they visited the sites of national and regional newspapers, 67 percent visited news portals and 48 percent visited political news sites.

Of those who went online for New York City political news at least twice a week, 68 percent were under 25, 56 percent had a post-graduate degree, 56 percent had an income over $100,000 and 57 percent only used a cell phone.

Of the 49 percent who go online at least twice a week for general political news, 40 percent said they accessed political news on YouTube--a notably high number; 38 percent mentioned Facebook, 20 percent mentioned Twitter, 20 percent mentioned Google Plus and 7 percent mentioned Buzzfeed. Of that same 49 percent who go online for general political news, 53 percent said they did so using a desktop or laptop, 31 percent said they used a cell phone and 13 percent said they used a tablet.

Of those who go online for general political news, the study also found that 67 percent rarely or never engage in online political discussion, compared with 26 percent who do so between once a week and daily. Compared with the level of political engagement around the 2012 presidential campaign, 56 percent of those who went online for general political news said they were following the mayoral race online less, compared with 32 percent who said they were using the web about the same and 9 percent who said they were using the web more.

Among those who said they were contacted in some form by a campaign, 29 percent said they had heard from Quinn, compared with 14 percent who said Thompson, 9 percent who said de Blasio, 7 percent who said Catsimatidis, 6 percent who said Weiner and 5 percent who said Liu or Lhota.

In the ensuing discussion, members of the panel emphasized that making digital campaigning a priority is important for candidates to benefit and respond to growing interest from the public and the media.

H&K via Twitter

Adam Conner, manager of public policy for Facebook, suggested that de Blasio was "resonating on social media at the same time he was was resonating more broadly," adding that a candidate is lost "without a message that resonates."

Azi Paybarah, senior writer for Capital New York, pointed out that the de Blasio campaign had been much more active in monitoring news coverage for inaccuracies. When a New York Times column by Maureen Dowd contained a controversial quote from de Blasio's wife, Chirlane McCray, about his opponent Christine Quinn, Paybarah noted that the campaign released the audio from the interview to illustrate that the quote was inaccurate.

"The YouTube numbers were really surprising," Hendler from H&K said, regarding the survey of where New Yorkers access political news. He attributed the high number to the de Blasio campaign's "Dante" video and viral clips about Anthony Weiner. He said that H&K gave a higher score for Facebook interactions because of the impression that there was more engagement on that platform, as opposed to the greater volume on Twitter.

Conner added that candidates use Facebook to reach a broader audience, while Twitter often serves as a rapid-response tool. Even though social media may only reach a certain subset of the electorate, "if it's the right 9 percent, you can win an election," Conner said.

Hendler emphasized that digital has an impact on "earned media" coverage in the press, can have a "multiplier effect" on volunteers and "leverage real-life social networks."

When candidates spend money to take advantage of social media outreach, "they are husbanding resources for that big media hit," Paybarah said. "If you don't have those networks [for when de Blasio becomes popular], then you are in a lot of trouble." Paybarah also noted that the de Blasio campaign declined to attack Weiner. "They were disciplined in their message," he said, avoiding "images that could have gone viral."

"It's about catching the rain, catching the engagement when that moment comes...having the infrastructure to catch that moment," Hendler said. He added that there were reports that the Catsimatidis office was unable to field incoming calls to its office at one point.

The current City Hall administration is still "very 1.0" in its online reach, Paybarah said, quoting press releases, writing traditional op-eds or appearing on New York City cable news channel NY1.

Panelist Heidi Messer, co-founder and co-chairman of Collective[i], who emphasized that the technology community had an important role to play for the future of the middle class in New York City, said she hoped that it wouldn't just "be social media to get elected, this is the way to collect the public's opinion, change government operations." She said it was important that the next mayor create the conditions "to get the engineers here" with a focus on affordable housing, immigration and education, or else the "highly mobile industry" will move elsewhere with its jobs and talent.

Who Bought What Buzz?
One aspect of online campaigning the H & K/Baruch study did not focus on was online advertising, though some of the panelists touched on it briefly.

Conner emphasized that the "experience you're having online" is different for everyone, especially geographically. He pointed out that much of what happens with online advertising, segmented e-mail lists or private e-mails is not in the public eye. "With the digital influence of technology...the information doesn't stop at the last screen, digital penetration allows that message to go further."

Hendler said he expected that in coming years there would be more tools to make it easier and cheaper for campaigns to target voters online "without having to have a cave of 100 analysts in a dark room."

In a later interview, Hendler said that "you have a little bit of bias to the observable -- the great thing about looking at Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube is that by and large you have very observable engagement numbers." He acknowledged that online advertising "was the one that got away" in the H & K report. He pointed out that the "problem with tracking online advertising is there aren't any great sources for detailed information about who is running what ads," though he noted that he himself had seen some ads for the Republicans.

As techPresident reported earlier, the New York City Campaign Finance records on the campaigns' and independent groups' expenditures do offer some indications of their online spending.

For example, Catsimatidis' popularity on Facebook may not have come only from so-called organic or viral reach. As techPresident reported previously, Catsimatidis was also one of the candidates who spent the most on paid Facebook posts, shelling out around $10,000, compared with less than $500 from the Lhota campaign. On the Democratic side, the newest expenditure filings show that Quinn paid around $10,800 to Facebook overall, of which nearly $8,000 came in the final days before the election. The de Blasio campaign spent around $1,200 on Facebook.

Hendler said he was not surprised at Catsimatidis' social media spending. He pointed out that in its research H & K Strategies focused on engagement numbers for posts rather than number of followers. He added that Catsimatidis had a much lower like-to-share ratio compared with de Blasio, for example, with John Liu having the lowest like-to-share ratio. The research also found that posts with photos had the most engagement, and that de Blasio and Lhota had the highest percentage of Facebook posts with photos. In addition, the research showed that when de Blasio asked supporters on Facebook to share posts, those posts received on average 200 percent more shares.

The newly filed expenditure reports also show that the candidates continued to spend somewhat heavily on online advertising in the days leading up to the election. Among Catsimatidis' expenditures in the final days was $70,000 for "digital media" and advertising to Campaign Grid, which on its front page emphasizes its focus on " data driven online advertising for political, advocacy and public affairs campaigns."

Also in the final days, de Blasio, who, as the New York Times reported, did not spend any money on traditional printed and targeted campaign flyers, paid $75,000 to Precision Network, which emphasizes the "ability to deliver voter targeted advertising directly to any demographic or voting segment in the country" with the focus on "data-driven, targeted video and display advertising." He ended up paying the firm around $161,000 overall. Among Quinn's later expenditures was $125,000 to SKDKnickerbocker for campaign consulting on digital media and $650 on Google ads in the remaining days, in addition to $5,000 she had spent earlier on Google ad services through Centro Media, while De Blasio paid Google just under $200.

As techPresident had previously reported, Joe Lhota spent $289,000 to Target Enterprises for "cable and digital ads." He also paid $10,000 toward the end of the primary to Blenheim Associates for social media consulting, and $9,000 for Internet advertising with New York government news publication City & State. Some of his later spending included around $27,000 to FLS Connect for phone calls and $18,700 to William Ware and Associates for tele-town halls and robocalls as well as $1,600 to Trumpia for a texting campaign. Catsimatidis also paid $73,000 to Election Connection and around $43,750 to Political Network for phone calls towards the end of the race.

As the general election heats up, de Blasio appears to be branching out to more paid social media outlets, with a promoted tweet appearing on Wednesday.

But he and Lhota are no longer the only ones in the race. Last week, independently running tech entrepreneur Jack Hidary became the first candidate to hold a Reddit AMA (According to the Reddit AMA page, de Blasio is scheduled to hold a Reddit AMA October 8). In his answers to a handful of questioners, Hidary emphasized his platform on education, technology, and the environment. He touched on his plans for providing New Yorkers with accounts to access all city services on NYC.gov, for investing in high-speed Internet across the city and in schools, for using mobile apps to deliver city services and for attracting technology companies. In addition to ads already running on Spanish-language TV, he wrote that "we are introducing a state-of-the-art digital media campaign in the next few days." On Tuesday, he pushed out his first TV ad to his supporters. The ad calls de Blasio and Lhota "career politicians" and emphasizes Hidary's links to Presidents Obama and Clinton, and his credentials as a socially-progressive independent, innovator and job creator, quoting from a New York Times article on his candidacy.

And as of Thursday, he is also running ads online.

And these tools are not only playing a role in New York City races. One candidate who seems to be following the strategy of digital spending to take advantage of increased public interest is Carl Sciortino, the Massachusetts Democrat who is running for the former House Seat of Ed Markey. He garnered some attention over the past week after his campaign's video ad in which Sciortino, who is gay, "comes out" as a "Massachusetts liberal" to his Tea Party conservative father, went viral. Roll Call noted that while Sciortino has lagged behind other candidates in the primary in recent public polling. "Sciortino's campaign hoped the ad would go viral and pay for itself through online fundraising." Since the ad's release last week, his campaign has raised at least $100,000, according to the article. As of Wednesday, the ad has over 346,000 views on YouTube and over 14,400 Facebook likes or shares. The Scortino campaign manager told the Boston Globe that the campaign would be spending "hundreds of thousands of dollars" to air the ad on TV.

But Sciortino, who has the support of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, is also spending money on sponsored Facebook posts that reach users outside Massachusetts through their friends.