What Political Campaigns Learn About You From Social Networks

nation builder, cms, crm, social networks, online activism, election 2012With each presidential election cycle, political campaigns get dramatically more Internet savvy. 2012 may be remembered as the year campaigns got serious about social networks.

To find, track and leverage supporters, the Romney and Obama campaigns are using systems they’ve made themselves. But smaller campaigns, including that of the Green Party’s presidential candidate Jill Stein, are using NationBuilder, a combination CMS/CRM system that launched in April 2011.

California’s Yes on 37 campaign also uses NationBuilder.

NationBuilder, is in one sense, a social network: It allows people to join particular nations, or political causes. (They system also works for nonprofits and small businesses.) But the software also uses existing social networks to learn more about prospective supporters.

If a user signs a petition, NationBuilder will ask him or her to invite friends to do the same using Facebook or Twitter. The campaign behind the petition now has that user’s Facebook and Twitter handles and his or her Klout score.

The system grabs the user’s Twitter bio. From Facebook, it can grab a profile picture and any contact information the user has shared publicly.

If a user shares his or her address with the campaign, organizers can see his or her house plotted on a Google map to evaluate how close it is to other supporters’ residences in order to pick an optimal location for a fundraising event.

The organizers can also check out the house using Street View, to get a sense of the user’s socio-economic status.

Say the campaign puts on an event. Organizers may advertise it on Facebook and through Meetup, as well as on their own website. Marco may see it as a Facebook event and RSVP on Facebook. Vanessa may see it as a Meetup and RSVP on that website. But the organizers need to keep a single list of attendees so they can keep in touch with them in the future. NationBuilder automatically compiles all of the RSVPs into a single event list and adds all of those who say they will attend the event to a single master list of supporters.

Campaigns using NationBuilder can also obtain for free state lists of registered voters’ voting history. The records document if, but not how, an individual has voted. Previously, the lists cost as much as 2 cents per voter name. NationBuilder helps campaigns de-duplicate these records by comparing them to online user information.

Campaign administrators can use all of this information to better target particular subsets of voters with different sorts of requests. For instance, an administrator could identify those who are influential on social networks and ask them to share a particular message or contact a particular person within their network. Administrators can also import their personal contacts from social networks, including LinkedIn, in order to bulk up their list.

The system’s interface with Google+ and LinkedIn is very light, however, essentially only allowing users to post content to those networks. Adriel Hampton, the NationBuilder’s chief organizer, said the company hasn’t had much demand for more because smaller campaigns haven’t yet begun to use second-gen social networks.

It may be disconcerting to realize just how much a political group can learn about you from social networks, but NationBuilder has built in privacy protections to avoid abuses.

While administrators can learn quite a bit about supporters, but a supporter can only see the actions other supporters have taken publicly. Administrators get access to Twitter bios, Klout scores and followers, but they don’t see supporters’ tweets or Facebook status updates, unless the user has included a campaign hashtag. Each “nation,” or campaign, is stored separately on the company’s databases so that no one can build a composite user profile of someone who’s participated in multiple campaigns. NationBuilder also says it promotes online marketing best practices on its blog.

Still, it seems social networks are transforming the age-old activities of politicking and voting.

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