Targeting Voters

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By Beate Potzmader

Who to target
Parties engaged in any political campaign are always confronted with a complex environment. Politics is blessed with a wide range of issues and a diversity of potential voters. Some people are more important than others and each person responds differently to a particular set of issues. Determining which voters to communicate with and what messages to use is called ‘targeting’.

A campaign can never reach all people equally. The resources available (both staff and financial resources) are limited. We never have enough people working at information booths, talking, convincing others, etc. And we never have enough resources to finance large campaigns, to pay for radio, television and cinema spots, or to place advertisements in the press. Furthermore, it is far more effective to communicate a message repeatedly to the same people, than to try reaching out to as many people as possible. Guided by the maxim “the right message for the right voter”, targeting helps campaigns conserve resources while maximising their impact.

A campaign must therefore focus on two groups:
Active supporters
People who are FOR our concern: they no longer need convincing, and they require no further resources. Active supporters do not have to be persuaded to support the issue; they have to be motivated to discuss and gather support for the issue and objective, within their means and capabilities. The aim is to mobilise these people.

Possible floating voters
The individuals that form this group are UNDECIDED: they can become supporters of the campaign, if the right arguments are used.

Source: M. Althaus ‘Kampagne! Neue Strategien für Wahlkampf, PR und Lobbying’

Identifying the right voters and crafting a message for them requires an understanding of how people decide to vote. Political professionals view the voting decision as a three-step process. During the ‘cognition phase’, a voter becomes aware of the campaign, and the candidates taking part in it. Next, in the phase described as ‘affect’ or ‘persuasion’, voters form opinions about the candidates and decide who to support. Finally, during the ‘mobilisation’ phase, voters must be motivated to actually go to the polls on election day.

Polls and psephology
One way to develop individual targeting is to build a database. Polls generally cost a lot of money, but a relatively cost-effective way of compiling information is to use data available on official voter-lists, which include a person’s address, year of birth and sex.

With the help of official election statistics and an analysis of voting transfer, targeting is possible at no great expense. In this manner, swing voter strongholds and turnout can be analysed precisely, thus identifying the potential supporters and voters.

Milieu analysis
In order to reach target audiences, we need to know more about them. It therefore makes sense to employ aspects of lifestyle and environment research. The ORF (Austrian Broadcasting Corporation) and the Austrian banking sector, for example, use ‘sinus milieus’.
Using sinus milieus based on basic value orientation and personal settings like work, family, leisure, money and consumption, people with similar views and ways of life are pooled together. The argument behind the sinus target groups is that purely demographic characteristics, such as age or education, are not enough to define target groups; it is important not to disregard the diversity and individuality of persons. The sinus-environments bring people and their entire systems of reference concerning the world holistically into focus and thus offer more information on individual target groups than traditional approaches.

The structural environment of the Austrian population was determined and classified for the first time in a large scale qualitative and quantitative study in 2001. A fundamental part of the milieu concept is that there are points of contact and bridges between the different milieus.

An example from Austria (source:

Brief description of the sinus-environment ® of an Austrian television audience (2007):

So-called Exalted Milieu
Sinus B1, Established: 12%  the success- and performance-oriented elite: feasibility-thinking and focused on profit; strong exclusivity standard;

Sinus B12, Post-Materialists: 12%  enlightened, cosmopolitan, progressive, critics of deregulation and globalisation; many cultural and intellectual interests;

Sinus C12, Modern Performers: 10%  the unconventional young elite: flexible and performance-oriented, live an intense life (professional and private); multimedia enthusiasts.

So-called TRADITIONAL Milieu
Sinus A12, Conservative: 6%  Christian social thought, strong sense of duty and responsibility, high appreciation of education and culture;

Sinus A23, Traditional: 13%  living in security, stability-loving war- and post-war generation, deeply-rooted in the old middle class world or in the traditional working class culture;

Sinus AA, Rural: 6%  traditional rural milieu, rural roots: estate, family; community and church seen as a natural framework of everyday life.

So-called MAINSTREAM Milieu
Sinus B2, Middle Class: 19%  conventional mainstream: striving for a proper social status and a comfortable, harmonious life;

Sinus B3, Consumer Oriented: 8%  strongly influenced modern materialistic underclass: attempt to achieve the consumption standards of the broad middle as compensation of social disadvantages.

So-called HEDONIST Milieu
Sinus C2, Experimentalists: 6 %  the extremely individualistic new bohemians: freedom, spontaneity and originality; living with contradictions;

Sinus BC3, Hedonists: 8% the younger lower and lower middle class: searching for fun and entertainment; rejection of the expectations and conventions of meritocracy.

Network Analysis
Network analysis offers a number of findings that may be relevant in target group work.

We know that in Austria, for example, the Green voters are those who have the largest networks and who talk about politics with the majority of people in their immediate surroundings. Such a phenomenon exists in various professions and age groups.

Opinion makers and connectors between internal networks have important roles in target group work.


How to identify the key players: Opinion Leaders vs. Opinion Brokers
Opinions form around the utterances of central persons, who take on the role of ‘opinion leaders’. In a given group, opinion leaders are those who have the most relations with other members. They possess accurate knowledge about the current mood of the network, and they stabilise rather than influence opinion within it. Opinion leaders can be identified by a simple ‘snowball survey’ – one chooses a person at random and asks, for example: “If I want to know what’s going on in the company, who should I turn to?” If you then ask these people the same question, and repeat the procedure 5-10 times, you end up with a list of individuals who are frequently referred to. These, then, are the opinion leaders. They are a particularly important group for action and direct communication.

Opinions are spread not only by opinion leaders. Spreading also takes place at departmental, educational, professional sites, and at bridges between core networks. These are the so-called ‘opinion brokers’ (or ‘connectors’). Opinion brokers transport information into a completely different environment, and feed their network. In contrast to the opinion leaders, they are often the innovators, and a gateway to another world. They are often situated on the edge, rather than in the centre, of a network. Opinion brokers are responsible for ensuring that information between different social groups is exchanged, while at the same time exerting influence on various social networks, and thereby changing their opinions. Opinion brokers can also be identified using the snowball practice.

The latest trend of campaigning, especially in America, is ‘micro-targeting’. How does it work? American parties appear to have access to the electoral roll and to be able to collect information from customer databases (bonus cards, newspaper subscriptions, etc.). The data from the electoral roll is ‘enriched’ with this data. Individuals can then be contacted in telephone surveys (or home visits), and asked to verify the information. Direct and targeted personal actions (home visits, telephone calls, e-mail campaigns) may sometimes be crucial to winning or losing a seat, if the margin is by a few votes. Currently, the two major parties in the USA are working to build huge databases of people and infrastructures, a task that consumes huge amounts of time, energy and finances. In Europe, micro-targeting will not succeed so quickly. Not only because of the smaller budgets, but also because of the more stringent privacy rules. Nevertheless, in Europe, also, the dialogic web will become more important for parties and it is increasingly important to know the needs and concerns of the voters.

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