Democracy On an iPhone: Why 2016 Could Be A Big Year For Meerkat and Periscope

All presidential campaigns send trackers to stalk their opponents. Armed with video cameras, or even just a smartphone, trackers follow opposing candidates around from whistle stop to whistle stop to document any unscripted moments that could be turned into an attack ad or used in a fundraising pitch.

periscope_logoAny candidate who makes it past the New Hampshire primary, conversely, quickly figures out they’re being stalked and learns to avoid, whenever possible, going off script. And if they don’t they don’t make it past Super Tuesday.

The spread of video-capable smartphones during the last couple of election cycles has made the stalking even more intimate, as Mitt “47 percent” Romney found out in 2012. Even at events that have been carefully screened for opposition trackers, what you say can end up on YouTube.

But as P.J. Bednarski points out in a post on the MediaPost Vidblog, the peril is likely to get ratcheted up even higher for candidates in 2016 thanks to the popularity of live-streaming apps like Meerkat, YouNow and Periscope:

Former Obama White House communications chief Dan Pfeiffer wrote recently that he watched Jeb Bush on the sorta-campaign trail in New Hampshire, while Pfeiffer was on his phone standing in line at the grocery store. Now, he’s a wonk, but for good or bad, a candidate’s big rally, or his/her ridiculous mistake, are going go wide, immediately. When Hillary Clinton finally speaks to the press, there is going to be more live coverage than ever. It might not be pretty.

meerkat_portraitNow, anyone with a smartphone and a Twitter or Facebook account (i.e. everyone) is a potential opposition researcher.

As my former colleague Om Malik recently pointed out in a piece for Fast Company, live streaming apps and near real-time services like SnapChat are also poised to revolutionize how TV covers news, sports and weather:

Television networks could exploit these new technologies to deepen their relationships with viewers and move from digital cable to smartphones. The Weather Channel is emblematic of the potential that mobile live-streaming has for the business. First, consider the numbers: While the Weather Channel itself averages somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 viewers during the day, more than 100 million people use its mobile apps, and they are watching more than 65 million videos a month so far this year. It has been early to experiment with Periscope and Meerkat. “Live streams might replace satellite trucks,” says CEO David Kenny. He foresees a world where he’ll have 100,000 reporters live-streaming weather reports from their respective corners of the globe.

TV news desks around the country are no doubt already at work figuring out how to leverage Meerkat, Periscope and YouNow for their 2016 election coverage.

Mobile streaming apps will be ubiquitous on the campaign trail over the next 18 months, within both the campaigns themselves and among the news media covering them. The result of all that activity will be a windfall of visibility, validation and publicity for those apps that their developers could never purchase themselves.

The other things presidential campaigns have figured out in the last few cycles, though, is how to mine social media for fundraising as well as how to use it identify, target and organize and target likely voters.

Pioneered by Vermont governor Howard Dean’s unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2004, online organizing and fundraising, much of it via social media, were critical to Barack Obama’s success in 2008. By 2012, the Democrats’ digital campaign machinery had become a cottage industry, spawning spin-off in ad-tech and marketing-tech and filtering down from the presidential level to down-ballot races.

Caught behind the technology curve in the last two cycles, Republicans are now spending heavily to develop their own infrastructure of digital tools and talent.

Mobile streaming apps built atop social media platforms  will have particular appeal to campaigns as fundraising and organizing tools because they enable real time engagement with voters and potential contributors. Live-streamed, albeit carefully scripted and controlled sessions with candidates are likely to become commonplace, as will live-streamed access to organizing meetings with campaign operatives and volunteers.

The amount of fundraising that will go on between now an election day, moreover, will be staggering. In the wake of Citizen’s United, super PACs and wealthy mega-donors are already raising hundreds of millions of dollars on behalf of various candidates. The Koch brothers alone have vowed to spend $900 million this cycle to elect a Republican president.

Since super PACs are not allowed officially to coordinate their activities with their candidates, most of that money will be end up being spent on negative ads against other candidates. The pressure on candidates to answer that negative onslaught will be enormous, and will create an enormous appetite for campaign cash the candidates can control directly.

Traditional broadcasters are rubbing their hands with glee over the avalanche of election year advertising spending headed their way. But as with all video advertising, a certain amount of that money will also be spent on digital platforms, particularly social media, where increasingly sophisticated political ad-tech tools make it possible to match the message to the audience more precisely than is possible on television.

The result of all that fundraising and spending will be a huge amount of money sloshing around and through Meerkat, Periscope and other real-time social media apps over the next 18 months. That could fund a lot of expansion and a lot of development of advertising and monetization tools that will outlive the campaign season.