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How pols are targeting youth: Go 360 and Snapchat

Sen. Bernie Sanders' fundraising stop in Van Nuys, California, in late June wasn't anything different compared to a typical presidential campaign reception. What was vastly distinct, however, is the way the public can now experience his speech through virtual reality.

Virtual reality production company Virtuality Lab asked Sanders if the team could film the event with its 3-D, 360-degree cameras. Instead of just looking at the Vermont senator, viewers can peer around to see the reactions of the crowd or gaze at the sky.

As presidential hopefuls aspire to win the approval of young voters, they're turning to digital media to get their messages across. This election cycle, Reuters estimates that candidates will spend $1 billion on digital media advertising, about four times as much as 2012.

This isn't your traditional campaign propaganda of yesteryear. Politicians are experimenting with emerging technology and social media, creating content unlike anything we've seen in previous election cycles.

Nearly six months before the primary, 80 percent of all declared 2016 presidential candidates are creating made-for-digital content on YouTube, as opposed to just uploading their 30-second commercial, the company said. Eight candidates livestreamed their candidacy announcement.

In the case of Sander's VR footage, viewers picked up on the fact that his notes simply had a few key points, rather than a carefully crafted speech. The lack of scripted materials prompted some YouTube commenters to write the candidate was "genuine" and "the real deal."

"One of the powerful things about VR is the sense of presence and connection with human beings that you can accomplish with the medium," said Vrideo co-founder and CEO Alex Rosenfeld. His virtual reality platform is hosting the Sanders' clip along with YouTube. "Candidates are trying to connect with voters and trying to differentiate themselves. I ... never have been to a campaign speech, but the ability to put on a headset and see a well-known candidate makes me feel like I'm there."

While the shoot was not commissioned directly by his campaign—Sanders' team was approached by Virtuality Lab—campaign digital director Kenneth Pennington said it was "absolutely" interested in doing more VR footage at similar events.

"Reaching millennial voters who are increasingly disheartened by our corrupt billionaire-backed political system is a major goal for this campaign," Pennington said. "Senator Sanders has a message that speaks to the agenda of young people all over this country: Free college tuition, lowering the student debt burden, addressing climate change and fighting discrimination. If we can get this message out to young disheartened voters through new technology, we have a real opportunity to convert disenchanted millennials into Bernie Sanders voters."

Marketing platform Crowdtap estimates that 18-to-36-year-olds spend 17.8 hours consuming media content a day. Items found through social media were considered to be the most important. YouTube on mobile alone reaches more 18-to-49-year-olds than any single cable network, while a Pew study found that 61 percent of millennials get their political news from Facebook.

But, it's not just millennials who are online. Facebook points out that there are 193 million active users daily, more than the number registered voters. It gets 4 billion video views a day.

"The demographics of Facebook are the demographics of the country, so whatever audience you are trying to reach, wherever they are, you can reach them on Facebook," Facebook policy communications manager Andy Stone said.

For the most part, digital media platforms are free to use. However, if you want to target specific voters and advertise—and you want the company to hold your hand and give you best practices on how to maximize your impact on the platform—you're going to need to pay. And, while there was digital media advertising during the 2012 election, the scope of what these companies can do now and how they can target consumers has reached the next level.

Facebook, for example, rolled out an ad product in 2013 that allowed politicians to match voter files to Facebook profiles. Direct messages can be sent to these selected users.

"It's about getting the right slice of voters at the right time with the right message to direct the right outcome," Stone said.

Twitter had just rolled out its advertising product in mid-2012.

"In 2012, it was a lot of education about Twitter, about how we could be effective during the debates and live moments," said Jenna Golden, head of political ad sales at Twitter. "It was more a question of having the right tools in front of them and how they were taking advantage of it."

Flash forward to 2015. Twitter isn't just a place to spout 140-character sentiments. It owns six-second clip platform Vine, and its SnappyTV lets you clip live TV so you can share it on social media. Periscope allows you to livestream video wherever you are, as long as you have a mobile device with a steady connection.

Twitter's advertising offerings have evolved to allow politicians to access a "tailored audience." The social media platform can now identify the Twitter handle of visitors who check out a designated site, say a politician's campaign page. The candidate who buys into the service can then directly show their ads to that particular potential voter. Twitter can also determine user names from those who signed up for a candidate's email list, or candidates can upload user names of influential media outlets and reporters to directly target them.

"It's another opportunity to reach the exact people they want to reach," Golden said. "They don't have to be a young influencer crowd."

Perhaps the biggest difference between election 2012 and 2016 is the growth of digital video, particularly on mobile. According to Nielsen, 85 percent of millennials ages 18 to 24 and 86 percent between 25 and 34 own smartphones.

"The adoption of video and as close to real-time video and now live video is another vehicle for us to provide more impactful communication with people," said SS+K digital strategist for technology Kevin Skobac. SS+K advised the Obama campaign in 2008 and 2012, but is not currently working with 2016 candidates.

"Whether or not it ends up ultimately making a difference, one: We think it can make a more meaningful experience, and two: From a media perspective, it can cut down the news cycle."

Instead of slickly produced content, politicians are using raw, live footage and poised-to-go-viral ideas. Forget montages and fades: Sen. Ted Cruz has cooked bacon on the barrel of a gun, while Sen. Lindsay Graham blended a smartphone.

Gov. Bobby Jindal had his son use Periscope for his candidacy announcement from the side of the stage. Carly Fiorina used it for a live Q&A session where she answered prompts in real-time from her constituents.

At the end of his YouTube livestream on July 29, Sanders placed a call to action for volunteers to text to sign up to coordinate local grassroots volunteer activities. More than 39,000 people responded, according to Sanders' Pennington.

"Live streaming is a way to maximize the size of a room beyond the four walls," he said. "The more widely we can broadcast the senator's messaging on addressing economic inequality, fighting climate change and getting big money out of politics, the greater our chances for success in the upcoming elections. Live streams simply allow us to reach more people at the same time."

Snapchat curates live events selected by the editorial team, like a Hillary Clinton rally in Miami and Jeb Bush's announcement on July 17. Users at the locations have the option to upload photos and videos. Of course, official campaigns have the priority when it comes to submitting content. Candidates can also start their own Snapchat channel and share content with their followers.

While these services are all free, running an ad on its platform is not.

"With more than 60 percent of U.S. 13- to 34-year-old smartphone users identifying as Snapchatters and over 3 billion videos being viewed every day on the app, Snapchat is the best way for these candidates to reach a large millennial audience," Snapchat's Shannon Kelly said.

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks to guests at the Louisiana Rally with Bernie Sanders at Ponchartain Center on July 26, 2015 in Kenner, Louisiana.
Josh Brasted | Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks to guests at the Louisiana Rally with Bernie Sanders at Ponchartain Center on July 26, 2015 in Kenner, Louisiana.

Sen. Rand Paul rotated three ads on Snapchat. According to Paul chief digital strategist Vincent Harris, it was the first campaign to do a direct targeted audience buy in the key states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

"2016 is potentially the first cycle that by Election Day, voters will be consuming more content from the Internet than on television," Harris said. "This is especially true for first-time voters, younger voters and college voters, all who are integral parts of Senator Paul's campaign."

Harris said the average visitor to Paul's website is 18 to 24 years old, similar to the demographics they are seeing engaged on his Facebook page. His Snapchat ad with the highest completion rate and engagement involved Paul taking a chainsaw to the tax code. Harris mentioned there are talks to turn it into a video series.

"The younger generations that lean conservative, he's their type of candidate," he said.

Harris believes that focusing on digital advertising and content is the best strategy for Paul, especially as the debates approach.

"The Internet is a trusted source of information," he said. "After the debates, they're going to be Googling each phrase, they're going to be Googling facts. They're going to be searching on YouTube for these candidates."

The first GOP debate on Thursday will be broadcast on TV by Fox News. It's also co-hosted by Facebook, which will be in Cleveland to help campaigns and will be in the filing center where candidates can hold Q&As and film videos.

"Are they going to be seeing these candidates in a positive context or negative?" Harris asked. "Are these candidates telling their story in a persuasive way that will actually move voters opinions of them? Not every candidate will be in a position to be doing so but I know Senator Paul will be."