Eric Frenchman has been managing online advertising and CRM campaigns for over a decade. His corporate work has involved brands like AT&T, Diageo and Harrisdirect. Today, he’s the principal of Eric Frenchman LLC and Chief Internet Strategist for Connell Donatelli Inc., an online agency focused on politics.

In 2008, Eric managed the online campaign of US presidential hopeful John McCain. We spoke with Eric to learn more about that experience, the lessons learned and how some of the techniques Eric and his team applied in the political campaign can be applied by digital marketers at large in advance of his keynote at Econsultancy’s The Future of Digital Marketing conference.

You’ve managed online marketing campaigns for major corporations and, of course, managed the online campaign for John McCain and the RNC leading up to the 2008 US presidential election. What are some of the difference between these spheres and what can digital marketers in the corporate world learn from the online marketing strategies that political campaigns are employing today?

The most significant differences between corporate marketing and political marketing are the immovable timelines and deliverables. Election days are quite different than deadlines in corporate marketing. Corporate marketing dates are typically fungible and while no one likes missing a deliverable date there is always tomorrow. The date of an election does not move. There is no tomorrow. 

The deliverables are also concrete. In order to win an election you need to not only beat your opponents by one vote but sometimes the margin of victory also determines your momentum. If you don’t meet your goals, you’ve lost; you can’t get 95% of the way to your goal and have your “boss” say to you, well you almost made it here’s your bonus. Or we’ve extended your deadline and you have more time. Plus, in say a primary election if you don’t beat your opponent by enough votes in a state or a poll that you are expected to win you can lose momentum. See Senator McCain’s almost third place finish in Iowa that foreshadowed his momentum heading into the New Hampshire win.

There are quite a number of techniques that the corporate world can learn from political campaigns. First, it is operating in a marketing environment with little funding. This would mean trying to find customers that are delighted with your products and turning them into brand ambassadors. Second, using search marketing for rapid response marketing. Third, not being afraid to use open source marketing by handing over some control of branding to your customers who sometimes can market better than professionals. 

Fourth, using social networking tools so that brand endorsers can let their networks know how they feel about your products or when they purchase your products in real time. Finally, start your social networking activities in the beginning and watch it grow over time. Don’t be upset when you turn on your campaign and hundreds of thousands don’t sign up immediately; it takes time to grow your network online.

One of the most interesting facts about the online campaign you ran for John McCain and the RNC was that you used a wide range of the marketing tools, from search to social media. What was that like? Were there any challenges related to campaign management and resource allocation? How did you address them?

Each one of these marketing tools had different primary functions and those functions changed during the campaign season.

Search was used to generate donations and collect email addresses during most of the campaign season but as we turned towards election days, it was used for branding, attack ads, and delivering information on candidate’s stands on issues. Social networking for our campaigns was used more as a CRM tool to push out messaging; we did offer up the ability to organize and network online but our users didn’t employ them like  the Obama campaign.

Pure online advertising was never viewed as a branding or messaging tool and was held to the same standards as search marketing for delivering donations or collecting emails. That was unfortunate.

Regarding campaign management and resource allocation, that was always a challenge for us except in search marketing. The campaign during the General Election phase never had enough staff or enough money to properly manage the tools. Even social networking requires management time to properly use it to its full potential.

There were some reports that the Obama digital staff outnumbered the McCain digital staff by 95 – 15 or so and this limited our ability to use these tools. We obviously tried to address the money issue.

What sort of metrics were you monitoring most closely? Did these change at all as the campaign progressed?

Strictly speaking from a digital perspective, we monitored spending on an hourly basis and that went down to a search ad group level or banner ad level. ROI on the search marketing was constantly monitored as well as the number of emails collected.

Personally I monitored Google Trends to understand the impacts of breaking stories so we could get in front of them. During certain campaign phases we monitored spending on specific marketing campaigns (example: New Hampshire) to gauge how our marketing was meeting branding goals. We even made specific ad buys just to generate earned media (press stories) to extend the life and reach of our marketing campaigns.

I hate to compare apples to oranges, but after making use of so many different online channels and tools, which ones do you think delivered the most bang for the buck?

That’s an interesting question.

For McCain and the RNC it was definitely paid search marketing which delivered $4 in donations for every $1 we spent. Also, we used paid search marketing for rapid response, get out the vote, voter registration, pushing messages, and attack ads so it clearly delivered the most bang for the buck.

I personally believe that the Obama campaign would say using the internet to organize and network with other voters got them the most bang for the buck. By using MyBarackObama and Facebook, they cost effectively organized online and this helped them with offline grassroots activities.

So instead of ignoring areas where a typical Democratic campaign would not setup shop in, they were able to provide tools to help supporters reach out other likely voters in these areas; this allowed the Obama campaign to spread out in a grassroots fashion in areas that a older styled campaign would have ignored.

You leveraged search marketing to engage in rapid response PPC campaigns when breaking news gave you the ability to tap into hot topics that people were searching for. For most search marketers, doing research, setting up campaigns and managing them is a process that’s usually measured in days, weeks and even months. Tell us a little bit about how you managed to coordinate rapid response campaigns and what organizations can do to take advantage of rapid response opportunities in their markets.

In order to use search for rapid response you need someone who has a lot of autonomy to buy the right keywords and create the correct ads. I found that this type of marketing at least in the early stages can result in low quality scores so it requires an expert. Organizations can take advantage of this by having a small group of dedicated subject matter experts that can affect change in a short amount of time.

For the RNC and McCain, that was something that they allowed me to do with little oversight so something as simple as a search campaign around Joe the Plumber was live within minutes of Senator McCain mentioning it in a debate.

Barack Obama’s use of social media garnered a lot of attention during the campaign and many attribute much of his success to the grassroots community-building his campaign did online. How did the McCain campaign leverage social media? In what ways did your use of social media differ from Obama’s?

We used social media as a more of a pure CRM tool to push messages out and receive feedback from followers. Unfortunately, we just didn’t inspire enough followers to create content and videos like the Obama campaign did. The Obama campaign used social media to organize online and network with other voters.

For example, they understood that if a Facebook user registered to vote with one of their campaign widgets it was blasted out to that person’s Facebook network which increased the reach of that simple action. It wasn’t that the McCain campaign ignored social, we made great strides in social networking that would be the envy of any corporate marketer; we just look like we failed when you compare us to the Obama campaign which is the best example of social media use, corporate or political.

In a post on your blog, you suggested that Obama’s campaign came pretty close to disproving the notion that microtargeting is a boon to campaigns. Since many digital marketers put faith in anything related to “targeting”, that’s a statement that will naturally raise eyebrows. Tell us a little bit more about what you meant.

Typically in a corporate marketing or political marketing environment, there is a centralized group that identifies micro targets. When I was at AT&T I worked in an internal consulting group that was at one time part of Bell Labs. Among other activities, this group built profiles of likely customers who would be attracted to products or were likely to drop our products. We’d then hand those targets off to marketers who would then use them in direct marketing campaigns.  Political campaigns also worked in this fashion.

However, I believe the notion of this tactic has changed with Obama’s use of social networking. The campaign attached voter registration data when available and had voter contact goals by specific geographic regions. When you add that type of information to issue profiles that voters willingly provided, now you don’t need to have someone centrally build profiles. Voters can now reach out to people in these regions who have similar issue beliefs and who are not registered to vote. This pushed the data out to the masses blowing up the need to build micro targets at a central level.

John McCain found himself in a position where he was competing against an opponent with more money and more human resources. There was a lot he couldn’t control (eg. the economy). Many digital marketers find themselves in similar situations wondering how they can compete when they’re outgunned by their competitors. What advice can you give them based on your experience?

A couple of things.

First, search marketing is the great equalizer of budget. If you can create very targeted campaigns with great quality scores you can effectively compete even when you don’t have the same money.

Second, if you can out optimize an opponent you can make your campaign dollars stretch further. When I was a managing director at a small US online brokerage firm we didn’t have the same money to spend as the vast majority of our competitors but because we were smart on how we conducted our media placements we appeared to be the 17th largest US advertiser.

Finally, if you can find true brand believers and reach out to them, you’d be surprise on how much marketing they can do on your behalf especially by using available social marketing tools.

What role do you see online technology playing in future presidential elections? You’ve called Obama’s online campaign the “greatest use of social networking marketing in the history of the internet” and that his was the “first marketing program to actually deliver on the 1:1 marketing promise of the digital revolution”. Did he provide a blueprint that others candidates can use going forward or was his online success based on his personal brand?

A lot of his success was due to his personal brand. The YouTube videos and spontaneous marketing done by supporters was truly breathtaking. He inspired people to support him. However, he did provide a blueprint at least for the short term future for how candidates should use the internet.

Political campaigns, or for that matter corporate marketing campaigns, no longer have an excuse to avoid spending online. We know people spend significant amounts of time online and the spending is still not there. Paid search, blogger outreach. and social networking should always be part of marketing tactics going forward.

If you had to pick one lesson you learned during the campaign that you think you’ll be most likely to apply in the future, what is it?

Hire experts and people that have a vested personal interest in seeing you succeed.

Eric Frenchman will be delivering a keynote presentation (his first in Europe) at Econsultancy’s Future of Digital Marketing event on 17th June 2009.