Today at Digital Cream in San Jose, Chris Tolles of Topix started the day of round tables and discussions by looking at how marketers can model their campaigns on political campaigns.

As we gear up for the next US election this fall, the topic is not only timely but as the presidential campaigns move rapidly to their end in the upcoming months, there are continual lessons to be learned.

We can look at politicians as the product, elections as the market, and the populace as the consumers. But there are key differences in a single campaign verses the building of a brand – should there be? Tolles highlighted three parallels marketers should consider:

  • On average, a presidential campaign only lasts 24 months and they start fresh each time. This freshness comes from someone who leads like a general so in your marketing team, it is important to pick someone good to run each campaign and not fear picking new team members to lead the charge. This fresh approach could lead to a win whereas if you continue to use the same “general,” even if they are not succeeding, you may be missing major opportunities.
  • In politics, market, goals, competition and measurement are all very clear and well understood. This is often not the case for marketers but with the movement toward better measurement through big data, campaigns needn’t start off blindly Marketers need to continually focus on clarifying what they are looking to achieve, who they want to reach and by doing so, can measure and reapply their successes to future campaigns.
  • In most campaigns, overcoming competition is a primary goal. It’s nice to have a Coke/ Pepsi type rivalry that you can leverage in your campaigns, but most brands either have too many competitors or no one knows you who you are as you are starting something entirely new. To overcome this, you really need to consider the brand story and frame your solution in three parts.
    • Define the problem
    • Define the solution
    • Explain how your brand is the only one who can deliver that.

The progression of political campaigning

Political campaigns, just like marketing ones, have been going on long before our current media channels were even conceived of. So how did campaigners leverage new media tools as they became part of our daily consumption?

Coolige was the first politician to leverage the power of radio as part of an American Presidential campaign. On the eve of his election in 1924, he gave a speech that highlighted the need to vote, rather than the need to vote for him. By adding personal warmth to his speech, he won over those listening. 

The same happened with television in 1960. By this point, television reached critical mass and 87% of Americans had televisions in their homes.  Though JFK only won by 0.1% of the vote, it was his appearance on television in the debates against Nixon, that led to his success. 

The movement toward campaigning online had a rough start. In 2004, Howard Dean started modern internet fundraising but he didn’t have enough leverage to win. Using technology at that time was not the be all and end all. In fact, it may have been too early. But with the penetration of smart phones and a rise in accessibility of internet, the use of online tools in 2004 set the scene for Barack Obama in 2008.

As far as major political circles were concerned Howard Dean failed and therefore decided the internet didn’t work. But by July 2008, the Obama campaign raised more than 200 million from more than a million online donors. His team understood that you had to integrate the message across all platforms and mediums. The core of the software is having those links to taking action and to doing something.

Also by moving to online campaigning, Obama’s team were able to save money. For the reach they had on YouTube for free, would have cost them over 50 million dollars for airtime. As Arianna Huffington of Huffington Post quite rightly said:

Were it not for the Internet, Barack Obama would not be president. Were it not of the Internet, Barack Obama would not have been the nominee.

What about 2012?

This time we’re seeing a data driven election. This gives campaigners the ability to integrate everything together in a more targeted way. It’s the same movement we’re seeing in marketing circles. Those with the most data and the ability to digest it, will be able to pull ahead from their competition.

By incorporating randomized controlled experiments with microtargeting statistical models, campaigns will be more informed. Zac Moffet of Targeted Victory commented on how the approach of campaigners is changing:

Two people in the same house could get different messages. Not only will the message change, the type of content will change.

Once marketers incorporate this into their overall campaigns and target not only by channel but through an integrated approach across all possible platforms, we’ll begin to see greater success.

As a consumer, hopefully this will also eliminate the shoot and spray approach taken by marketers in the past. Maybe with the right targeting, we’ll even start to like marketing messages again.