by Ernest Kim
With the 2012 US presidential election finally coming to a close, I thought it was worth exploring the role data and technology played in the outcome. There will be many, many stories in the weeks ahead that dissect the ins-and-outs of the two campaigns and seek to explain Barack Obama’s victory by a margin wider than most pundits had predicted. The two best I’ve seen thus far that take the digital perspective are a piece from Bloomberg Businessweek that was actually published back in June and a fantastic, peek-behind-the-curtain story just posted by Time magazine.
Here’s a prescient quote from the Businessweek article: “The unspoken hope in Chicago is that superior strategy and a shrewd use of technology can make up for Obama’s diminished stature and more formidable opponent. So [Obama campaign manager Jim] Messina has spent 18 months studying and building.”
From Whitehouse.gov: President Barack Obama hugs his campaign manager, Jim Messina, during an unannounced stop at his campaign headquarters in Chicago, Ill., Nov. 7, 2012.
And the results speak for themselves. I highly encourage you to read these two pieces if you want to understand how digital platforms can drive real world behavior. But, if you’re in a rush and need a summary, here are my three key takeaways for marketers:
1. Set meaningful goals.
In this case, winning the election was obviously the ultimate goal, but feeding into this were subsidiary goals including concrete fundraising and volunteer recruitment targets that directly supported that primary objective. Too often in the digital space, marketers confuse metrics such as visits, Likes and follower counts for meaningful goals. And, so long as this is the case, Chief Executives will view marketing as a cost-center rather than a business driver.
2. Understand your audience.
Specifically, segment your audience to enable more targeted, impactful engagement. Quoting from the Time piece:
Call lists in field offices, for instance, didn’t just list names and numbers; they also ranked names in order of their persuadability, with the campaign’s most important priorities first … “We could [predict] people who were going to give online. We could model people who were going to give through mail. We could model volunteers,” said one of the senior advisers about the predictive profiles built by the data. “In the end, modeling became something way bigger for us in ’12 than in ’08 because it made our time more efficient.”
3. Build, test, iterate, rinse and repeat.
Our industry loves to talk about testing and optimization, but so few of us actually follow through. Either there’s not enough time, or not enough money or, by the time the data is analyzed, we’re already on to the next thing. But success in the digital space comes to the iterators. Again, quoting from the Time story:
A large portion of the cash raised online came through an intricate, metric-driven e-mail campaign in which dozens of fundraising appeals went out each day. Here again, data collection and analysis were paramount. Many of the e-mails sent to supporters were just tests, with different subject lines, senders and messages … Michelle Obama’s e-mails performed best in the spring, and at times, campaign boss Messina performed better than Vice President Joe Biden. In many cases, the top performers raised 10 times as much money for the campaign as the underperformers.
And, finally, I just had to include this fascinating bit from the Businessweek article—though Apple is not known as a company that necessarily ‘gets’ social media, this anecdote from Messina suggests that Steve Jobs had a deeper understanding of our modern media landscape than was widely recognized:
In two long, private conversations, Steve Jobs tore into Messina for all the White House was doing wrong and what it ought to be doing differently, before going on to explain how the campaign could exploit technology in ways that hadn’t been possible before. “Last time you were programming to only a couple of channels,” Jobs told him, meaning the Web and e-mail. “This time, you have to program content to a much wider variety of channels—Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, YouTube, Google—because people are segmented in a very different way than they were four years ago.” When Obama declared for president, the iPhone hadn’t been released. Now, Jobs told him, mobile technology had to be central to the campaign’s effort. “He knew exactly where everything was going,” Messina says.