Beyond Tweets: Digital Lessons From Presidential Campaigns
In mid-October, not long after Donald Trump drew attention for his 3 a.m. tweets, I received an email from Hillary Clinton’s campaign inviting me to help canvass voters in Iowa, a short drive from my home in Chicago. The message noted that “1,500 of Hillary’s best supporters” had headed to neighboring states the weekend before, and now they wanted me to do the same.
While that email may not have earned as much notice in the media as those early-morning tweets, it was arguably more strategic. The real innovations in digital communication in political campaigns are happening behind the scenes and on the ground.
As the former digital director of Organizing for Action (OFA), the political advocacy group that built on the digital-engagement model Barack Obama pioneered in 2008 and 2012, I’m often asked if companies can learn from the way political organizations use technology. I believe they can. Political campaigns, by definition, have shorter time horizons than companies. But the intense, results-oriented focus of campaigns offers some lessons on how companies can create effective digital engagement at scale.
Recognizing that elections are won by motivating and mobilizing core supporters, campaigns have developed sophisticated data models to reach out to voters. Organizers know that a productive digital strategy depends on building trust and activating relationships with voters at speed and at scale. They need to reach the right supporters at the right time, with meaningful requests.
That kind of operation requires smart data management, an ability to react quickly and a willingness to be flexible—all traits that matter in business as well as in politics. A few pointers:
Tune out the noise. Campaigns have to be selective about which metrics they’re going to track. Much of what can be measured is noise. Campaigns need to focus on data that shows their message is being shared, their people are mobilizing and their fund-raising goals are being met. Retweets or shares, for example, can show that someone is ready to personally identify with the candidate—making them a better indicator of message resonance than a “like” on Facebook.
Fundamentally, campaigns need to know if someone is likely to vote for their candidate, which requires tracking offline engagement, such as volunteering to knock on doors in Iowa, as well as online activity.
Businesses similarly overwhelmed by data should focus on key areas that matter to their customers. One telecom company, for example, studied 200 cases where customers had been involved in billing disputes. The company identified the “pain points”—the experiences that turned happy customers into unhappy ones—and came up with a plan to address them, to make it more likely that those customers would buy (or, if you will, vote for) their products.
Fail fast—and adjust. Campaigns, like companies, have long run simple A/B tests on email subject lines and the content of landing pages. Thanks to sophisticated analytical models, they can now conduct multivariable tests at a rapid pace. This frequent testing can mean the difference between raising thousands of dollars online and raising millions—and it requires a culture of constant improvement that celebrates failure as part of the learning process.
At OFA, we once ran an email-centered fund-raising campaign, from which we expected to generate 30 percent of our donations for the quarter. We launched the campaign by testing multiple email drafts and subject lines at once. We learned quickly that something was wrong; donor response was well below our expectations.
With time running out in the quarter, we suspended the campaign and revamped the content in a matter of hours. Once the new emails went live, we saw a six-fold lift in donations compared with our initial results. Over the lifespan of the campaign, our emails, landing pages and social media posts got better as we learned how people were responding. This kind of rapid testing and iteration can make digital communication better, no matter if you’re trying to get donations or sell a product.
Let your work drive your org chart, not the other way around. The biggest innovation in political campaigns may not be the technology itself, but the way staffers have organized themselves to take advantage of it. Campaigns are start-ups at their core, but like corporations, they have multiple stakeholders and, yes, their own bureaucracy. They are constantly building, refining and iterating on their org charts to make sure they can move quickly without sacrificing quality—or making a campaign-killing mistake.
Many companies, even large ones, have adopted similar team-based, rapid test-and-learn approaches to innovation. Airbnb, for example, organizes itself into smaller, flexible teams, and allows ideas to flow from all corners of the company.
I’ve been in the room when Barack Obama has sent a personal message to his most active supporters asking them to get involved. Those kinds of meaningful digital experiences don’t happen in a vacuum; they are the result of a team of people working hard to build an active audience that is receptive to an inspiring call to action. With the right kind of planning, digital engagement by companies can be just as authentic and effective—without the need for direct presidential intervention.
This article first appeared in www.forbes.com
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