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Envisioning A New Political Campaign Apparatus

I was having a conversation with a fellow campaign junkie this morning about the troubles the GOP is having. Not having online, mind you, but just having in general. There has been a lot of ink spilled discussing the GOP’s money troubles that tends to focus on our online numbers, but the fact is our fundraising haul is low on the Net as well as in the mail.

We’re also having trouble selling our message. Much has also been said about the fact that we’re trying to move a bad message in a difficult environment. We’re trying to talk about our commitment to fiscal responsibility after spending 7 years giving away the store. We’re trying to talk about our commitment to values wile defending Members of Congress who stand accused of all manner of crimes.

I get it. It’s a tough sell.

It is not made easier by the apparatus. There is an inherent flaw in the way we structure and run our campaigns. I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, and have come to the conclusion that we need a fundamentally different paradigm for building and managing our campaigns.

Run It Like A Business

I once heard a joke that we need a president that will run the government like a business – someone who will burn it down and collect the insurance.

Seriously, though, there is nothing wrong with applying the lessons of business to the business of politics. There is much we can learn from the business community and we need to apply some of the basics to our campaigns. Following are five simple changes we could make that I believe would yield great gains.

  1. Break The Stool – Typically the three legs of the political campaign stool are Communications, Finance, and Political – message, money and mobilization. Increasingly, there is a fourth leg called “Strategy” that deals with polling and paid media. The problem for most campaigns is there is considerable overlap in some of these things, and there can be considerable friction – especially given the emergence of an entirely new and different form of media – one much more interactive than mail, phones, and the TV.

    The campaigns structure itself is a hindrance to the campaign process, yet nobody tinkers with it because, “That’s how it has always been done.”In a business environment, clinging to outmoded models can be the last nail in your coffin. Campaigns should not cling to an outdated org chart simply because it’s been in use for decades.

  2. Divorce media relations from marketing – Most companies treat marketing and media relations as two separate functions. Talking to the media and talking to your customers are two different animals. Campaigns, however, generally take as gospel the direction of the Communications Director.
  3. The fact is, what moves the head of the political bureau at the New York Times is probably not going to move many voters. Conversely, the type of content that makes compelling direct mail, or internet video, or television advertising, is often going to be mocked by the political media elite.By separating those two functions completely (I say completely because often the paid media are not directly managed by Comms) you’ll end up with better material.

  4. Marketing 101 – Now that you have Communications talking exclusively to the press (which is what they do best), you’re free to market your product. Have you ever noticed that most of the really good commercials you remember weren’t stodgy and boring? It doesn’t matter what the product is, if the ad is uninspired, nobody will remember the product.
  5. Here’s an example. A few years ago, a major car manufacturer made an ad that featured a ball bearing rolling along the window channels and the body lines of their car. Here’s the challenge for you: Name the car! Can’t do it? Name the company! Can’t do that either, can you?

    The fact is, people like to make boring commercials in the misguided belief that they’re reinforcing some image attribute of “serious” or “professional” or “trustworthy”. It’s all BS. Those attributes, applied to marketing, are the equivalent of “boring”, “stiff”, and “uninteresting”.

    You have 30-60 seconds to convey something. Do you really want to follow the Al Gore model and make the one word that people use to describe your candidate be “wooden”. Do you want people to think you’re boring simply because you have some hyper-inflated respect for the office your guy is seeking?

    In 2004, the most memorable TV ad that ran in the Presidential contest was also the goofiest. It had a serious message, but it presented it in a fun and engaging way. It was memorable and compelling. There’s nothing wrong with using odd to sell a serious idea.

    One of my favorite ongoing ad campaigns was the Burger King chicken sandwiches. Whether it was the Subservient Chicken or the punk band Coq Roq, BK got noticed for their advertising. They pulled the ads after some outcry that “Coq Roq” was offensive, but the subsequent attention paid to them pulling the ads was worth a ton of free publicity – it was probably worth more than the buy would have been.

    There is nothing wrong with getting people’s attention. If you are a political party, do whatever you can to frame yourself. stick to the message, but don’t be afraid to present it in a unique wrapper. If you’re a campaign, the line is a little trickier to walk, but you can have fun, and make people remember you at the same time.

    A friend showed me a direct mail piece she received from a candidate and held onto as an example of exactly this point. The candidate’s tagline on his mail said simply, “Short. Bald. Honest.” It was perhaps the greatest tagline ever on political mail. People will remember it, and they’ll have positive thoughts about the candidate – forgiving almost all but the most extreme positions.

    Your paid media, the Internet, and direct mail should all be run like a marketing department. Everything should stand out.

    The takeaway from all of this is try something new. Be brave. Get noticed.

  6. The Relationship Between Sales and Marketing – I took the direct mail function out of Political because ideally, the political guys should be all about talking to the voters. I don’t consider direct mail to be a form of talking to voters. It’s a way of priming the pump for your political guys to make the call, or knock on the door and deliver that sale. If your paid media (including the net) are your marketing efforts, then your political guys are your sales team. Strategy and Political should overlap at the database. Think of this as your Customer Relationship Management (CRM) package. Strategy fills it with leads through their marketing efforts, but it’s up to Political to interact with the customer.
  7. That’s also true online. I’d like to see a candidate set up their “sign up” form with questions about interests that actually told you what the subscriber wanted. Options to “Get news and information” would be separate with “Help contact voters by mail or phone”. The people that chose the latter should get a personal call from the organizer at the local level to involve them in volunteering. The people that chose the first are clearly more interested in simply staying in touch. Campaigns get too specific with the asks on sign up forms and end up missing the bigger picture (there are people who don’t want to do other activities, and will view repeated requests to do so as a pain).

    So now that you have a separate sales force, they are all about closing the deal. They can do that through channel partners (coalitions), but their goal should be to talk to every single voter. We tend to talk about microtargeting and the ability to move voters with carefully crafted messages that appeal to my interests. To some extent, that probably works. I have bought a number of cars in my life and did so very recently. The ads made me lean to a particular car, and I went to look at them, but ultimately chose a different model because it better suited my needs, and the salesman demonstrated that.

    We can run all the ads that we want touting a candidate’s position, but the fact is, somebody in person is going to close the deal. It won’t be the ad that makes the sale, it will be a friend or a family member. It might be a neighbor going door to door that convinces them to buy. You better hope that your CRM system can tell you where those leads are, but you better pray it’s your salesman – and not the other guy’s – that convinces them to buy.

  8. Investor Relations and Effective Management – Campaigns cost a lot. Donors, for lack of a better explanation, are your shareholders. The return on their investment is you winning. They want to know that you used their dough to build the best business you can. If you’re still working from a model that puts all of your message in the hands of the press guys; treats your internet shop as a place to put press releases; puts your sales guys in charge of lead generation; makes marketing a minor player relegated only to radio and TV ads; and spends money on a campaign with less than effective coordination, you are doing a disservice to your shareholders.

Campaigns really need to think about the way they manage operations and really ask themselves if the way it was done 40 years ago is really the way it should be done today. In business, the answer to that question is a resounding no. If your business remained unchanged for 40 years while others around you experimented with other approaches, there is a pretty good probability that you would end up with a declining share of the market. That’s exactly what’s happening to the GOP today.

The Democrats have been adapting their model. Rather than using the same direct mail copy that they used in the 1970s, they have discovered a desire for people to connect. They realized that their stakeholders want to believe in the cause. They made their message one of inclusion.

If you look at GOP direct mail, it’s all exactly the same. “Candidate X is a dirty liberal extremist and the liberal elite extremists (possibly in San Francisco, maybe in New York, certainly in DC) want him to win. Fight the liberals and give us your money.” It says nothing other than liberal.

Look at recent Democrat messages, however, and you see a company that it selling itself to the people. It will generally say:

We don’t believe in the direction the Republicans are going, we want to go in a different direction, to do that we need to win elections. To win elections, we need to hire field organizers, and print yard signs, and buy billboards, and run TV ads. Your contributions will put Joe Blow on the ground in (insert state) and he’ll be able to contact 285 voters per day between now and the election. If you give us 2X contributions, we’ll also be able to put four volunteers in the field next to Joe and give them coffee and donuts to keep them happy.

When I first started seeing these messages a couple of years ago, I thought they were ridiculous. I believed it was way too much inside baseball and would be ignored by people.

I was wrong.

Telling people where their money is going and how it will be used (even if it’s nonsense) is a sales tactic. They found their sales methods were flawed and tried something new. It worked. This should be seen as a lesson. We, too, need to adapt if we’re going to survive. We need to change our fundamentals – our approach to running our business.

Written by Michael Turk