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Post-Digital Decade? Or Just Openness to Change?

My friend and former colleague Patrick Ruffini has shared his talk from PDF as a post and it is well worth a read.

I would quibble, a bit, with Patrick’s take on 2004 versus today.

The premise was that this was the organization in miniature. Whatever you could do offline (canvass a neighbor, ask someone for a donation), you should also be able to do online. Let’s build tools that replicate existing and familiar offline patterns of behavior.

That slide comes from a post-election analysis that was put together to demonstrate the impact digital had on the campaign. The full presentation includes a bunch of charts and graphs that illustrate the role digital played.

In that deck, we talked, for instance, about the way microtargeting data was matched against Yahoo and AOL subscribers to deliver ads narrowly targeted to specific individuals in our turnout universe. While that seems relatively primitive by today’s targeting standards, it was not common practice in ’04.

And that is where I start to disagree with Ruffini’s depiction of 2004.  That slide was actually meant to make exactly the same point Ruffini is making today – that digital needs to be integrated in everything a campaign does.

That slide actually had more to do with staffing, and less to do with the tools.

The problem in 2004 was campaign org charts. There was NO tech in Political, Comms or Finance. Tech was relegated to a separate division (or even single person) and that guy was only brought into a discussion when they had something to “get on the site”, “get to the blogs” or “oh, by the way, my computer is acting funky.”

When I first began talking to the Bush campaign about their online operations in January of 2004, was buried three layers deep in Communications.

Chuck Defeo, my eCampaign Manager, at the time reported to Steve Schmidt, who in turn reported to Nicole Wallace, who in turn reported to Ken Mehlman.

When asked what I thought of their website, I explained that it was VERY good at putting out press releases and Communication materials. However, it lacked capability in online fundraising and direct activism because the organizational structure created incentives that rewarded Chuck for being responsive to his direct reports.

This is not, to be clear, an indictment of Chuck, the Communications team, or the campaign. This is an indictment of the way campaigns organized themselves at the time.  There simply was no senior role for digital in campaign organizations. Just four years earlier, while running “tech” for the Quayle campaign, my “office” was actually a storage closet that housed our servers and where they had stuffed a small desk.

A change in thinking is what I told the campaign they needed. I suggested that online operations should be lifted from Comms and made equal to the other divisions rather than being an after thought. The campaign agreed and I was brought on to serve as the division director for the eCampaign.

The diagram above introduced the concept of having tech involved in every aspect of the campaign, and more specifically, having the digital natives Patrick discusses attached to every other division so they would be involved in the discussions at the outset.

Andy Davis was our liaison to Political. Chuck and Patrick were the liaisons to Comms, and Mindy Finn sat in on Finance.

The Bush campaign was really the first time digital also had a seat at the senior staff table in the type of structure the org chart represents. That slide was meant to drive the point home that we were the digital natives that needed to be connected to broader discussions in every department.

In some cases that worked very well. The debate war room that responded instantly to every John Kerry prevarication and flip-flop is one example. Another was a flash app Patrick put together that took the video of an ad attacking Kerry over weapon system votes and turned it into an interactive tool visitors could click on to see the votes as the weapons disappeared.  It tied the tech and traditional ads together to provide a different way to look at the same messaging. It extended the ad beyond a simple TV broadcast and made it something you could explore.

Because we had only a couple of days lead time, it was relegated to our website. That same ad/interactive app today would be delivered to voters identified as sensitive to national security concerns and served up wherever they roam online.

The goal then, as now, was not to simply automate offline processes, but to use tech to enable better mechanics for campaigning.

An Extranet that Michael Palmer managed was a critical piece of our election day operations. Ruffini, on election night, was chewing through the data we were seeing from a combination of exit polls, live returns, and the Extranet reporting. He announced very early on that we had won Ohio and Florida – earlier than anyone else and hours before it was called on TV.

That integration of data was well ahead of anything that others were doing then, and far ahead of where most are even now.

I would argue that the goal has not changed in 10 years.

What has changed in the intervening decade is the the number of people in campaign organizations who have begun to understand the idea. Work to implement these goals and strategies has increased. However, we are far from a place where such understanding is ubiquitous.

Patrick’s thesis statement in his document may well be this:

The notion that you can create these drastic cultural changes from two or three levels down within the organization is nice, but it almost never happens.

That is certainly true, as it was ten years ago. It is why I had the discussion I did with Ken and Mark and why they, understanding the truth of that, made the change they did.

I would argue the campaign in 2004 was actually the first example of a campaign built on the understanding that technology plays a central role – from microtargeting advancements to organization charts to tools and strategies.

Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008, and certainly the re-elect in 2012 were the same.

Those races all demonstrate that was is critical is not the background of the person with the job title, but rather that leadership is committed to open thinking and willingness to change.


Written by Turk