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Obama’s technology and data strategy – attracting voters as if they were customers

November 15, 2012

I see Roy’s dramatic entrance, thrusting open the cafe door with a confidence almost expecting a round of applause as he enters. Roy’s a nice American bloke with a nice set of flawless shiny teeth and perfect black hair. He has a balanced nutritious diet and a mixture of attractive friends – well, that’s what American TV would have you believe all US lives are like. Because of his accordion like mouth, every time he opens it to talk or smile he loses approximately 74% of his face. But I like Roy.

I’ve working with Roy, offering some thoughts and insights on starting-up a new business, importing American fine wines with a business model combining an online venture, and a franchise network of self-employed agents selling into specialist wine shops. To be fair, his hospitality has been generous and I am very familiar with his product range having quaffed about 1.5% of his annual turnover personally.

We’re talking Sonoma County Zinfandel, Monte Bello Chardonnay and Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc. There’s more than just the full-bodied, full throttle red and oaky whites from California, and some interesting stuff – check out Schramsberg’s sparkling wines, Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon and Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards.

Stars and stripes forever. He’s also relentlessly sincerely cheerful and positive, but his over-zealous patriotism does get to me. We get it, you’re proud to be an American. It’s not like Brits are immune to nationalism, but perhaps we’re better able to separate feeling proud from having to bang on about our nationality – to your average Brit, hanging a giant flag from a flag pole in your garden is a tiny bit creepy. Maybe God does bless America, but is it the only thing he does each day?

I’ve forgiven his mis-spelling, I might as well pry the letter ‘u’ from my keyboard, but you know which letter made it big in America? ‘Z’, only, they pronounce it wrong. Remembering to remove ‘u’ from words like ‘colour, and replace ‘s’ with a more abrasive ‘z’ is a headache.

Now I’m sitting across from Roy at a table and his mouth is moving and almost making me feel sea-sick with the tidal-wave like sway, he’s telling me that he just can’t get his business to grow to where he wants it. That’s why we’re here, I’m not interested in his teeth, but working to improve his business thinking and more importantly, his execution.

I try not to empty my mug in just the fourth sip (ok, gulp) and I’m thinking my excessive tea drinking could be an addiction, but I am absorbing Roy’s chatter and giving him a good listening too. Roy talks some more, and smiles a lot. To his credit, he can talk and smile simultaneously. He gives me his ‘new business’ pitch as I drink my tea. I can’t believe I’m getting paid for this.

Lifes a Pitch Roy I respond, and he writes this down. Its about discipline, clarity and focus. He writes this down too. He’s nodding, and for a moment he’s closed his eyes. We discuss why he’s unique – himself, what he does, how he does it and the value-add to the customer over and above the bottles of wine they buy. Why is he different, why should I buy from you?

Tremendous scribbling is now taking place on his pad. Then his mobile phone rings (The Star Spangled Banner is his ring tone). I peer over his notebook to see what he’s been writing as he chats, but all I see is a dark circle in the upper right hand corner. So far my insights have produced a doodle, a black hole. Crickey, I hope I don’t drive all my clients in this direction.

Anyway, with a fresh brew in hand, Roy finishes his call, I have a flash of inspiration. We’ve had Obama v Romney playing as a backdrop to our working relationship in recent weeks, what could we take from that in a business context. Roy, that Obama fella did some smart communication stuff to win, what insights can we take from this? Let’s imagine Obama saw the voters as customers, what can we take from his strategy for targeting his customers with his product and winning market share? And we were off, furious thinking, note taking, pitching ideas and coming up with some good stuff. Doodles, but not black holes. Amidst this, I was having a great tea experience. Life’s too short to be drinking bad tea.

Doing business in the information age. I’m an advocate of a ‘high tech, high touch’ approach, one that applies technology to leverage innovation and scale, providing both the wrap and core of a business model. But then add in authenticity and personal impact to create uniqueness in both customer intimacy and value – and this is just what Obama did. Putting aside the politics, what can we take from Obama’s technology and data strategy, and tactics, into Roy’s online fine wine business?

Markets are conversations. People buy from people, look at how Amazon and Trip Advisor use customer reviews, and LinkedIn recommendations. Make it personal. Informality creates intimacy, which creates engagement, which creates response. Obama used dynamic content, technology and media enablers to enhance those conversations and create new ones, he ultimately controlled the news agenda rather than it controlling him. (Check out The Cluetrain Manifesto – Levine, Locke, Searls & Weinberger).

Add to momentum. Engaging people where they are already in conversation generates momentum. Having a point of view and attitude helps to make the news, conversations become topical, compelling and relevant. It’s not just the message, but where the message appears, how accessible is it? Obama’s Social Media strategy gave immediacy and responses, starting and steering conversations with daily thoughts, making pictures an integral element too.

Consumers are the media. One twitter message reads ‘one person = one broadcaster’, and crowdsourcing is a movement. CNN – the Collaborative News Network – the stories people tell are the filters through which others make decisions. Connect with each constituency in your market, reach out to them. Create specific campaigns for each segment in your market with relevance to them.

Obama won re-election and renewed his lease on the White House by winning key segments of the market – Gen Y (under 30) he won 60%, and a remarkable 70% of Gen X (30 to 44). In the Latino population, 10% of the electorate, he won 71% nationally, and 95% share of African American votes. For young women, picking up on the yawning gender gap with Romney, in a segment that represents 23% of voters, Obama took this with 67% share.

Complexity can be a good thing. Don’t always seek to simplify, show thought and intelligence. What makes a good story? Emotional meaning, experience richness, contextual relevance. Obama used YouTube to get the emotion into his message, and at the same time bypass the TV networks and get his message directly to voters. He did this in 2008 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pWe7wTVbLUU A More Perfect Union is a long (37-minute), serious speech which would have been reduced to soundbites by the TV networks. By using YouTube, Obama ensured that millions of voters heard his unexpurgated version. He did the same in 2012 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hd8MFmUDbg4

Entertainment is a powerful conversational currency. Someone told me that 100 million ‘views’ generates 1 million comments – ok, only a 1% response rate which is less than the traditional advertising RoI model, but the reach, instancy and viral nature is incredible. The sheer scale of the online outreach and data collection dwarfed the effort four years ago – Obama’s Facebook site had 33 million ‘likes’ compared with 2 million in the 2008 campaign.

Articulate values, don’t bellow messages. Politics come with passion, but you look at the individual behind the words and rhetoric. The strategy: position Obama as a populist warrior for the middle class, and brand his opponent as a rich plutocrat oblivious to the suffering of regular Americans. Romney’s Let Detroit go bankrupt was a chilling statement of his humanity, and in the end voters rebuked the mendacious Romney and his villainous platform to lard the rich and destroy the social safety net. Obamacare is more about values than politics.

Embracing emerging technologies accelerates success. There is no doubt that our lives are now run by the Internet, the way we shop, travel, get news, talk to friends and family has been transformed by the platforms, channels and devices of technology. A key tool in the campaign was the technology itself. Obama used Cloud computing, his campaign’s engineers built 200 different campaign programs using open-source software and Amazon Web Services. They could inexpensively write and tailor its own software programs to process data and determine unique strategies instead of using off-the-shelf commercial software.

Your business is a social network. It’s complex, entertaining, engaging – and full of stories. Businesses are defined by the interactions of the people who work with it. Obama recognised the need for simple, relevant messages but also that change was a complex value proposition. He started multiple conversations with sometimes neglected corners of the electorate – Hispanics, women and young people. Again the application of technology worked – GOTV – Get Out The Vote was attention grabbing in itself as a concept http://www.barackobama.com/news/entry/gotv/

It’s the data stupid. John Naughton wrote a great piece in The Observer, and Michael Schere in Time about how the election was won on data. Sounds obvious, but it really does come down to numbers – be they voters or customers. The 2008 Obama team had gathered a huge amount of data on voters during the campaign, but it was held in separate data silos. The first thing the new team did was to combine the silos into a single enormous database.

They had an enormous data set which could be mined for small donations (which totalled $1bn+) and insights about voter preferences and behaviour. They could ask a question of the data like: what kind of celebrity supporter had the biggest drawing power for professional women aged between 40 and 49 in California? Answer: George Clooney. Who might have comparable pull on the same demographic group on the east coast? Answer: Sarah Jessica Parker. Obama’s re-election is a compelling demonstration of what can be done when you apply quantitative analysis to large data sets. James Carville’s famous phrase It’s the economy, stupid is superseded, now it’s the data, stupid.

For the second election running, Obama’s campaign put innovation into the way presidential elections are won. The path to victory was forged by a sophisticated voter targeting and communication machine fuelled by technology and data. They mined click-stream data as never before to target messages to potential voters. A real edge for Obama was its use of online and mobile technology to support the traditional get out to voters campaign on the ground – high tech, high touch – finding potential supporters and urging them to vote, either in person or by phone.

They saw each voter as an organisation should see an individual customer:as Drucker says, the customer is the focal point of every business.

Roy and myself were exhausted but elated. Roy doesn’t want to be President of the United States, he just wants a successful fine wine business. Obama has given him ideas on how to profile, reach and engage his target audience. Roy will attract them by creating conversations that are focused on profiling his customers, making communication relevant, and using data to fine tune specific initiatives. He’ll have a nice day too, I’m sure.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 13, 2012 9:00 am

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  2. December 13, 2012 12:53 pm

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