What your business can learn from Obama’s marketing and technology experts (SXSW)


Obama’s former marketing and technology directors offered some tips to business owners at South by Southwest in Austin. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

In today’s world, with every device and every app seemingly collecting data about us, business owners and corporate executives are increasingly looking for ways to capture that information, make sense of it, and turn it into powerful marketing campaigns.

Some say they should look no further than a different sort of campaign — political ones.

“Our challenges were really not that different that the ones businesses are facing today, especially on the marketing side,” said Amy Gershkoff, who served as media director for President Obama’s reelection campaign and now runs the customer analytics and insights department at eBay. “I think there were a number of lessons that can be learned by companies large and small.”

Obama’s most recent campaign (and Romney’s, for that matter) raised more than a billion dollars and spent about $400 million of that on television advertising and more than $50 million on online marketing. Still, Gershkoff said it was the way the team spent its money — rather than how much it spent — that was the key to securing four more years.

“What we did was build a data-driven infrastructure that allowed us to effectively plan where to put that next advertising dollar, measure the impact it had on moving the vote, and then use that to make decisions about our next advertising dollar,” she said.

In that respect, it was a learning process filled with experiments, according to Gershkoff and other panelists at a discussion held at the giant South By Southwest technology and music festival here, all of whom worked on the Obama campaign. During the event, they shared several lessons business leaders can learn from their experience on the campaign trail.

Narrow your focus

With so much data now available, many companies have started trying to gather every iota of information about their customers, which can be overkill, according to Andrew Bleeker, the former director of online advertising for the Obama campaign.

“Really, the question is, what are the two or three data points that matter most to you and what can you do with them?” said Bleeker, who now oversees all digital marketing products for global public relations company Hill+Knowlton Strategies.

Bleeker noted that the Obama campaign only used a small fraction of the voter data at its disposal, pulling the information most relevant about the relatively small fraction of undecided voters in battleground states.

Stay on your toes

“If you look at most consumer marketing campaigns, they last about four months, including two months of brainstorming and a month at the end for measuring success,” Bleeker said. “One of the things that’s different in politics, because numbers change day in and day out, we measure them day in and day out, taking polls constantly, and we can learn from that.”

Consequently, most political campaigns have a meeting every day, he said, in which “every person you would need to change your advertising on the fly or tweak your messaging are in the same room.” He says that does not - but should - start happening more in the business world, especially now that constantly updated consumer information is readily available.

“Without that type of daily meeting, your company can’t pivot quickly enough to keep up with what’s happening,” Bleeker added.

Experiment on social media

With so much data to draw from, marketing executives often have more ideas they can afford to test with expensive television spots and newspaper ads. And that, Bleeker said, is where social networks can come in handy.

The Obama campaign, for instance, spent months searching for a way to persuade voters that the economy was heading in the right direction, even though it didn’t feel that way, he said. His team experimented with several television and print ads, but nothing caught hold.

“Then one day, after the job numbers came out, we put a little chart on social media, showing jobs by month added under President Obama and jobs lost by month by President Bush,” Bleeker said. “It immediately went nuts on social media, so we said, ‘hmm, maybe we should put this in a focus group.’ ”

Sure enough, he said, with a little tweaking, the graphic proved effective. “It was what we were trying to say the whole time,” he said, “and it worked so well, we put it in all our television ads until the end of the campaign.”

Don’t differ your message by medium

“One of the things that’s changing is the way we plan and buy media today, including more cross-channel optimization,” Gershkoff said, noting that many political campaigns and some businesses have found success by coordinating their messaging across various television, print, radio and online advertisements.

“It’s about more than just putting a Twitter hashtag in a TV commercial, though that’s a good start,” she said. “Your advertising on television and online and social media should all derive from the same data and work together to tell one story, rather than each ad airing in isolation.”

To follow our ongoing coverage of start-ups, entrepreneurs and technology at South by Southwest 2014, click here.

Follow J.D. Harrison and On Small Business on Twitter.

J.D. Harrison covers startups, small business and entrepreneurship, with a focus on public policy, and he manages the Post's On Small Business blog.
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