In the Y2K election season more than any other before, scores of highly paid consultants, campaign managers and politicians are pouring over the minutia of your life. Using data culled from tax records, voter rolls, Web-site clickstreams and other sources, these political insiders, representing every conceivable agenda, want to know what's on your mind.
Once they know where you stand on certain issues--and using information readily available to them, that's not hard to do--they will determine if you are, or might be, a promising lead.
Lead, you ask? Yes. In business terms, modern campaigns sell a candidate or an issue to you, the voter/customer. If the details of your life suggest you might vote for a candidate or cause, campaign workers will then use call centers, highly specialized marketing efforts, databases, contact managers and, perhaps more than any other tool, the Internet, to target you as a supporter.
Sound familiar? It should. From local school board elections to the run for the White House, political campaigns are having increasing success using the same customer relationship management (CRM) tools and techniques with voters that companies use with customers. Though still behind the business world in this arena, political campaigns use CRM to support polling, fundraising, organizing and direct marketing.
"There is no more efficient activity in political campaigns than contact management," says Tony Paquin, president and CEO of Netivation, an Idaho-based campaign software vendor. "The political world, however, is many years behind the business world, and has just started using [tools like ACT! and GoldMine] in the last two years."
But the political world is catching up and the results benefit campaigns immeasurably. "These technologies, particularly the Internet, have dramatically changed the process and are revolutionizing politics in this country," says Paquin. "They lower campaign costs, improve the ability to raise money and provide for the free flow of information."
Lead Management, Election style
As anyone with any experience in politics knows, a tightening of the unwieldy bureaucracy of the campaign process is long overdue. Operating on small, highly scrutinized budgets, campaigns must often reach millions of people--spread over a vast area--within a short window of time.
The first step campaigns take in accomplishing this gargantuan task is obtaining a list of registered voters they will target. Businesses might purchase such leads from lead fulfillment houses or from an existing mailing list. Campaigns get voter rolls from county Registrar of Voter offices throughout each state, a source that is, at best, unreliable.
According to Los Angeles-based campaign consultant Michael Shimpock, the information county clerks provide is in a very raw form and is often difficult to use. "Each county has different formats for data," he says, some of which are only stored on paper. Even usable lists are "often antiquated, duplicative and not entirely reliable," since they are not purged when voters move.
Alternatively, a campaign might skip the Registrar of Voters and go to data vendors, the middlemen that campaigns can turn to for more reliable voter data. "These vendors have filled a niche by collecting data throughout the state and updating it," says Shimpock.
Data vendors clean up voter rolls by updating them and putting them into a usable format. "We purchase voter rolls from various counties in California, which total about 14 million voters," says Donna Patterson, president of data vendor Top Notch Data, based in Santa Clara, Calif. "We then put them into a single format, usually ASCII, that is used to provide lists and labels, plus phone data for telemarketing."
Dealing with the data cleanup problems that Shimpock describes is no small task for vendors such as Top Notch. When campaigns purchase data from these vendors, they require accurate, timely information. Top Notch updates data by checking it against other publicly maintained information, like assessor files and census data. It also sends its files to National Change of Address (NCOA), a service run by the U.S. Postal Service, for updating.
Patterson says the scrubbed data is processed through the company's IBM mainframe into an ASCII format, which is universal and can be imported into most commonly used database programs.
In some cases, data vendors work with campaigns early on to begin this process by providing some of the specifics. But the real breakdown is done in-house, using spreadsheets and the campaign manager's knowledge of the targeted district. "The data we get from vendors includes everybody's name, phone number, address, precinct and ethnic flag," says Shimpock. "From there, I put it in a relational database like Paradox or Access."
Right On Target
With newly updated lead lists, political consultants begin the process of building voter profiles much the same way salespeople build customer profiles to better understand a customer's needs and wants. They process and group voter data in the database in such a way that will enable a political consultant to make an educated guess about how people will vote.
For instance, based on polling and knowledge of a given district, a political consultant might say that all white men over the age of 45 in that district are pro law-enforcement. The campaign should therefore highlight a candidate's tough stance on crime in its message to this subgroup.
In the political world, this process is known as "targeting," or using voter profiles to place voters into identifiable groups, and then tailoring campaign messages to the needs and concerns of each group. Campaigns use any number of factors to create these groups: ethnicity, party affiliation, surname, neighborhood or region, among others.
While this process may seem presumptuous, Shimpock rejects the idea of stereotyping. "Mass messages don't always work," he says. "In a media culture, you have to craft a message that is simple, quick and incisive. You are tailoring and targeting your message to whatever expressed interest an ethnic, age or social subgroup may have.
"Politics is different from business in a lot of ways," he adds. "You are offering something that demands more of an investment of time than money, and it doesn't offer an immediate return on investment. A candidate is not so much a product, as someone to be promoted. You are trying to associate your candidate with certain positions, and the targeting does get specific. In one of my campaigns we had 15 different subgroups, with different scripts on different issues."
As any environmentalist who has received pro-development fliers, or any right-wing recipient of a "Save the Whales" mailing piece can tell you, targeting is not an exact science. Shimpock admits, "It can sometimes backfire terribly."
Once the campaign identifies a voter with certain issues common to a group, the voter becomes the target of a sophisticated, multifaceted marketing program that utilizes many familiar CRM technologies and techniques.
• Campaigns may send issue-oriented direct mail pieces or e-mail to voters of specific subgroups (marketing).
• Fund-raisers or volunteers manning phone banks may call potential donors to ask for financial support (think of a sales call with a lukewarm lead).
• Telemarketing firms under contract to the campaign may call voters to poll them on certain issues (market research).
• Using "predictive dialing" technology, the campaign may call a voter's home and either leave a message, or if someone picks up, automatically connect that voter to a waiting campaign representative (call center).
The most conspicuous parallel between the election process and CRM is in the follow-up to the initial voter contact. Just as salespeople follow up with leads and clients, so do campaigns maintain contact with supporters. Because the life span of most campaigns is no longer than five weeks--the presidential campaign being a notable exception--management of this new candidate/customer relationship is crucial, says Shimpock. "For the ones you contact in the beginning, you automatically generate further follow-up. You determine who is on your team, then stay in touch with them to find out where they are disagreeing with you. Then you try to address those concerns and backfill."
One Nation, Online...
The Internet has most profoundly impacted the election process. Just as it revolutionized the business world, the Web, with its rock-bottom cost and wide outreach, is changing forever the relationship between candidate and voter (see related story, "Presidential Candidates Online").
Campaign Web sites are so widely used now, that companies like Aristotle and Netivation offer, in addition to campaign management software and donor lists, campaign Web kits that can have a candidate's site up and running in a matter of minutes.
Power to the People?
Political campaigns may not be ready to fully embrace CRM. According to Paquin, political budgets all go to media advertising, and when it's time to buy other products, "they get the cheapest thing out there." But campaigns have already realized the benefit of other standard business CRM tools. As online marketing becomes more precise and commerce more like political targeting efforts, the same tools used by businesses to maintain customer relationships may become the standard in politics as well.
Furthermore, the voters may well drive any future embrace of CRM by the political world. With all the benefits that the Internet and other technologies provide, the real winners, say e-campaign experts, may be the voters, not the political salespeople. Just as customers in a business relationship benefit from the greater efficiencies and increased control that CRM technologies and techniques deliver, so do voters reap the rewards of increased access to the political system through the Web.
"Voters benefit from the standpoint of convenience," says Jay MacAniff, director of communications at Aristotle, a campaign software and information systems vendor based in San Francisco, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. "Each day more people are entering into the political process. These people were apparently disenfranchised in the past, but, thanks to the Internet, are now participating."