The Selling of the President, Y2K-Style
As you read these words, 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 this grand election year.
Once they determine how you may or may not feel about 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 cast a favorable vote on 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 manage their newly formed political relationship with you.
Sound familiar? It should. From local school board elections to the run for the White House, political campaigns are beginning to use the same customer relationship management (CRM) tools and techniques with voters that you use with your customers, and with considerable success. Though still behind the business world in this arena, political campaigns increasingly use CRM to support each step of an election effort--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. "Businesses might use an ACT! or GoldMine. The political world, however, is many years behind the business world, and has just started using these types of tools 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, greater efficiency in the campaign process is long overdue. Campaigns by definition are so unwieldy, so chronically under-funded and so frantic that one wonders if any technology or method could impose order upon them. Operating on small, highly scrutinized budgets, election 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 someone who has a 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. "In California, there are a couple that don't even have it in a computer format, but keep it on paper. Even if the mailing list you get is in a usable format, it is often antiquated, duplicative and not entirely reliable. The Registrar of Voters collects this information, but they don't purge it when people 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 such commonly used database programs as Access, Paradox and dBase. The company delivers files on CD-ROM, or Zip disk.
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 in hand, 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 chop, group and massage 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."
Reaching OutCampaigns 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).
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.
The most conspicuous parallel between the election process and CRM is in the follow-up to the initial voter contact. Just as salespeople regularly stay in touch with promising 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...
More than any other CRM technology, the Internet has 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 "Presidential Internetworking," this issue). "The objectives of a campaign remain the same. The tools to achieve that objective have changed with the Internet," says Jay MacAniff, director of communications at Aristotle, a campaign software and information systems vendor based in San Francisco, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.
MacAniff offers an example of how e-campaigning has radically altered the way campaigns get their messages to the people. "Let's say I'm running for a congressional seat in the 8th district in Pennsylvania, which sits outside of a major metropolitan area. If you buy broadcast television spots, you pay to reach everybody in the area. With a message on the Internet, you are targeting just the district, and it costs next to nothing," he says.
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?
It may be a while before political campaigns 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." Even if they had the money, could a standard lead management system accommodate, say, 14 million registered voting leads and still function? Who knows? But campaigns have already realized the benefit of other standard business CRM tools, and 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. While much has been made this political season of the benefits that the Internet and other technologies provide political salespeople as they pursue their voting leads, the real winners, say e-campaign experts, may be the voters. 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 MacAniff. "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."