How Direct Marketing Won and Lost the Election

The most remarkable thing about this election for direct marketers wasn’t who won or lost but the decisive role direct marketing played in the final outcome. I was lucky enough to attend a post-election discussion with Darrel M. West, formerly a Brown Professor and currently a VP at the Brookings Institute.

Here are some of the key take aways for catalogers:

Know your customers.

The Obama campaign set up hundreds of local offices long before the election and really connected with his base, understanding what they cared about and keeping them motivated. The Romney campaign had fewer local offices and never got the same grass-roots support.

Planning beats reacting.

More than half of any campaign’s budget is for advertising. Team Obama planned ahead and made their media buys when the price was low so their dollars went further. Team Romney wanted to be strategic and so they delayed their media spend till the end and paid top dollar. While this made them more nimble, they had to spend 10 times more and so ran out of money when they needed it most.

Technology matters and you need to test it prior to rollout.

Obama is a tech guy and his camp set up a realtime cloud solution to aid his campaign’s get out the vote efforts. It worked brilliantly and campaign workers from anywhere in the country could connect with information for likely voters anywhere in the country, allowing workers to focus on key swing states and react to changes on the fly. The Romney camp relied on a new system that had not been well-tested prior to the election and which failed miserably when put under the extreme load of election day. It crashed and the campaign had to send out PDF’s to workers which made sharing the workload difficult.

Big Data and Social Media are not well understood even at the Brookings Institute.

Darrel seemed to seriously overestimate the one-on-one targeting potential of Facebook advertising as well as what sales information could be tracked and how useful it would be. I found myself grinning and thinking “if only we could get all that data and actually match it back.” and “There is no way those databases are even remotely connected.” Obama out tweeted and out shared Romney but Facebook advertising has limited selects and matching Facebook fans to their purchases at Target or the Wal-Mart is, as far as I know, urban legend. Would Farmville players be more likely to vote republican and which way would Bejewled Blitz players go?

Now that the election is over we should all pay special attention to how congress views our privacy policies. I am now 100% certain that data collection is not well understood and we need to take that seriously to avoid more government regulation. Bloomberg news once branded a friend of mine as a “Shadowy Puppet Master”. (I offered to make his kids “My Daddy is a Shadowy Puppet Master and all I got was a lousy tee-shirt” tee’s.) When we got done laughing about it, I realized that the outcome of change can be outrage if it isn’t understood. Even smart, well-connected people see direct marketers as being more powerful and having greater reach than we actually do. Movies and TV shows make it seem like every database is hackable and easily accessed. Heck, you can hijack an alien spaceship with a laptop and two sticks of gum. The average Joe could easily be convinced that data collection is dangerous. That fear would be a boon for politicians in an election year if there are no other more pressing issues.

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Sarah Fletcher
President/Creative Director
Catalog Design Studios Inc.
Co-Founder Catalog University