What the 2012 Election Can Teach Business about Building Relations

By Hall, Robert | ABA Bank Marketing, January-February 2013 | Go to article overview

What the 2012 Election Can Teach Business about Building Relations


Hall, Robert, ABA Bank Marketing


POLITICS ASIDE, ONE OF THE DEFINING STORIES OF THE 2012 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION was how innovative sales and marketing efforts--air cover (sophisticated voter information data-base) combined with a torrid ground game (an army of committed front-line workers equipped with powerful data)--delivered unexpected, targeted voter turnout. Even the Romney campaign was in awe of the Obama "ground game." While much has been made about Obama's sophisticated use of Narwhal, its second-generation voter-information technology system, and, "Orca," Romney's ambitious data-base-monitoring and voter-activation system (which crashed on election-day)--the game-changer was the Obama campaign's capability to systematically build personal relationships that translated into votes. Regardless of how you feel about the candidates and the issues, it is instructive to examine how sales and marketing efforts combined to monitor, build and activate targeted voter relationships that exceeded most pundit expectations.

The value of relationship-building

Business, like politics, is about getting votes--customer votes. There are many tools, initiatives and resources to consider. Internal debates swirl about investing in advertising vs. sales efforts, social media vs. face-to-face, more branches vs. more customer data or mobile technology. And, we struggle to integrate them all. The 2012 presidential campaigns faced similar investment issues regarding how to invest a combined $2 billion war chest (roughly $16 each for 124 million votes cast, plus the $18.50 per vote Romney spent in the primary). While their strategies, methods, and tools are common to business, it seems the Obama campaign was exceptional in plotting and executing a sustained four-year relationship-building strategy, especially in swing states like Ohio.

First, their "voter" (customer) information system focused on local relationship building. It had many advantages: it was launched in the 2008 election and was proven, had great scale, powerful polling and analytical capabilities, and it did not crash on Election Day. Most uniquely, it delivered on its long-term, relationship-building vision: to translate voter insights into relationship-building actions locally (more on that shortly). The Obama campaign started collecting and refining this data in 2008 and by 2012 it was quite refined. Tomi T. Ahonen in a fascinating analysis here [http://communities-dominate.blogs.com] describes the early investment this way,"Romney's team consistently every month spent most of its massive millions in campaign funds on TV ads. Obarna's team not one month had its biggest spend in TV advertising. It biggest spend every month was the mysterious Project Narwhal."

Second, they developed a prolific local "relationship-building" distribution system. In the key battle-ground state of Ohio, Obama had nearly 100 more local offices than Romney. Slate quoted an admiring top Romney aide, postelection: "They spent four years working block by block, person by person to build their coalition," Those offices were created to build personal contacts, the most durable and useful way to gain voters. By comparison, Romney's time constraints meant relying heavily on highly flawed purchased voter lists.

Third, a massive army of volunteers used the powerful information to repeatedly go door-to-door to build local relationships. Ahonen describes the difference between Romney's 34,000 and Obama's army: "No, that's merely a mob. That's a boy scouts dub, 34 thousand volunteers. The Obama campaign had recruited ... over 300,000 volunteers. …

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