Photo: David Prestidge

What Marketers Can Learn from Political Campaigns

While Madison Avenue has historically schooled political campaigns on how to change hearts and minds, the young team of digital strategist that helped Barack Obama secure his 2008 (and 2012) presidencies rewrote the book on how to persuade and motivate. Here's what they learned:

Go back all the way to the seventies and you'll locate the precise moment American political campaigns really understood technology and its implications for reaching mass audiences. With the launch of the famous Daisy ad, (a young child plucks flower petals moments before a nuclear Holocaust ends her play) the way political campaigns operated changed overnight.

"If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less."


Barack Obama's team of young digital strategists have turned that model on its head with their grassroots campaign in 2008 that leveraged social media and emerging technologies in ways their opponents (and many industries) still haven't replicated. They shared their lessons at SXSW 2015 in a panel titled "What Marketers Can Learn From Political Campaigns."

Their secret was recognizing new emerging "markets" (Latinos, millennials, college students) and reaching them with innovative micro-targeting, informed by well-crafted analytics data bundled to authentic storytelling and new forms of social advocacy driven by authentic, emotionally-compelling narratives.

Precision & Agility

In the final weeks of the 2012 presidential campaign Romney's team boasted they'd claim several large states critical to winning the election. The campaign hoped that would prompt Democrats to abandon those states in favor of better bets.

Instead they doubled down.

That's because Blue State operative Peter Bourchard new better. With carefully analyzed data honed and tested for months, the team knew with certainty which states would most likely fall to their opponnent and which were most likely secured.

Peter Bouchard’s team, drawing on carefully curated data, knew how likely each state would vote Demorcatic and planned accordingly even when their opponent was declaring victory.

Social Advocacy

No matter what the spend, in terms of pure persuasive power, a person-to-person relationship will always outperform even the most ambitious and successful advertisement. That's in large part because of the power of the ask granted to trusted, credible sources over self-interested outsiders.

In 2008, Obama's campaign team amplified relationships culled from clean, targeted data and, through social advocacy on popular social networks, aligned the reach of traditional advertising to genuine and intimate relationships built through time on standard and emerging social platforms.

The strategy worked, transforming political activits into friends and trusted advisors. The team played a long game. After months of building trust they had the credibility and standing to ask their followers to take specific and measurable actions.


"Your strategy is your point of view and if you're clear about your point of view you end up in a virtuous cycle."

Authentic Storytelling

A tightly-defined social campaign informed by clean, precise data won't gain any traction if your followers (and not yet followers) find you inauthentic and, most importantly, if your point of view doesn't offer any value or if messaging fails to offer an emotionally-compellling narrative.

"We're hardwired to understand stories--we need stories. We need narrative and that narrative must be true."

Be coherent, offer a reasoned point of view that's emotionally compelling—not just a message.

What's Precision

Well curated data underlines the core of Blue State's stategies and ranks as the single greatest challenge to acheive.

That's in part because good data often contradicts expectations. The best analysts test early and often and expect to have illusions about what their customers want shattered at least half of the time.

Precision means not simply sifting through big data looking for data that supports subconscious biases but committing to teasing out the “smart data” and fostering a talent for hearing the signal through the noise.

"Remember results are based on actions, not on what your customer say. Carefully consider what they do."

That’s less talent, really, than a relentless commitment to multivariate testing and placing yourself in position to be proved wrong. Set your ego (and what you think you know about your customers) aside when the data guides your to conclusions that run counter to established belief.

David Prestidge

...is a writer, marketer and producer based in Austin, TX.