5 Minutes with Stephen Quain, US Political Campaign Manager

A growing number of political campaigns are implementing marketing tactics and strategies to achieve political victories in Washington, in Canberra, and elsewhere. As Australia and the USA both face federal elections within the next year, marketing strategy is becoming more valued than ever before in the political arena.

We spoke with Stephen Quain, an experienced political operative who managed or served on ten political campaigns across the USA, from local to presidential election campaigns, and has recently added his experience to political campaigns here in Australia. Having relocated to Sydney in 2010 to attend the Australian Graduate School of Management, Stephen has been able to connect the worlds of political campaigns and business strategy and marketing.

How did you start your career as a political operative?

Politics is an industry like any other-one has to prove their abilities in order to be recognized. My first political experience was as a young university volunteer during the 2000 presidential election campaign in the US. A young candidate running for US Congress near my University in Connecticut asked for volunteers to help spread his campaign message across the university. I jumped at this opportunity.

By volunteering a lot of my time and energy for his campaign, I made a name for myself, and campaign staff took note of my hard work and enthusiasm. Ultimately this fresh new challenger, who embraced new campaign tactics to connect with young people, defeated a powerful 20 year incumbent in the 2000 election. This led to opportunities for me to work in his Congressional office in the US Capitol in Washington. From there my experience grew, and doors opened for a role managing field operations with President Bush’s re-election campaign in 2004, and a number of other political campaigns across the US.

The key to getting noticed in the political world is creativity, determination, and above all, hard work!

What are the similarities and differences between political campaigning and product marketing?

Political campaigns ARE product marketing. Voters are your customers. Each voter has one vote, and political campaigns strive to convince voters that their candidate is the best choice for their vote to lead their community, state, or country. Elections can be essentially equated to a “marketplace of ideas”-and political campaigns are assuming the role of “marketing gurus” in that arena.

While product marketing involves a marketing mix between product, cost, channel and communication, political campaigns are now imitating product marketing strategy and utilizing marketing tactics to promote candidates and communicate political messages via new consumer marketing channels. A new generation of political campaigners emerging, campaigners who are well aware of this reality and are adopting established business marketing tactics to improve their client’s standing with voters.

In an era where voters are increasingly distrustful of politicians and skeptical of political rhetoric, this task is increasingly difficult. Polling suggests that political leaders in both the US and Australia rarely attract more than 50% approval ratings, and generating broad excitement for a candidate is often a steep challenge. This is why we see political leaders also seeking out new ways of promoting themselves in the face of a skeptical electorate.

What processes and methodologies do political operatives utilize to plan and execute a successful marketing strategy to win an election?

From a political standpoint, successful marketing strategy is:
1) knowing the voters (customer)
2) knowing the candidate (product)
3) delivering your product to your customer (channel)

Political campaigners usually start with the voters. They will conduct extensive polling to understand the voters in their district… voter’s attitudes and how strongly the voters feel about the issues. In recent years, political campaigns have even begun utilizing consumer data to create detailed profiles of each voter.

After studying the voters they are seeking to attract, campaign managers use common marketing strategies such as a STP (Market Segmentation, Targeting and Positioning) and SWOT analysis to study their candidate’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. This will allow managers to focus attention on their candidate’s strengths, while downplaying or avoiding weaknesses. This will also allow candidates to focusing on the opportunities and threats posed by their political opponents. One increasing trend in political campaigns is the use of “opposition research.” Campaigns will employ special scouts to research and study a political opponent’s personal, professional, and political background in depth to seek out any misbehavior or controversy in an opponent’s past, to be used against them.

Finally, political marketing strategies focus a significant amount of attention on the channels by which they will deliver their message to the voters. While traditional channels such as billboards, television and radio ads, and print advertising are still widely used, political campaigns are increasingly using new and innovative means of delivering messages to voters in today’s political arena.

One innovative channel which political candidates are renewing in recent years is simple person-to-person “grassroots” networking to generate enthusiasm among voters. Made easier through online social networking tools, the active communication of a personal appeal of a friend or family member is proven to be many times more effective at attracting voters than the passive communication of a paid political advertisement. And person-to-person networking has another tremendous advantage: it is free. The challenge is in building a network of supporters who will conduct this personal campaign on your candidate’s behalf.

How do you segment your market?

In US elections, where there is no compulsory voting, candidates are focusing more and more attention on market segmentation because they must push their supporters to “turn out” to vote at the polls, and for that to happen they must compile a list of trusted supporters to turn out.

This process usually begins with party registration; however, nowadays, fully one-third of US voters register with neither political party-and much higher in Australia. These are the persuadable “independent” voters which candidates fight so hard to win over. Parties and candidates have traditionally segmented this “market” by a number of demographic and sociographic factors… gender, age, race, religion, economic status. As elections have gotten closer and closer in recent years, political campaigns have dug deeper to collect as much information as possible about their market in an effort to leave no stone unturned. Campaigns now delve deep into voters’ behavior, compiling information such as profession, gun ownership, home schooling, membership in religious and professional groups, hunting and fishing licensees, even magazine subscriptions. This information can be used by political campaigns to target voters who are more or less “likely” to support their campaign, thus honing in on the voters that are most persuadable and conserving resources.

What process do you undertake to develop a political candidate’s value proposition and unique selling points?

It has been theorized that a politicians’ value proposition, in a purely marketing sense, is often not so much in what they promise to do for you as a voter, but how that politician makes a voter feel-in an emotional sense. This has strong implications for the political process everywhere.

Political campaigns in both the US and Australia have traditionally been marked by a strong focus on the “wholesale” aspects of the parties and candidates, by which a voter seeks to answer “Where does this candidate stand on the issues which I care about?”

However, as advertising has expanded across many new media… television, movies, internet, mobile communication, there has been a strong trend, especially in US Presidential politics, towards so-called “retail” politics… which focuses on the personality and “likeability” of candidates. This has prompted voters to change their consideration from “where does this candidate stand on a particular issue” to “do I like this candidate?” This shift has compelled candidates to try to connect with the voters not only on a political level, but on a personal level as well.

Candidates, especially at the national level, must now focus equal attention on not only on convincing voters that they agree the issues, but also building a personal connection with voters.

What can product marketers learn from political campaigning practices?

While a growing number of product marketers have succeeded in using marketing to build a personal connection with their market, I believe that political campaigns are taking the lead in person-to-person marketing tactics. Here’s why: many political campaigns have achieved victory by social networking from the ground up-a “grassroots” strategy. They recruit a small core of supporters to personally recruit more supporters from their personal network, and use that network to recruit more supporters, and use those to recruit more, etc. Political campaigns, especially in the US, have effectively tapped into this new marketing tactic, effectively using personal networking to gain support.

A perfect example of this tactic is exhibited in President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. Obama was able to successfully recruit, by some accounts, six million volunteers across America. This means one out of every 50 Americans volunteered for Obama’s campaign. The success of building such a large army of volunteers is through this personal networking, which his campaign realized early and harnessed so well.

Why is this marketing strategy so successful? First, it uses the energy and networking of existing supporters/customers to grow its own network. But even more effectively, in addition to television, radio, and internet ads, this type of campaign utilizes the most effective sales pitch: word-of-mouth. Imagine watching a 30 second TV ad to vote for a political candidate… or buy a product for that matter. Then imagine an impassioned endorsement of a political candidate-or a product-from a friend or family member. Which is more likely to win you over?

Based on your experience with working on both American and Australian political campaigns, what are your observations on what the differences are between how marketing is carried out?

There are two important differences between US and Australian campaigns. The first is financial. US political campaigns attract enormous amounts money to finance expensive television ads, direct mail campaigns, and large campaign staffs. The 2008 Presidential election was the most expensive in history, in which the two candidates spent a total of US$1 billion to win over voters. The upcoming 2012 Presidential election is expected to reach nearly US$1.5 billion, not counting third party spending and lower-ballot races.

Australia has nowhere near the US level of campaign spending, but this is all the more reason for Australian political campaigns to utilize relatively inexpensive yet highly effective marking tactics like grassroots and social networking in order to win over voters more effectively and at much less cost than expensive television and radio ads and direct mail campaigns.

How does social media, and recent technological advances in general, change political campaigning?

While the basic content political messages haven’t changed much over the years, advances in technology have radically altered the landscape of how those messages can be delivered.

In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, political advertising focused on broadcast media, such as television, radio, and print media. A particular message could be delivered to a single media market, at a particular time. The most sophisticated, well-funded campaigns were able to send personalized direct mail or telephone calls tailored to a particular voter.

The internet, social media and mobile technology have dramatically altered the way campaigns now communicate. While television, radio, and print media are still used to broadcast a message to set the tone of the election, campaigns now use social media to quickly, easily, and cheaply send messages to a number of target audiences. Much of the focus on so-called “new media” is driven by efforts for cost-efficiency in an arena where every penny counts. But political advertisers are realizing that voters are spending less time watching television, and more time on Facebook, mobile phones, and the internet. Advertisers are now seeking to engage in a conversation with voters “where the voters are,” which is trending now towards new channels in the internet, social media, and mobile technology. These are the future of political advertising.

Mobile text messages, unlike email, are rarely spam filtered and have a much higher read-rate. This makes a personal text message to voters much more effective than email, and if collected alongside other personal information, can be targeted towards different market segments with issue-specific information.

YouTube has been an exciting medium for broadcasting advertisements-without the expense of television ads. With the advent of YouTube, many political advertisements now are produced solely for YouTube viewers, never even reaching television airwaves. This is a cheap but effective means to reach audiences with second-tier political messages.

Facebook and Twitter allow campaigns to quickly communicate with their supporters about political issues on a daily basis, and even promote campaign rallies (in the 2008 US presidential campaign drew up to 100,000 voters at a time to see the candidates speak.)

What innovative product marketing practices do you think are likely to be employed by Australian and US political parties for the upcoming elections?

In recent years, as these channels have become more and more crowded with marketing of all types, voters have begun to “tune out” the overwhelming number of messages they receive in a day. It has been estimated that the average consumer is bombarded with over 3,000 advertising messages per day, in one form or another. Political campaigns realized that, in order for their messages to resonate with voters, they must “cut through” the buzz of advertising that most voters receive every day. This is a product marketing challenge that most B2B and B2C marketing managers face as well.

Most have concluded that personal, face-to-face contact with voters-preferably through a friend or family member-is quickly becoming the most effective way to “cut through” the buzz of advertising messages that voters receive. The most effective way to reach voters with a message which will resonate is to have it delivered by those the voter trusts most. The challenge is to build the social network of support and communicate with it effectively in order to reach the largest target audience possible.