Learning from political fundraising: hypercustomization

fireworks4_amkOn the path to his win in Iowa, Ted Cruz took an unusual position for a presidential candidate. He spoke out against fireworks regulations.

Usually, Iowa contests focus on broad national issues that a person would be expected to lead on as president (plus ethanol).  Fireworks range as a national issue somewhere around garbage collection and why-don’t-they-do-something-about-that-tacky-display-of-Christmas-lights-on-Steve-and-Janice’s-house.

But from a data perspective, the Cruz campaign knew its supporters.  There’s a great article on this here.  Here’s a quote:

“They had divided voters by faction, self-identified ideology, religious belief, personality type—creating 150 different clusters of Iowa caucus-goers—down to sixty Iowa Republicans its statistical models showed as likely to share Cruz’s desire to end a state ban on fireworks sales.

Unlike most of his opponents, Cruz has put a voter-contact specialist in charge of his operation, and it shows in nearly every aspect of the campaign he has run thus far and intends to sustain through a long primary season. Cruz, it should be noted, had no public position on Iowa’s fireworks law until his analysts identified sixty votes that could potentially be swayed because of it.”

As we unpack this, there are several lessons we nonprofits can take from this operation:

The leadership role of direct marketing.  Cruz’s campaign is run by a direct marketing specialist.  Contrast this with Marco Rubio’s campaign, which is run by a general consultant, or Jeb Bush’s, which was run by a communications specialist.  As a result, analytics and polling in the campaign are skewed not toward what generalized messages do best with a focus group or are the least offensive to the most number of people.    

In fact, in the campaign, the analytics team has a broader set of responsibilities than normal.  Analytics drive targeting decisions online and offline.

The imperative to know your constituents.  Much political polling is focused on knowing donors in the aggregate.  The Cruz campaign wanted to know them specifically.  So they gathered not just people who were supporters and asked them about local concerns.  This came up with 77 different ideas, including red-light cameras and, as you probably guessed, fireworks bans.  We’ve talked about knowing your constituents by their deeds and by asking them; what’s important about this example is the specificity of the questions.  It’s not “what do you like or dislike”; it’s “what do you care about.”

Testing to know potential constituents.  One the campaign had these ideas, they tested them online with Facebook ads.  The ads weren’t specific to the Cruz campaign, but rather asked people to sign up for more information about that issue.  Once they had these data, they not only had specific knowledge of what people cared about, but the grist for the mill of data operations that could model Iowa voters and their key issues.  

Focusing on actual goals.  Cruz’s end goal is to drive voters, just like ours is to drive donations.  By simplifying things down to what gets people to pull their levers/hit the button/punch the chad, they had a crystallizing focus.  One can debate whether this is a good thing, as the campaign sent out a controversial Voting Violation mailing that attempted to shame infrequent voters with Cruz leanings to the polls.  (It should be noted that these mailings are the part of campaign lore — they’ve been tested and found to be very efficient, but few campaigns have ever wanted to backlash that comes inevitably from them.)  But that focus on things that matter, rather than vanity metrics like Facebook likes , help with strategy.

Hypertargeting: All of this led to some of the most targeted direct marketing that has been seen in the political world.  When telemarketing was employed for particular voters, not only would the message reflect what they cared about (e.g., fireworks bans) but also why they cared about it (e.g., missed fun at 4th of July versus what seems to some as an arbitrary attack on liberty).  This came from both people’s own survey results and what models indicated would matter to them.

So now, let’s look at this in a nonprofit direct marketing context.  How well do you know your donors and potential donors?  Or how well do you really know them?  And how well do you play that back to them?

I’ve frequently advocated here playing back tactics to donors that we know work for them and focusing our efforts on mission areas and activities we know they will support at a segment level.

But this is a different game altogether.  The ability to project not only what someone will support, but why they well, and designing mail pieces, call scripts, and emails that touch their hearts will be a critical part of what we do.  And once you have this information, it’s cheap to do: if you are sending a mail piece or making a phone call already, it’s simplicity itself to change out key paragraphs that will make the difference in the donation decision.

This also applies in efforts to get donors to transition from one-time giving to monthly giving or mid-major gift programs.

So, how can you, today, get smarter about your donors and show them you are smarter about them?

Learning from political fundraising: hypercustomization

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