May 8, 2010 Michael Bickerton
I recently had the pleasure of listening to David Plouffe, Campaign Manager for U.S. President Barack Obama, give his perspective on what Team Obama did well and even what they might have handled better, during the campaign for the Presidency. Corporate America could take a few valuable lessons from closer examination.
There may be no finer example of how committed action, using every tool available, zigging when your competition is zagging, leads to annihilation of your competitor(s).
LESSON 1: Be open to new ways of doing things. The world is changing around you. Learn to listen and adapt. Lose the arrogance of success – that was in the past.
Obama beat McCain. Period. And not by good fortune, because the stars aligned or even because the citizens of the US were ready for change. They were, but the playing field was level – The McCain camp could have taken advantage of that in their own way. It was by strategic design, that in turn was very well managed – David referred to it as Command & Control – and executed on the front lines with precision. Let’s examine why David thought it went so well.
First, the people. They were the best at what they did. Of course you say – that’s fundamental to every business. But they actually practiced it, rather than talk about it and pay it lip service. For example, who did they recruit to lead the New Media team? Chris Hughes, one of the Founders of Facebook. Many believe it was their impressive use of New Media that won them the election. Their entire leadership team consisted of the finest talent they knew of.
LESSON 2: Your competitors are using these difficult economic times to trade up – to find or create THE best people in their field. Have a good hard look at your key leaders. Are they the best at what they do, or can you offer them training & development?
Then, like every successful business venture we have seen, they set out to execute in a smart way, with integrity and consistency. David stressed this several times throughout his presentation and he truly believes it was integral to the success of their campaign. It was smart to narrow the positioning to a single message “hopeful change”. They were always willing and open to adjust tactics – but never the core message. And when someone in the network went off message they were quickly and professionally “wrapped on the knuckles” and reminded what this campaign was all about. They knew that the way to get Obama to the White House was to be focused and single-minded and to not let the media determine the issues.
LESSON 3: Pick a SINGLE, RELEVANT idea and be true to it.
It was smart to use New Media to interest, empower and mobilize the youth, who then infected their apathetic parents with their enthusiasm. The competition was paying lip-service to New Media. Team Obama used it to create a groundswell – a grass roots movement that engaged US citizens who had never voted or paid any attention to political campaigns. In fact 50% of the financial contributors to Obama’s campaign were first-time contributors to politicians. And the Obama camp raised almost twice the funds that the McCain team raised.
LESSON 4: Be aggressive about searching for new channels and new applications of your product/service. Even new countries. It drives growth.
They consistently went to “where the people live” and “spoke their language” – always staying on point, while connecting with people the way people wanted to connect. Strategy was critical. David believes that “1 flawed strategy is better than 6 different strategies”. They spent a lot of time in the early days developing a SINGLE, RELEVANT message.
LESSON 5: Talk WITH your audience not AT them, and fish where the fish are.
They segmented the segments, talking about what was important to each of them, but it was always wrapped in the same cloak – the core message. And they always kept their eye on the end game. It is sometimes easy to get caught up in the polls and the feedback. It is important to listen and adapt your tactics, while always staying true to the original strategy. No one was allowed to go off message.
LESSON 6: Segment, segment, segment, always staying true to your core message.
They did not manage a traditional political campaign, following the traditional political campaign playbook that allowed their competitor to predict and pre-empt their moves. The McCain camp was on their heels from the start and Team Obama did all of the little things well. All of the things that win elections. It’s like any professional sports coach will say. “If we do the basics – the little things – well, we give ourselves a chance to win.”
LESSON 7: Change the rules and do the “small” things well.
Their 2-minute ads were risky, because they gave up frequency for reach, but they believed they needed to CONNECT with people on important issues and make it clear where Obama stood on these issues. They all linked back to hope and change.
LESSON 8: After you think it through, take risks.
They tapped into new channels – channels like Youth. Their use of Twitter and Facebook and YouTube was brilliant. They empowered and mobilized the youth vote and David truly believes that inspired positive action by the parents. Parents were shocked at how involved and committed their kids were. And they listened to their kids talk seriously about serious issues facing America and the world. Corporate America should be paying particular attention to this factor.
LESSON 9: Respect the influences. They can change the result.
Putting their message in the hands of the Youth felt risky, but it was the best thing they could have done. The kids generated some great material and they gave them the facts so the message would be valuable to the campaign. They found when they let people put it in their own words, instead of a canned, professional pitch, it was even more believable to their peers. It was, in David’s words “powerful and authentic”.
Authenticity was critical, as the Youth – probably because of their exposure to the World Wide Web – have great “B.S. Meters”. They can smell a fake a mile away. So transparency and being real – even when you make mistakes, was critical.
LESSON 10: Practice Open Book Marketing. You’re usually only kidding yourself anyway. Get real.
When asked at the end of the presentation “What surprised you the most?” David did not hesitate. He said the entire team was blown away by how powerful VIDEO was at getting people to take action. He believed that some of the “VIDEO moments were pivotal” to the campaign. By the end of the campaign, almost everything they did in the communication area had a VIDEO component to it.
Wake up to the opportunity that web video represents Corporate America! Your competitors are and they are getting traction. Streaming technology is improving daily and video production costs are falling fast. We have not deployed video because we perceive it to be expensive to produce (it used to be). But we have to live in the present. It is within the reach of most businesses today, but you must engage.
LESSON 11: Stay open to change. Old perceptions limit today’s opportunities. Where are we being “trained fleas” in our business practices?
David also cautioned “Don’t get caught up in new technologies. They were there to serve our end game. Don’t make them the game”. Good sound advice.
Raven5, April 2010