How big data and intuition won Obama the last election

Big data and influence were some of the subjects under the microscope at the PR Council's Critical Issues Forum event in Manhattan on Thursday.

NEW YORK: President Obama won the last election through a remorseless focus on data, continual testing, and a touch of intuition, according to former Obama for America campaign digital guru Teddy Goff.

Goff, now a partner at DC-based digital consultancy Precision, shared the secret sauce behind Obama’s election victory at the PR Council’s Critical Issues Forum in New York City on Thursday, explaining how something as tiny as a change in font color on a mailing from gray to black could increase response rates by 15%.

In fact, Obama went into the election knowing he was going to be victorious, mainly due to his team’s analysis of early voting data, Goff said.

"I always wondered why the Republicans didn’t use early voting to model the data," he said.

Goff outlined how the Democrats tested dozens of subject lines for email marketing. Negative lines such as "I will be outspent" – which raised $2.4 million in donations – worked much better via email than social media. Winning messages on email tended to be more fear-based, such as ‘Scary number’ and ‘Last chance': hope and change lines weren’t so popular.

But the fear factor didn’t work as well on social media.

"People are cognizant of reflecting something about themselves when they share on social, and they don’t want to be seen as being negative," said Goff. "It’s the difference between a private action and being socially visible."

Testing has to be continuous as well, to discover whether a strategy is a new best practice or just a novelty effect. And users of big data should be careful not to attribute too much weight to a particular outcome without qualitative research backup.

Goff recounted the story of a supporter who had been on the Democrat mailing list from the start of their activity, but had never donated. When she finally did, the campaign called her to find out why. They discovered she had watched Paul Ryan on MSNBC the previous night and gotten so angry by something he said that she decided to donate to Obama the next day when a fundraising email came through.

Finally, Goff warned against trusting everything to the numbers. Sometimes it’s about authenticity, gut intuition, creativity, and taking risks.

In 2008, there was a big debate on the campaign trail about the gas tax issue, with both the McCain and Clinton camps pushing for a tax holiday that would bring down prices.

"Despite all the data being against it and the proposal sounding good on cable TV, [the tax holiday] wasn’t going to help the problem long-term," said Goff, who explained how campaign manager and senior adviser David Plouffe – now SVP of policy and strategy for Uber – decided Obama should buck the data, take a stand, and oppose the tax.

"The [tax holiday] is the kind of Washington BS that prevents us from ever really solving tough problems," said Plouffe in an email to the campaign team. "We now have a real definitional battle on our hands: honesty versus pandering, trusting the American people versus selling them short."

By positioning Obama as standing up for "the truth" when an easier and more populist option was available, the Democrats stole the higher ground from their opponents and prospered in the campaign.

"Don’t always believe in big data," concluded Goff. "Sometimes a preponderance of data can obscure a problem rather than aid a solution."

Speaking in a separate session at the forum, Duncan Watts, principal researcher at Microsoft Research, explained his "buzz kill law of social media," casting doubt on PR’s obsession with influencers.

"Influencer mapping is a waste of time," said Watts. "Influencers exist, but they are not the be-all and end-all."

He noted that 99% of everything that gets adopted is within one hop of the source: "virality" only represents 1% of the landscape.

"Hence, [brands] should focus more on the 99% than the 1%," rather than chasing the dream of a one-in-a-billion viral outcome such as Gangnam Style or the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

Watts believes PR and marketing pros concentrate too much on influentials rather than the "easily influenced."

"We have to get long chains of susceptible people who are prepared to influence others," said Watts. "It’s the equivalent of the dry underbrush that sparks a forest fire."

He also advised the PR industry not to forget about the powerful impact of mass media.

"The media never went away," he added. "Even with the fragmentation of channels and the internet, broadcast media is still a major driver of exposure."

 And that’s a classic example of the difference between popularity and virality, according to Watts.

"The Super Bowl is not viral - it’s just popular," he said. "Popularity can come from being on a major media channel."

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