Measurement lessons from the campaign trail

“Test, optimize, test” and other mantras from the political arena.

Democrat Joe Biden campaigns in Pittsburgh on Monday. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
Democrat Joe Biden campaigns in Pittsburgh on Monday. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

Is running — and measuring — a consumer PR campaign really that different from a political campaign? 

Not really, say experts, and PR pros could learn a few lessons from the campaign trail.

The early lessons are fairly simple: clearly define your goals and audience, measure to better understand everything from your audience’s thinking and beliefs to its values and what it actually does and then ensure a message is resonating with a targeted audience. Or, as Aaron Guiterman, EVP and senior adviser for public affairs at Edelman, says, “test, optimize, test.” 

These steps may be familiar, but there are lessons to be learned in each area from political campaigns.

Unlike most brand initiatives, political campaigns micro-target audiences. Guiterman says this is because an audience is not “monolithic.”

“It’ll break not just by demographics and geography but also by shared values and passion,” he says. “The more data we can compile to define audience segments and differentiators is critical.”

James Baril, data and behavioral science practice lead at Vox Global, agrees, adding one more component: how audiences are likely to act.

Therefore, developing the right content for the right audience is the next step. 

“You need a great partnership with your content team to ensure your content is not only creative and compelling, but also relevant to each segment you are targeting,” Baril says. 

From there, using the combined data from quantitative research, polling, digital signals and, in the case of political campaigns, voter profiles and voter segments, Guiterman calls for mapping messaging in a real-time, responsive manner. This enables a campaign, or a marcomms team, to reach audiences that would otherwise have been missed in a broader profile. Employing all of these types of data is critical because while some show how people think, others, like digital data, actually indicate what people do on the other side of their computer. 

Guiterman’s colleague, global chief data and analytics officer, Yannis Kotziagkiaouridis, adds that this piece is important to understand what makes a person get out to vote or get out to buy. 

“When you make a choice to buy something that costs $2 more because it’s a brand name even though the ingredients are the same, it’s because of an emotional attachment to the brand,” he says.

This practice of identifying and targeting individuals is key in a political campaign, but most brand campaigns still focus on overall brand characteristics, argues Mike Moschella, director of DKC Analytics.

Nevertheless, he says that some brands are beginning to understand the value of this more challenging exercise of identifying the support and influence levels of individuals. With decreasing levels of TV consumption, brands can no longer rely on the broad reach of commercials, “meaning you have to reach audiences in a more individualized manner,” Moschella says.

Getting to this level of granularity is time- and labor-intensive, but political campaigns can provide insight into how to do it effectively, regardless of the type of marketing push. Moschella notes that political campaigns create a “central warehouse” called a voter file, which is used to identify persuasion targets and get out the vote (GOTV) targets. Brands that are smart can use Facebook, Instagram and Google to create something similar.

“A brand version of a persuasion audience is people with interest patterns that are mapped by these ad engines,” he explains. “The brand version of the GOTV audience is the remarketing audience. If you apply the same principles of disciplined and targeted and staged communication as you would in a campaign, you can almost always significantly improve marketing ROI.”

John Randall, SVP of public affairs and crisis at BCW, agrees. He calls for segmenting audiences and delivering specific messages to them that communicators know will resonate As this content is delivered, marketers can use reactive data and monitoring to measure success and impact.

This monitoring component is essential, but it has to be done in the right way.

“The all-important question is, ‘why are you monitoring?’” says Baril. “Data is brilliant at providing insights, but you only get those insights when you tailor monitoring to the unique needs of that specific campaign and focus on your precise goals.” 

To be helpful and successful, monitoring should be bolstered by the answer to such questions as “what does this mean?” “why does this matter?” and “what can I do about it?”

And more isn’t always better. 

“One of the tricks to effectively leveraging data is limiting the data you are using and measuring to the bare minimum that needs to be used to make it a success,” says Randall. “There are myriad tools you can leverage, but if you’re not using the tools appropriately and implementing guard rails, you’ll do more harm than good.”

How can PR pros know what’s working? Return to Guiterman’s mantra of test, optimize, test. 

“Test the messaging, audience and media vehicle, optimize against what is performing best, and then rotate new approaches into the methodology,” he says. “This allows you to really understand at a granular level what’s working with what audiences so you can capitalize on that momentum while maximizing your ROI.”

The most important area where political campaigns succeed, and where consumer campaigns struggle, is advocacy. 

People regularly donate thousands of hours of their time for free to political campaigns, and that passion is a crucial part of a campaign’s success. However, brands may not have “cracked the code” of how to do this in a commercial environment, argues Kotziagkiaouridis. 

Guiterman is more optimistic, suggesting that brands are “on the precipice” of brand advocacy and the key may lie in identifying mutually shared values that resonate with the consumer. 

“Engaging with the consumer in a mutually respected approach allows them to engage in a way that goes beyond just buying and consuming,” he says. One way for a brand to get started is by getting involved with political and social issues that reflect and demonstrate its values.

Each of these lessons from political campaigns are important, but none guarantee success on their own. Every component must work in concert with one another. And ultimately, according to Randall, there is only one sure way to fail: by failing to set goals and optimize these goals to deliver the right message.

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