Always-On Marketing: what it is, what it’s not, and what politics should learn from it.

(This is the third post in a series comparing political and brand communication)

What I most admire in political communication, and without any doubt what businesses would benefit the most from, is its pragmatism, its focus on the one thing that matters: voting. Yes, perception, fundraising, volunteering, word-of-mouth are all important, but the only thing that really matters in the end is how many people will turn out on election day and vote for that one candidate.

This is in remarkable contrast with brand advertising, where we plan our campaigns to address KPIs like brand metrics, data capture, website visits or Facebook likes, as opposed to the behaviour that really creates value. Even campaigns rewarded for their effectiveness highlight their business results, but fail to demonstrate how they were engineered around the intended behaviour: more often than not, they highlight a disproportionate effect on the usual metrics (perception, website visits…) and imply that this somehow led to achieving the objective, but in a way that is hard to really pin down.

A good political campaign manager can instead trace the number of votes in each constituency back to the “get out the vote” drives and calls, to the field operations and to media communication within an acceptable degree of statistical significance.

Of course, this is greatly helped by the one key difference between votes and purchases: elections take place in one day, the same for everyone. This makes it much easier to plan investments and messages, concentrate efforts and mobilize voters.

However, is the focus on election day doing more harm than good to politics?

***

There’s a big literature on how winning elections has gone from being a mean to being an end in itself,  and how governments have failed to execute the policies they were voted for, opting instead to prepare for the next election cycle. What many commentators do not understand is that this is not a triumph of marketing, but rather its failure.

The draining drive towards a cathartic instant when change would happen and a new time would start makes it incredibly hard for politicians to maintain support and use it when it matters even more than on election day: every single day after it, when policies must be passed and enacted through a number of obstacles.

It’s not for a lack of effort: Organizing for America was created precisely for the purpose of mobilizing voters in favour of Obama’s legislative agenda. Yet Organizing for America failed. The greatest support-generating machine in political history failed to generate support for its first major, defining policy: health reform.

I believe this is due to a fundamental misunderstanding of marketing (hence its failure): marketing is seen as what leads to a sale. It’s entirely normal then that once the sale is secured, and the elections are won, the best talents move on to the act of governing and policy-making (or backroom politics) until the next election cycle, where they’re brought back into the field to secure re-purchase.

This is a familiar pattern to anyone who runs a commercial business, and this is where politics can learn from Always-on Marketing.

But first we should define what it is.

Always-on Marketing is not monitoring what’s happening and reacting in real time: that’s all right and good, but it’s only tactical behaviour that leads to spot promotions and damage control. It doesn’t affect the fundamentals of the relationship between you, your consumer, and your product.

Always-on Marketing is not pestering your consumers every day trying to engage with them and get them to join the conversation: that’s a childish behaviour that provides no value apart from feeding your brand’s ego.

Always-on Marketing is also not Customer Relationship Management, if by that we mean an effort to provide a satisfactory service and performance in order to secure the next sale. There’s much more to that.

Always-on Marketing is designing your product to be a journey: the product is just the ticket, the real value is in the ride. And your role as a brand is to point out the exciting directions where people can go, and help them get there. Again, the first obvious example is iPhone: the phone is the ticket, but Apple soon moved on to advertising apps, and then games, and then films and tv-series… On a smaller scale, Lurpak is doing the same.

There are obviously some products that are not suitable for this (toilet paper, anyone?), and in particular we can say that Always-on Marketing works at its best with products that are platforms.

Yet too many of them are still not marketed this way, starting from politics.

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Politics is fundamentally a platform: a series of relationships between elected officials, activists and voters, that can be used to activate policies.

Looking at it through the filter of Always-on Marketing allows us to bridge the gap between campaigning and governing, and look at the system as a whole, where:

– elections give candidates an opportunity to build the platform

– the strongest platform wins the elections

– the platform is activated by policies, that are at the same time its purpose and its vital support

– if that’s the case, maintaining the platform is as important as using it to activate the policies, so as much talent should go into the former as into the latter

– actually, activating the policies equals maintaining the platform, and the other way around, so the same talent should do both

In  politics, your best policy expert is also your best community organizer.

In business, your best experience designer is also your best evangelist.

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