A political campaign is rife with challenges and pressures similar to those of a digital marketing endeavor: You have to juggle getting your message out on various platforms with managing your social media and having a crisis control strategy on hand. Todd Herman has straddled both these worlds. A longtime digital executive, Herman spend two years as the chief digital strategist for the Republican National Committee (RNC), leading them to victory in the 2010 elections.
Herman, who is speaking at the iMedia Brand summit in March, spoke with iMedia to share some insights from his 12 years in digital marketing, as well as his experience in Washington D.C.
iMedia Connection: What is the use and origin for the "three Cs"?
Todd Herman: Executives at media and technology companies used to ask me to boil down, to the bare essence, what the consumer drivers for adoption of digital alternatives were to linear broadcast (they are quite well understood by now, but "new media" actually used to be new). In 2004, I began to explain these drivers with the three C's: control, condense, and combine.
Todd Herman is the founder of Hour72//Marketing:
Smarter people than me will explain this in a more elegant way, but in just about every successful movement of traditional media into non-traditional distribution, you will find, to one degree or another, that the three C's help explain why consumers adopted it. In a succinct example, people want to control when and where they consume media; they want to condense those experiences down to only those portions of the media that they deem relevant (without being force-fed other elements); and they want to combine media without regard to things that only the industry cares about, like who owns a show or a piece of content.
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I have seen ad campaigns that seem to be respondent to the three C's; that's encouraging. You can take this much deeper, obviously: Consumers want to control exactly what media enters their home and their children's minds. I am one of many who no longer has any linear feed of media into our home, and that is one reason why, as well as a growing trend. I think this will continue to fragment media in new ways, driven along value lines, which in the age of "buying audiences" will necessitate new varieties of ads targeted at known values.
Consumers want to condense consumption times -- Twitter is a fantastic example of "info-sipping" taken to what might be considered a crazy degree -- but again, speaking as a focus group, I get directed to news stories through Twitter where I endeavor to do more than sip when something interests me. Micro-information blasts are here to stay -- let's just hope we don't all start believing what we read in seven seconds.
I have seen a few examples info snack-oriented ads in Twitter, which are more than just click-candy, that actually give me an info-blast -- Chrysler was one, Bing Mobile another. Combine, though, has proven the most change-inducing of the three C's. Facebook is many things; it is, though, very clearly a place where people choose to combine news consumption with share (or, as I call it, news propulsion); they combine personal lives with media curating. Facebook management has given people the ability to combine aspects of email with all the media-intensive aspects of microblogging.
iMedia: As a former political campaigner, to what extent should the political machine really monitor the social media responses -- or should they monitor them at all?
Herman: It varies, really. There are campaigns and political organizations that do this a lot; most of it through human monitoring. I am aware of some people in politics who are very interested in actual crowd-listening done by software, by companies like Recorded Future or PredictivEdge, to name two. It's safe to say that this hasn't taken a super-strong hold. As to whether it should be used, I would argue that, so long as they respect privacy -- and I mean really respect it -- then, yes it should.
Polling is one of the biggest aspects of political campaigning, and in some ways it's an area that is increasingly anachronistic. The difference between polling and social listening is similar to observing animals in a zoo versus in the wild; companies that really do social-listening well are observing people in a much more life-like environment than pollsters who encounter people who want to "sound smart" or please the pollster (of course people act differently in social media than they do at home, but are more likely themselves than being interviewed). Real crowd-monitoring, by that I mean very sophisticated systems, should replace polling entirely, but that will take time. Keep in mind, DC has yet to shift meaningful dollars to broadband video from TV -- that puts them almost 10 years behind the brand world.
It doesn't require sophisticated systems to make to make a measurable impact with social, though. We did not use listening technologies at the RNC. We actually did something more old-fashioned: We met as many people in our social-spheres are we could -- and that bore real fruit. It drove a campaign that raised $1.7 million in three-days, which was our record online fundraiser by a factor of 16. Twenty people with massive follower lists literally launched that campaign. We met these folks through our social feeds and helped inform them with the gracious assistance of our Research Director, Jeff Berkowitz, who is a big champion for modern campaigning. When we launched that campaign near midnight EST, those so-called weak connections propelled it. It raised $400,000 overnight and we know 95 percent came from Twitter and Facebook referrals, and that it started with those twenty really supportive social users. That 100:1 ROI event -- we spent only $17,000 on ads -- did not come from social-monitoring, it came from getting to know people in our social sphere who had followers numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
I contend that it is possible for brands to create similar impacts -- especially if they are able to work through broad principles and get aligned with coalition groups, something politics is brilliant at doing.
iMedia: What lessons can brands take from politicians when it come to damage control in the digital space?
Herman: With a few exceptions, I happen to think Republicans are very far behind the curve using digital in crisis control. So, this was an area of frustration for me and for a lot of direct media strategists and bloggers I know, but in that I learned a ton. Here are some insights.
- There is no such thing as "message control," there is only message collaboration. The moment a damaging event occurs, the Google-brain is creating its impression of you and the event. If you do not match link for link, trackback to trackback, robo-site for robo-site, the Google-brain will remember things the way your opponents or detractors painted them. If your detractors are cave-painting negatives about you, your side has to keep up with distributing your story.
- All stories "have legs" -- the Google-brain does not forget. You may well get away with not responding to something and cause the fervor to die-down, but the story will not "go away." Negative pieces without your corresponding counterbalance will make their way back into blogs and coverage for evermore -- and, when something else hits, they will add weight to the negative Google-juice of a search like "Brand Controversy." So, the phrase "does it have legs? " belongs in the same dust-bin as "roll down the window" and "LP."
- Press releases don't link-back. A press release is a fast way to get your opinion out there, but in the digital world, mass matters as much as speed. The bloggers I know don't do much with press releases and, they certainly don't engender link-backs to your site the same way a blog post on your site (with a link to existing blog coverage), followed by a guest vlog on another site and a live QA on one more will do that. Remember, you are teaching the Google-brain what you want it to know -- feed it good nutrition, not snacks.
- Social connections that are well cultivated are far from "weak links." During Chairman Steele's Bus Tour -- something I had almost no involvement with, which is important to this story I am about to tell -- the bus ran into a parked truck... oh, and someone snapped a picture... oh, and this was during the week that President Obama was saying the Republicans would "drive the car into a ditch"... oh, yeah and the person who took the photo tweeted it instantly. My communications director, who had his hands plenty full already, saw the tweet of the photo and pinged me. I didn't know this person, I couldn't direct message him because he wasn't following me, and I could not @him because that would surface in any story and draw attention from reporters. Using what Malcom Gladwell would call "weak connections," meaning social connections to people I had never met, I was able to surface the actual identity of the person, ascertain that he was a Republican, and call him to ask that he take the photo down, delete the tweet and ask his friends to delete their re-tweets, all of which he did, as did his friends. This happened in under 20 minutes. Had I been forced to find him on my own, it may not have happened at all -- that was my first real involvement with that tour, and it was a pretty important one. No story ran about that particular bus incident.
iMedia: Going into the 2010 election, what lessons did you take from 2008 in terms of digital strategy?
Herman: As much as I learned from reading papers like Learning From Obama, I learned just as much from all of my predecessors who were kind enough to huddle up with me, and the other political professionals in DC, who are easily some of the smartest people I have ever met.
From the President's success, I gleaned way too much to list here, so these are some highlights.
Stories are social and social stories win. Great digital story telling makes all the difference in the politics of persuasion. The President and his team -- Axelrod, Emanuel, and the like -- crafted a brilliant story about candidate Obama. The documents I have read about the campaign indicated that they employed behavioral psychologists as well as story experts; I would love to know if that's true. When we used crafted story -- in the case of my team, applying the principles of Joseph Campbell to our activist email program -- we lifted our email performance enormously. From what had been a pretty anemic three percent open and 15 percent action, we drew an average 44 percent open and 27 percent action rate -- by some estimates that was better than the President's Organizing for America, though they have a much bigger list, so it was harder for them to pull numbers like that. I credit this entirely to the way we scripted, well in advance, the twists and turns of a drama like the battle of health care reform using the actual elements of story structure as Campbell defined them. In our case, we cast the voter/activist as the "hero," and used that mode in all our communications with them.
Political canvassing is friction-prone and expensive, and technology removes friction and lowers costs -- the DNC made a fateful decision to make things like iPhone and Blackberry canvassing applications possible when they created a private entity that houses DNC voter data, and allows all the big groups to the left to use and augment that data (as well as some commercial entities like The Huffington Post -- now AOL.) What that meant was this amazing ability to immediately feed data from a person to person door knock conversation into the Democrat's data base so, if the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) or another group made a volunteer voter contact, the DNC wouldn't need to contact the same voter, as they all shared the same data pool. It's hard to over-estimate the importance of that. The RNC has been frightfully slow in opening up their data, although we made major advances there in the past two years, opening some of that data up to a read/write API. Our strategy team under Bill Steiner and our National Political Team under Gentry Collins really helped move us forward here and they deserve massive credit -- though we did not catch the DNC, in my estimation.
From folks on our side of the great divide (such a depressing reality), I learned just as much.
Republicans had been in the "shiny-object" mentality of technology: It was cool, and made them look smart to talk about, but with the exception of email and text, they hadn't crossed the chasm of understanding that having the permission to direct message someone on Twitter is just like being able to email them, and if you build social into your customer relationship management (CRM) and voter databases, you can create real voter contact there, even socially viral voter contacts. If your brand is struggling with that same thing it might be helpful to track how quickly people respond to DM's -- please don't use robo-DM's -- versus emails: I am willing to bet good DMs get faster responses.
Unless it's election night, where the RNC consumes massive amounts of live data and reacts on the fly, data in Republican politics has meant data that is generally static, and often times very old. The GOP is now picking up the fact that modern data is live data. People like Katie Harbath at the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) and Michael Turk at Craft: DC have really helped people make that leap. The established leaders on the Republican side who helped invent "micro-targeting," Steven Law, Karl Rove, Blaise Hazelwood, Bill Steiner, Ed Gillespie, and Alex Castellanos, are on the hook for planting a flag in the ground for the adoption of live data. Conversely, for high impact brand launches -- say Windows Phone 7 or the opening day of Battle: LA -- the brand world would be wise to look very closely at how political organizations drive and track turnout in the last 72 hours of a campaign.
Here is what I told the house GOP leadership in January of 2009: Republicans need to be social in social media. Doesn't that sound trite? Still, it is essentially was what I told now-Speaker Boehner and his leadership team before I agreed to play this role for this past cycle. I think that de-geekified the entire "social media is hard" mentality that people were carrying around. My former colleagues, Matt Lira, who runs New Media for Eric Cantor, Nick Schaper with Speaker Boehner, and Patrick Bell and Matthew Lundh with Cathy McMorris-Rodgers have done brilliant work there on their own accord: Check out YouCut, America Speaking Out, or the House Republicans answering questions after the State of the Union via Twitter and YouTube, as inspired by Old Spice. Did you know the GOP was getting that into direct media?
Social is a primary touchpoint for action. The President treated text message and Facebook accounts as hardcore campaign tools -- not as "nice to haves." He identified supporters, asked them to identify others and then had people commit and immediately start taking action, all from touchpoints -- email, social, text -- that traditional political operatives treated as somehow lesser than phone calls or mail. Though Organizing for America has an amazing tool-kit built over six years, we made some major advances there. We built our own call-from-home tool that allowed people to call voters using only a computer and a cell phone, but what was really cool about that was that it tied people's social handles into our very old and very established database of voters and activists. Meaning that, as people signed in using their Facebook ID, they gave us a cell phone number as well and those two pieces of data actually allowed us to ID them as a voter in many cases. This saved the Committee $22.00 to $29.00 per instance (think of that as a CPA deal!). Geoff Livingston at Mashable called techniques like this Crowd Sourcing CRM and, oddly enough, Mother Jones -- which is my favorite magazine from the left -- praised us for how we did this while protecting voter privacy.
iMedia: What comparison would you make between marketing a brand and running a political campaign?
Herman: Several -- first and foremost, it's an amazing thing to see the passion behind politics, both good and bad. I have had people publicly wish death upon my family because I worked at the RNC, and had people weep when I called them to simply get their opinion about the RNC's digital efforts. I would be curious to know if anyone at iMedia has had similar reactions. More functionally, here are some side by side comparisons.
- Politics at the national level is very much a branded house operating a house of brands, with all of the attendant challenges. What holds the political supporters together is a strong belief that their party defends most of their principles, and that candidates (the brands in the house) are allies in that struggle. Where politics takes a fascinating turn for me, though, is how it creates bonds to coalition groups which represent a plank or several planks in their platform. I think brands would be wise to study the use of coalitions of principle to create more permanent ties to people. Because marketing is sort of like that, but not as strong in that there are no "opponents" to charities. Recently, I have brainstormed with senior brand thinkers about just that.
- In politics, operatives operate through these steps: persuasion, identification, and turnout. I am impressed with how political organizations tie acquisition to what issue acquired voter's support, and how they use only known issues of support to communicate directly with voters. For instance, a voter may well have supported the President's foreign policy and bailout of GM, but not the health care initiative. If a campaign is well done, communication with that voter will focus on the piece on which they and the candidate agree -- I call this micro-persuasion. Brands, I wager, can follow suit. For instance, some conservatives who do not buy into global warming would be more open to buying a hybrid car because it cuts down on the use of foreign oil; or the battery was invented in Silicon Valley and manufactured there; or because spending less on gas makes one more self-sustaining. Micro-messaging is entirely possible these days.
iMedia: Aside from your political experience, you have extensive background in streaming media. What opportunity are digital marketers missing in this field?
Herman: Far be it for me to tell brands what they are missing; let me instead talk about areas for exploration.
Radio. Pandora is fantastic -- their CEO well knows I am a huge fan -- but, that is so untapped. I think the three C's, which I explain above, have been used well, but not completely in radio -- the third C, "combine", could be particularly compelling. For instance, someone should build an app that lets listeners to Pandora intersperse audio from other sources into their streaming mix. Imagine audio from The Onion or Daily Dish mashed up with Pandora, or audio drawn in by keyword, or topic choices -- then imagine the advertising possibilities around something like wine reviews. When we had content like that in the streams of my Internet Radio company, theDial, we commanded $85.00 costs-per-thousand (CPMs) for content targeting -- who says there was a bubble?
Crowdsourced video campaigns are going to be very big -- but crowdsourcing is not as easy as asking people to make videos for you. Zooppa and GotCast are to examples of companies doing that very well. With a generation of young people growing up with HD cameras and editing suites that studio heads would have been glad to have twenty years ago, this change in how creative is produced will be lasting and big.
Zeitgeist moments continue to be under-targeted. It is a strange fact that traffic spikes online, especially in broadband, can result in publishers running lower CPM or CPC ads or, in some cases I have seen even house ads. It seems to me that brands like Nike, Apple, or media brands like CNN or The New York Times should make a meal of buying peak inventory hits. In fact, Bing should buy them out everywhere it can. Media has become so fragmented that massive media gatherings -- where all eyes are steered somewhere -- are hard to come by, so I opine that brands would be wise to work with publishers and exchanges to buy non-disaster peak inventory and, perhaps, to buy disaster peak for charities, with a page-set devoted to helping people, like peak-driven cause marketing.
Streaming can replace high-cost theaters. In the spirit of zigging while others zag, someone is going to do the math on the down times in local playhouses and create a virtual roll-up of these places, at which they show independent films on nights that a play is not occurring. If play houses could curate independent film from a massive database of films cleared for play in public, if they could load in their demographic and geographic data for live ads that could be drawn down life, before each film, one could build an alternative structure to high-priced movie chains. I would love to see American Express and Sony partner on such a thing -- think of dinner and a movie on a much hipper scale, as curated by local leaders in arts and culture and underwritten by ads aimed at high income theater crowds (people who will go out of their way to support local art).
iMedia: What aspect of brand marketing should never go into politics?
Herman: God forbid I see opposition research being done by one CEO on another. Or, if we start seeing negative ads -- "Microsoft says they are 'soft '... but, why are they so hard on the rainforest?" or "Google: What does it know about your sleeping infant?" -- I am pulling a Timothy O'Leary, though without the drugs. Also: lying. Let's not lie as a matter of course, as happens all too often at every level of politics. I could go on for quite some time, but it makes me sad to think about.
iMedia: How responsible does a political marketer have to be when communicating on a multi-channel, multi-platform basis (especially when every statement can be taken the wrong way)?
Herman: Michael Kinsely once wrote that a "gaffe is when a politician accidentally tells the truth." He was right. The fact is, the river of noise that surrounds politics treats many stupid slip-ups -- President Obama saying he had been to "all 57 states" or President Bush coining the word "strategery"-- as major crises. It's bad for the Republic, but it's here to stay. Consequently, political happenings are obsessively scripted, and Americans get less openness than they deserve.
When we had Chairman Steele answer live questions on Facebook, there was a tremendous temptation to have canned responses ready to copy and paste. Luckily, I worked with a communications team who knew that wouldn't suffice, so we had more of an honest interchange. But, it's not just the river of noise, it is also the law. The first day I arrived at the Committee, I spent a good amount of time working with a lawyer -- a smart, wonderful person who worked to keep us out of trouble -- explaining that Twitter would not allow us to include our mandated disclaimer in our tweets (the one that says, Paid For By The Republican National Committee, or Not Endorsed By Any Candidate Or Candidate's Committee). Lest you think that's all been solved, the State of Maryland made an attempt to require just such a thing in social media. Those are the machine-infested downsides.
The fact is that politics is serious business, and checks and balances on what goes out of official channels can also be seen as a simple show of respect for the Electorate.
Lucia Davis is associate editor at iMediaConnection.
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