By Atul Hegde
Lately, there has been a lot of noise around Cambridge Analytica (CA)-Facebook data breach and how it helped Donald Trump win the US presidential elections. As with all noise, there is so much dust around this topic that it is really difficult to understand what really happened. To add to it we have two of our biggest national political parties accusing each other of having hired the services of the beleaguered political marketing firm to win elections in India. Now that’s really a stretch, a firm like CA playing a key role in India to help political parties win elections in India! It only proves how good CA has been in marketing itself as the outfit with the secret sauce to win elections globally. Let me explain why I think this is the biggest BS going around.
So what happened with Trump and CA? The story as you all know—researcher Aleksandr Kogan built a profiling app on Facebook. 2,70,000 people participated. As a precondition to taking the test, you as a user gave permission to access all your Facebook data as well as all your friend’s Facebook data. As a result, Kogan collected user data for some 50 million Facebook users. He then surreptitiously sold this data to CA, who went on to use it to win the US presidency for Trump. To give so much credit to Facebook user data and the use of profiling to target your communication to sway an entire undecided population to vote for you is just ridiculous. By no means am I undermining the power of targeted communication, but on it own its just one small part of the entire marketing ambit. By the way, Ted Cruz first hired CA for the Republican primaries and then quickly realised there is no secret sauce there, and the Trump team now claims that they had terminated the services of CA well before the actual presidential elections! In short, there is no real learning on how CA helped Trump win and how political parties, especially in India, can emulate the same.
Now let’s look at the Barack Obama campaign. For me, the real deal is not his re-election campaign but the 2008 ‘Hope’ campaign. This campaign is really the gold standard in political marketing and the most relevant for our Indian political parties to learn from. Traditionally, until then, all political campaigns focussed on galvanising votes and funds. Obama focused on galvanising time. The campaign worked overtime to get people to volunteer and get engaged at a grassroots level. Youngsters like Chris Huges, one of the founders of Facebook, and Joe Rospars were hired to lead key initiatives for the campaign. These guys brewed a heady mix of content and technology. Here are a few samplers: They ran a matching donor email campaign, thats sent out two sets of mails, one to current donors urging them to pledge to match a new donor, while the mail to the new donors said their donations would be matched by a previous donor. This led to a fantastic network of people connecting with each other and raised a record $500 mn online donations, with the average donation being just $80. This was pure content and technology in action, of course powered by a very charismatic and well-educated candidate.
Here’s another gem. Fundraising events typically were high society close door events. The team now opened it out to the average supporter. As little as a $5 donation got you a chance to win invites for the various fundraising events hosted by Obama. The ‘Dinner with Barack’ program was a huge hit. On election day the ‘MYBO’ platform showed registered users the undecided voters in their neighbourhood and urged them to get all their neighbours to go out and vote. Again a brilliant use of technology combined with very powerful messaging. By the time Obama won, the campaign had seen 1 billion emails sent out, 14 mn hours of video content consumed on Youtube, 2 mn registered on the app, and the numbers keep going on and on. All of this happened without compromising on time-tested marketing tools like telemarketing, SMS blasts, TV, and print. The old and the new blended in perfectly to deliver the message of hope, and the rest, as we know, is history.
This is what our political parties have to take inspiration from, to partner with agencies, marketing firms, and professionals that have proven experience in building brands but at the same time are masters of the new medium and comfortable using technology to deliver powerful content. CA and its ilk on its own are not the answer; you need a combination of creative, technology, activation, analytics and intelligence (human and artificial) to really make a difference on the ground. Some political parties are obviously more evolved than others and have adapted to technology and the new mediums. But by and large, election campaigns in India are still seen as tactical two-month exercises in the run-up to polling day, and sadly platforms like Twitter have been reduced to trolling activities and fake trends.
This needs to change quickly, and the regional political parties can really show the way on this. They are focused on much smaller population and geography to reach out to, and more room for bringing in the new. The 2019 elections are truly the battleground and coming of age for political marketing in India, and I hope more and more political parties and candidates use this to drive world class but locally relevant new age marketing campaigns.
Let me leave you with a gem from the 2012 Obama re-election campaign. One million Facebook users registered for a campaign app that, with your permission, sent out personalised messages to your friends asking them to vote for Obama. Imagine the persuasive power, when I see a personal message from my friends urging me to support and vote! All of this was done very much within the then legal framework of Facebook rules. This ‘disguised messages from friends’ campaign reached out to 190 mn Facebook users. The Obama campaign team had long discovered the power of advocacy over ads and combined it beautifully with technology to drive home the message. This sounds too close to the current data breach controversy but went unnoticed when used by Obama. Power of positive brands perhaps!
Atul Hegde is the co-founder of Rainmaker Ventures. He is a digital marketing and branding veteran based out of Mumbai.