Think Audience, Not List by Scott Garrison

By at February 5, 2012 | 12:00 pm | Print

Think Audience, Not List by Scott Garrison

Naïve candidates, electeds, and political operatives think that lists are important, valuable assets which they either guard jealously or covet gratuitously. They presume that an operative or an elected with a [provide-your-own-hyperbole] list can somehow bring access to some secret cache of support that would be unattainable without hiring or locking down the support of that one key person with a great list.

If they could just get access to the “real” list–you know, the “right” list: that targeted distillation of the people that will make a difference and none of the hoi-polloi–then all their political dreams would come true. Of course, once they get some coveted list, comes the snark about data quality (bad phone numbers, emails, addresses, “should have been targeted better”, “too many saying ‘no’”, “big waste of time”, “this isn’t THE list”, grumble grumble grumble).

Too few professional operatives are willing to call out that kind of talk for what it is when they hear it.

There’s no great, “magic” list out there. That kind of talk is just a carryover from the way campaigns used to work. Or worse, it’s the words of a skilled manipulator implicitly trying to negotiate or renegotiate the terms of influence trading—sometimes parroted by wannabees.

Anything like perfect data quality in politics is a waste of resources since the process of campaigning generates information that is more valuable than the data on any list.

But the process of campaigning is hard. And most folks would prefer an easy way out of doing the hard work. I get that. I waste a lot of time wishing things could be easier, too. Generally, that kind of wishing doesn’t accomplish much beyond distracting me from the things that matter most.

A simple fact of the world we actually live in today is that there is so much data openly available and of far superior quality to anything anyone in politics has locked away in any proprietary database that no political organization could hope to have the resources to digest it all.

Still, any campaign, on almost any budget, should be able to combine right-scale data research and a systematic communication strategy to build an in-house list (or better, an audience) that’s far more meaningful than any list they could acquire. That doesn’t mean that acquiring proprietary lists shouldn’t play a role in good campaign strategies; it’s just that list acquisition is of little value without good research and a rock-solid communication strategy.

So if you are an elected official, or you think you might want to be one someday, and you plan to hire any political operative because of the list you think they have (or even worse, buy any list outright) stop it, stop it right now. You are wasting your donor’s money. You would be far better off investing in building your own relationships with voters, donors, opinion leaders, prospective voters, and prospective donors (you know, people).

If you are a political operative making, or hoping to make, a living by getting people to pay you for access to any list or group, stop doing that. Go MAKE SOMETHING: build a campaign operation to help candidates and electeds contact and build genuine relationships with voters, donors, opinion leaders, prospective voters, and prospective donors (you know, people).

If you are political club keeping yourself alive by making candidates and elected officials jump through hoops to get your endorsement in exchange for them driving attendance and paid membership, you should stop, too. Instead, BUILD SOMETHING. Create an environment where people can find and relate to serious candidates and office-holders, make it genuine and not contrived, and lay it all bare so that the fakes and the phonies have nowhere to hide.

A list (what used to be called a rolodex) seems a lot like a political asset, but it’s not really. A strong network of relationships, a ready audience, is far more valuable . . . but, when it comes right down to it, calling that audience a political asset or a thing of value really misses the point. To the extent that you think of a network of relationships as an asset, you actually undermine its strength. Build an audience, and RESPECT it–do that and you will be doing better than anyone doing politics.

Scott Garrison is head of Research & Analysis at Swash Labs, a digital creative agency focused on emerging media, social business and brand development. In the last 18 years, Scott has advised more than 35 campaigns on fundraising, audience-building, and data management. 

www.garrisonpoliticalstrategy.com      sgarrison@sgarrison.com     512.522.2341

Management & Strategy

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  • Excellent strategic insight. I always say that while most mechanical or technical objects are diminished in their useful life by use (cars, computers), a voter database is enhanced by use. Its value over time becomes primarily the insights and information added from the field and not the magical data mining that begat it.