What Can Presidential Campaigns Teach Us About Marketing?

Get noticed this campaign season. Image via berkeley.edu.

If you are anything like me, you’ve probably been watching the election season unfold with some blend of consternation and amusement, and maybe even a touch of admiration. You may not agree with many (or any) of the candidates’ policies. But from a marketing perspective, election years nevertheless provide fascinating and useful insights into the hearts and minds of the public.

The political process showcases the power of words and of finding the perfect target audience. Let’s have a look at the reasons people find politics so exciting, and what lessons we can draw from the campaigning process.

1. The Sport of Politics

To be fair, the guy does have some moves on the court. Image via h4-entertainment.com.

There is a reason the media covers elections so closely. Even during years when there are no bombastic political figures running, the entire political process can just be fun to watch. Years ago, my brother invited me over to watch the presidential debate, calling it, “The Super Bowl for Nerds.” These days, I tend to invite people over to play Debate Night Bingo, and we may or may not play drinking games based on key candidate talking points.

Presidential elections are essentially the Summer Olympics of politics: they occur every leap year, draw events out over an extended period of time, and entertain us all with an endless cycle of victory and defeat.

And people can often identify with their candidate as emphatically as fans support their local sports teams. Voters will volunteer for candidates, donate generously, brave the lines on election day, and even sit through debate after debate in the hopes that they will witness the moment when their candidate manages to edge out the competition. Even those who know their candidate stands a slim chance to win will often work into the wee hours for little or no financial compensation.

Commercial industries typically can’t quite expect this level of devotion, but your most loyal customers will nevertheless help you to promote your business, free of charge. This includes forwarding your newsletter to their colleagues, sharing your website on their social media channels, or recommending your services during their own client meetings.

To earn this level of loyalty, you’ll need to continually engage your customers through dynamic marketing. Event-based marketing will give customers something to look forward to, so consider testing a few different campaigns this year. On Leap Day, offer customers an opportunity to leap into the next level of consumer service. During the Olympics, award customers based on spending with gold, silver, or bronze medal status. Create trivia quizzes on American history during election years as a means of expanding your email marketing list. Give customers something fun that they can look forward to — and, more importantly, share with their friends and colleagues.

2. Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

12% of us know this quote was attributed to the wrong person. Image via izquotes.com.

Just as campaign advisers keep an eye on the polls at all times, we are constantly examining the metrics and statistics of our consumer base. We look for the best keywords for our industry, keep track of our consumers’ interests, and routinely dissect the geography, gender, age, and financial demographics of our target audience. Improved search algorithms and social media analysis has given us more insight than ever on what consumers are thinking about us, our products, and about what they want out of us.

But despite the expanding knowledge on this front, we need to remember that people are also full of surprises. Just as primary season can yield surprise winners and even more surprising losers, our consumers will not always behave in accordance to the predictions of learning algorithms and market research. New products that required months of R&D may not sell as well as planned. Marketing campaigns may not perform as well as expected. Some outcomes remain unpredictable regardless of how advanced your market research is.

This doesn’t mean that you should spend less time and money on market research, of course. You should absolutely learn as much about your audience as you can. Just don’t assume that R&D will necessarily yield the results that you expect, and don’t plan your budget or the future of your company on algorithmic projections. Be prepared to change your products, services, and marketing campaigns if they do not perform as well as expected. Always have a Plan B, and always be prepared to communicate with your customers if they become unhappy with your services.

3. Loyalty Is Not Mandatory

He won't be so loyal once he reads that paper. Image via turner.com

This campaign year, presidential candidates have expressed surprise and, in some cases, hostility over the level of support they have received from demographics they took for granted. Their surprise could perhaps be a result of being overly reliant on political polls and other statistics. As noted above, statistics and other data should inform your expectations, not define them.

Your customers — even those who benefit the most from your services — don’t owe you anything. They don’t owe you loyalty or continued patronage. Your relationship is entirely conditional. If you don’t meet their expectations, they are free to research their options and find a company that does.

If they do choose to leave, you are of course free to attempt to win them back. If you decide to do so, do not complain about their lack of loyalty or attempt to slander your competitor.

Instead, find out why they left. Find out what they liked, and disliked, about your company. If possible, make this conversation public to generate feedback from other customers who fled, and from loyal customers who stayed. Maintain a calm, positive demeanor regardless of what they say, and never minimize their complaints by claiming they are unfounded or irrelevant. Make your customers feel that their opinion matters, and that you will do everything in your power to ensure their voices are heard and acted upon.

4. Everyone Can Find An Audience

Poor Kang never stood a chance. Image via moltz.net.

Every election season will be dotted with unforgettable characters, whether they are the candidates themselves or their supporters. Election years show exactly how diverse a nation can be, in demographics and interests alike.

Due to this diversity, every candidate, regardless of background or qualifications, can find an audience. But the flip side of this is that voters who are not in the intended audience are incredibly unlikely to support this candidate.

As a result, candidates who make seemingly scandalous or unforgivable statements don’t actually need to worry about alienating their audience, or failing to attract their competitors’ supporters. Instead, they know that there is little or nothing they could do to win over certain voters, so their best option is to appeal to their existing audience while remaining newsworthy.

I do not, of course, recommend this tactic for most companies. The takeaway here isn’t to deliberately alienate a large subset of consumers. It is to conserve your resources by focusing on a targeted audience that is likely to buy your products and engage your services. Trying to get an audience that doesn’t care about your product to turn into a band of loyal consumers will only result in disappointment and frustration.

5. Know When to Apologize

Bush apologized to the victims of Hurricane Katrina in person. Image via turner.com

Career politicians know that in the modern landscape of politics, any gaffes they make will immediately go viral, possibly inspiring a few songs and embarrassing GIFs along the way. Mistakes they make on this campaign cycle will return to haunt them four years from now, and they have to be prepared to respond to the incident for some time to come.

Now, for e-commerce sites and SaaS companies, the stakes aren’t quite so high. But consumers still have long memories. They will always remember, for example, that time Gmail went down for a few hours, or that time Facebook dared to change its layout again without asking them for permission first.

Needless to say, Google and Facebook aren’t exactly suffering because they inconvenienced their users a few times. But smaller companies that haven’t proven themselves to be wholly necessary to their users don’t have the luxury of assuming that every mistake is forgivable. So every data breach, every server malfunction, every delayed shipment or download — every mistake your company makes can make your customers go running to your competitors.

Everyone makes mistakes, but a trustworthy company will make efforts to fix a mistake immediately, and prevent future mistakes from erupting. Full disclosure is essential — don’t deny mistakes, as this will come off as evasive once consumers are aware of them. Keep consumers informed via social media, blogs, and email. Set up a specialized LiveChat to help them with any problems that arise. Ask for their input and describe whatever safeguards you put into effect to prevent future mistakes from arising.

Get the Word Out

Have you noticed any other similarities between political campaigns and corporate marketing? Let us know in the comments below.

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