Obama's Media Planner Tells Us The 5 Most Important Ad Tactics From The Presidential Campaign

barack obama 2012 campaign ad

Photo: YouTube/BarackObamadotcom

Just a week after President Barack Obama won reelection, the pundits are already flush with insights about what political lessons can be gleaned from the campaign.But perhaps the most important set of lessons is not for politicos, but for corporations—after all, by Election Day, the Obama campaign was as large as many Fortune 500 companies. 

The Obama campaign may have been of comparable size to a large company, but they ran their advertising operation very differently. From how data drove media decisions to when and where the campaign bought ads, the Obama campaign ran a path-breaking media planning operation.  

Here are 5 lessons businesses could take from the Obama playbook:

1. Plan early. Even before Mitt Romney was officially declared the Republican nominee, the Obama campaign was on the air in key swing states, locking in perceptions about Mitt Romney among key groups of voters. In addition, the campaign secured upfronts early, which saved a significant sum of money, especially in crowded advertising environments.

For businesses launching a new product, or businesses that hear that a key competitor is launching a new product, shaping early perceptions can be critical. Securing upfronts in both traditional and digital media can save money and enable key influencers to be reached and their opinions solidified in advance of any competing communication.

2. Use flexible, quick-turn creative. The Obama campaign may have locked in their advertising plans early on, but they allowed the creative to be flexible, so the campaign could capitalise on the latest news headlines. In fact, it’s typical in many political campaigns for ads to often be tested, shot, and sent to stations overnight.  

Most brand managers and agencies will scoff at the idea that creative could be turned around in a few hours, not only because the typical agency creative processes are not designed to be “quick turn,” but also because the myriad layers of approval typical of most large corporate advertising campaigns are not conducive to pivoting quickly. For many companies, only in a crisis are those layers of approval stripped away to pave the way for expeditious decision-making, but companies would be wise to find ways to capitalise on the latest current events and industry news even in non-crisis situations.

3. Integrate CRM and marcoms. The Obama campaign’s voter database is one of the largest CRM databases in the nation, and they used that data to drive all aspects of campaign decision-making, including their media and advertising operations.

By contrast, for most businesses, CRM remains wholly separate from marketing and communications, usually falling under the purview of the Chief Information Officer rather than the Chief Marketing Officer. But CRM data could provide rich information about current and potential customers that could be leveraged to drive paid, earned, and owned communication strategy. 

4. Break down silos. Early on, the Obama campaign invested in the infrastructure to make it possible for real-time data to drive all advertising decisions. For example, the campaign’s information architecture allowed polling and canvassing data to inform traditional and digital media spending, on a market-by-market basis, in real time.

A typical Fortune 500 company often has half a dozen or more agencies executing different aspects of their paid media programs. This arrangement often presents logistical (and political) challenges to enabling real-time data to drive media strategy: information is unlikely to be shared organically across busy agencies without mechanisms to explicitly facilitate the information transfer. Creating a shared database for media data and market research data can greatly aid cross-agency collaboration.

5. One size does not fit all. In each swing state, the Obama campaign utilized a different media mix, varying the amount of money spent on broadcast television, cable television, radio, digital, mobile, and social media advertising, based on the media data about the state and the target voters they were attempting to reach. 

For regional companies or companies with local products, a market-specific approach to media planning is baked into every media plan. For national businesses, however, important market-by-market differences in media habits are often ignored in favour of large national media buys with broad reach. But online video viewing, mobile video usage, cable penetration, radio ratings, and television program ratings all vary, often dramatically, on a market-by-market basis. By taking these differences into account, companies can make their paid media much more effective.

By borrowing some of the Obama campaign’s advertising strategies, companies and their agencies can together create more efficient and more data-driven campaigns. Forward!

Dr. Amy Gershkoff was the Director of Media Planning at Obama for America.  She is now the Global Director of Analytics for Burson-Marsteller, where she designs custom measurement solutions for social and digital communication programs. Previously, she was co-founder of a tech startup specializing in advertising analytics. She has been named one of the Top 50 Women to Watch in Tech and holds a Ph.D. from Princeton University.

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