Donna Brazile’s new book on Clinton campaign carries lesson on influencing target audiences

Buried toward the end of last Sunday’s lengthy Washington Post article on Donna Brazile’s new book about the 2016 presidential election are a few cautionary paragraphs that business professionals in a variety of disciplines should heed. While persons working in communications, marketing, community relations and government relations will find the tale particularly relevant, others may find value as well.

“Brazile writes that Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook and his lieutenants were so obsessed with voter data and predictive analytics that they ‘missed the big picture,'” The Post reports. “They knew how to size up voters not by meeting them and finding out what they cared about, what moved their hearts and stirred their souls, but by analyzing their habits,” Brazile writes. “You might be able to persuade a handful of Real Simple magazine readers who drink gin and tonics to change their vote to Hillary, but you had not necessarily made them enthusiastic enough to want to get up off the couch and go to the polls.”

There’s no arguing that the era of Big Data is upon us. I won’t pretend to know a fraction of what I could or should about our improved abilities to gather information via the Internet of things to predict user behavior, identify emerging trends and otherwise confront societal challenges. Our economy and our lives increasingly will be shaped by practical applications manifested in this new era.

Nonetheless, as Donna Brazile’s critique suggests, one runs a risk in relying too heavily on data and failing to engage with people directly. Focus groups, mall intercepts and town hall meetings are but a few examples of methods that long have been employed with great benefit to conduct consumer research, test messages and materials, gauge attitudes and surface (and answer) lingering questions. As we adopt new tools in social media space — microtargeting advertisements, for example — we should be mindful to keep at the ready in our toolkits many of these proven practices to connect with audiences and stakeholders where (to Brazile’s point) they actually think and feel.

A relevant story from my own experience was a conversation with a social media practitioner about ways to advance policy goals with congressional staff. As a former congressional press secretary myself, I sought to make the point that supportive editorials (in national and local newspapers alike) are a useful means to advance policy goals in congressional offices. I was less than encouraged when the social media practitioner on this particular team replied that he didn’t read editorial pages. When I see Donna Brazile’s take on the data-focused aspects of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, I’m reminded of this conversation.

Good messages and initiatives don’t do much for you if you fail to effectively leverage the channels and means to get the attention of your target audience. At the same time, even the right channels aren’t likely to do much for you if your message doesn’t “move hearts” and “stir souls.” Now, executing both effectively …. THAT’s a formula for success.

November 10, 2017

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