What Obama Taught Me About Marketing Software

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No matter your political persuasion, I am sure we can all look back with nostalgia and fondness to a time when our politics were less divisive and more hopeful. While I worked on many political campaigns in my early career, the 2008 Obama campaign remains one of my proudest moments and a time when I learned lessons that stay with me to this day.

In 2008, I was the Executive Director of the Maine Democratic Party. This meant I managed the budget, the staff, and oversaw campaign activity in my state which was a swing state in that election. Our swing state status guaranteed money and attention from the national Obama campaign and connected me with their strategists in Chicago who wanted to make sure I was on message when I went on TV or shared content on social media. The 2008 campaign was really the first political campaign to make use of social media and they created a blueprint that businesses follow to this day, using marketing segmentation and online influencers, and driving engagement with viral content.  

Hope & Fear are the biggest motivators:

Fear Works in the Short Term but not the Long Term

There are two ways of motivating people, play to their hopes or stoke their fears. Fear is a quick win; you can get people to buy a product or vote for a candidate because they are afraid but this strategy doesn’t create brand loyalty. Individuals won’t stay with your company or your candidate for long. Either they will find a new thing to be afraid of, or they will wake up to the fact that you manipulated them and will resent you. At the end of the day the result is the same: lost business and angry ex-customers.  

Instead you need to sell a vision for how life could be better, easier and fairer with your product. In software, we talk about the “stickiness factor”. Stickiness doesn’t come from fear, it comes from your product being convenient and something that helps your users solve problems. The best marketing is aspirational, it gets potential buyers to dream and hope for something better. That was Obama’s message in 2008 and while hope may be lacking in politics, you see it all around in the private sector. 

People are Smarter Than You Think, be Honest!

Prior to the Obama campaign (and sadly ever since), some politicians tended to talk down to voters. Their attitude was “well you won’t possible understand the complexity of this situation, so I will dumb it down for you”. Obama believed that voters were smart enough to deal with complex issues and that instead of dumbing down messages and spinning, we should be honest.

Honesty is critical in sales and marketing. I’ve seen tech companies dumb down their pitch. When I asked questions about their software, a developer literally said to me “I have my doctorate on this topic, so it’s way too complicated for you to understand”. I’m not saying you need to overwhelm your customers with too much detail, but you need to be able to answer complex questions in an open and clear way.

I’ve also seen AI companies completely exaggerate their offer, selling magic and Sci-fi technology. People can tell when you are bs’ing and that is a turn off for buyers. Honesty is a good policy. The best salespeople position themselves as someone who is helping their buyers to succeed and to do this they need to be honest and trustworthy.

Segment your Market: Target Individuals not Demographics

The Obama campaign actually invented modern marketing segmentation and with the Democratic National Committee pioneered a software that I would describe as a proto-marketing automation tool. This software, called NGP Van, allowed the campaign to break up their voters into lists based not only on age, party affiliation and region, but also based upon conversations with the individual and commercial data about their income, debt levels and more.

Basically, the campaign had built a persona of people that they wanted to market to and then they segmented their market using the software to create tailored communications. At least this is what we did in my state, and I know some other states did the same. If you want to succeed in B2B marketing, you need to follow the same model. This means you need to define several buyer personas (people you want to sell to) and then segment your list to market to different groups in different ways.

This format doesn’t allow me to explain all the things I learned in Democratic Politics. I learned how to pitch journalist, speak to a large crowd and work more hours in a week than most people work in a month. Although I am very happy not to be involved with today’s divisive politics, I draw on my past experiences in politics every day. And, no matter your political leanings, I am sure we both share the same nostalgia for the Obama years and even the Bush years.   

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Arden Manning

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