Big Data Lessons for Brands from Obama’s Chief Scientist Rayid Ghani

Read the original post published on iCrossing’s Great Finds blog on May 2, 2013.

Big data means nothing without action. That’s a key takeaway from a May 2 presentation delivered by Rayid Ghani, chief scientist for the Obama for America campaign, at the iCrossing CMO Summit. Ghani’s discussion focused on lessons that brands can learn from the success of the 2012 campaign to re-elect President Barack Obama. According to Ghani, brands can build strong connections and trust when it matters most by applying data in real time – and acting and reacting in real-time, too.

As Ghani asserted, big data can – and will – touch everyone in all industries and fields. Brands need to dive into data to understand audiences, become comfortable with it, and derive insights to build closer relationships with their audiences. But brands also need to use data to get people to complete an action.

During the Obama for America campaign, Ghani used data to inspire action. The Obama campaign collected data from one-to-one interactions with individuals. Based on this data, the campaign utilized multi-channel marketing, connecting offline and online marketing tactics, to build stronger connections with those individuals in order to improve persuasive interactions — and to encourage people to get out of the house and go vote.

“Embedding analytics into Obama’s campaign was as much a cultural shift for people as it was literal,” he said.

The Obama for America campaign used big data to connect frequently via personalized email messages. Those messages included talking directly with recipients and using their friends’ names and pictures to build stronger connections. The emails helped drive home the importance of network outreach: individuals could connect with their own friends and family to persuade them to take action, register to vote, and then get to the polling stations on Election Day.

So how should brands use big data to improve their digital marketing success? Ghani gave CMO Summit attendees some excellent tips, including:

  • Understand your goals, and optimize for that metric. Obama for America understood that its main goal was to achieve the electoral votes needed to re-elect Barack Obama as president of the United States. The team set its goals at winning 51 percent of the votes from each state. Consequently, every single tactic employed was focused on achieving that goal. Obama for America began breaking down data to better understand who to target for voter registration, who to target to persuade a preference for Obama, and who to target to encourage people to get out and vote on Election Day.
  • Get the best resources for success. If your brand is planning a campaign online, make sure you get the right team in place. If you need a bigger budget to push a campaign forward, get that budget or risk having your campaign flop. But getting approval for hiring or spending can be challenging when resources are limited. So, use data to show the current state of the market and projections of where your brand should be — that way, you will make a case for the right resources to help increase success in the long run.
  • Put your resources where they’ll matter most. If you’re looking at data, and see that the most impact can be achieved from one channel or one location, make sure you put your effort and resources there. Ghani reminded us that during the 2012 election, Florida was a key state to win — but Florida is also very expensive state for a campaign. Brands and marketers need to use data to determine the results of the investments made in priority channels and locations — and make those investments for a successful marketing strategy.
  • Match your tactics to your strategy and objectives. The Obama for America campaign scored individuals on a scale of how “persuadable” they were. If the team determined that an individual could be persuaded to vote for Obama, the team would connect with that person on his or her level to encourage voting. Obama for America’s messages changed based on the “persuadable” score to make sure the connections being built were authentic — and would result in a vote. Ghani stressed that “persuadable” was not the same as “undecided.” Persuadable voters lacked information; undecided voters lacked interest. The distinction, based on data collected by Obama for America, was crucial: sharing information with persuadables could tip the scales in Obama’s favor more so than with undecided voters.
  • Test, test, and retest. Data is an excellent way to see where your brand has been and can be used to predict where your brand should go in the future. In order to improve your brand, build models to predict what will happen when you use various marketing tactics. And then test those tactics.
  • Don’t be afraid to be nimble. If your tactics are moving toward one story, but your data is telling you a different story, change course. Don’t be nervous about steering your plans in a different direction. Responding to real-time data analytics will help drive greater success in a shorter amount of time — and can help capitalize on opportunities not taken by your competitors.

Collecting data, analyzing data, and building predictive models is the best way to plan your marketing campaigns. With data, you will know how, when and where to connect with individuals in a more efficient and effective manner to build a connected brand in the moment.

Dana Notman is a senior natural search strategist at iCrossing

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