Change We Can Believe In?

The 2012 Obama campaign has been heralded as a turning point for leveraging technology effectively in political races.  With the benefit of hindsight, those analyzing the digital strategy of the campaign boil the success down to three things: personalization, experimentation, and empowerment. In the MIT Technology Review, Sasha Issenberg notes that the campaign’s big data strategy was, at the core, a transition from viewing voters as an aggregate to thinking of them as individuals about which they could gather more and more granular data on preferences and responsiveness.  Having the ability to collect, manage, and analyze individual micro data also allowed them to follow the Silicon Valley trend towards A/B testing. Issenberg describes how the campaign embraced this rapid and frequent experimentation to learn on how different people responded to different outreach techniques and messages. Zack Exley diagnoses how the campaign used all this data and new management tools to empower its volunteers. By passing all this information down the campaign food chain, they created a massive, decentralized, yet coherent, field organization that the Romney campaign could not match.

However, while the strategy delivered the results that the campaign hoped for in the short term (Obama’s reelection), I can’t help but wonder if the strategy was a bit myopic, failing to give enough weight to the long-term implications of their choices on brand perception, their volunteer base, new learnings about effective campaigns, and on future supporters.

Brand perception: In a Harvard Business School case, “Obama versus Clinton: The YouTube Primary”, Deighton and Kornfeld discuss how a campaign can lose control over its volunteers and the message they are putting out (e.g., I don’t think the campaign was thrilled with Obama Girl video). Even if it can control its message, a strategy based on driving receptive people towards specific actions (donating, attending an event, voting, etc.) may not be thinking about the impact on the overall brand perception of the candidate, the party, or the office. The decisions being made now about who controls the message and what the messages are about will impact the public perception far beyond the end of the campaign or the length of the term.

Volunteer base: In another HBS case about the 2012 campaign, Piskorski and Winig discuss the risk involved with giving front-line staff the kind of autonomy that the Obama campaign did. If the promise of empowerment turns out to be a myth, you can risk forever alienating the people Exley calls the “new organizers,” losing a whole generation of supporters. The overpromising could make future campaigns face an increasingly disillusioned population.

Learnings about campaigns: Brian Christian, in “The A/B Test: Inside the Technology That’s Changing the Rules of Business,” describes some of the hazards of a culture built on rapid, frequent, incremental experimentation: “No choices are hard, no introspection is necessary.” There is no premium on understanding why something works, just that it does. In the long-run, this may be inefficient for future campaigns; without the reflection that can help uncover the underlying drivers of results, the next campaign could repeat mistakes, head down an avoidable rabbit hole, or miss out on new opportunities to extend the theory to other areas.

Future supporters: The personalization strategy, which focuses on allocating resources to outreach that will drive behavior most efficiently with the fewest resources may also leave some future voters on the table. While an individual may not appear to be immediately responsive to outreach, it’s possible that the effect of outreach may build over time. By targeting only voters seen as responsive, campaigns may neglect to lay the groundwork for individuals who are less responsive in the short term but may convert to engaged supporters in future. By optimizing so exclusively around short term actions, parties could risk losing a bloc that could have been patiently built over time and yielded fruits in future elections. This last one seems most important to me, and yet hasn’t been addressed in much of the retrospective analysis of the campaign.

What does this have to do with education? In education, too, there are lots of fancy new tools, but to what end? The answer may be at the core of the Obama strategy: personalize, experiment, and empower. But in order for it to work, we will need to consider, as the Obama campaign did, how we enable that strategy by investing in infrastructure, defining new roles, training in new ways, and facilitating a cultural shift. And, impatient as we are for quick results, we should keep on eye on what our decisions today imply for teachers, students, and the definition of schooling in the future.

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