‘Obamarketing’ or the art of going grassroots

  • by helga
  • 05/11/2012

Obamarketing or the art of going grassrootsI keep hearing reports about the outstanding grassroots marketing tactics deployed by Obama and Romney in this presidential election. Apparently it has been a turning point for Democrat and Republican campaigns, with colossal budgets spent on both sides. Sure enough, part of that budget goes into fundraising and acquiring even more budget from individuals’ contributions.What baffles me is not the huge leap in advertising spend. It is also not the increasing complexity in targeted approaches, through online and digital marketing – the 2012 elections have seen the figure spent in 2008 multiplied 6 times. What I find really admirable are the swarms of volunteers who sit in offices, or who run the streets knocking on doors, or who ‘work from home’ for the cause. Most of the US population, particularly swing states, is geo-tactically covered by these armies of volunteers in offices purposely set up. Who are these people? Why are they doing this?

There are 800 offices set up to help Obama’s campaign, spread all over the US, where these volunteers sit, make telephone calls, discuss tactics, email, and send direct mail to target lists. Democrats urge their target electorate to get out and vote. One of Obama’s volunteers reports that all voters in his target list have been contacted at least once, with 65% efficiency. Republicans have about half of the amount of offices.

Isn’t this amazing? If this isn’t true grassroots marketing, what is then? I wouldn’t expect this sort of support, the magnitude of this push, for any other product or cause out there. To start with, no huge amount of volunteers would do the same for a commercial product if there wasn’t something in it for them. I doubt that a voucher or a promotion would do the trick, although I’m willing to be convinced otherwise -particularly after seeing the regular queue of people outside the Apple shops of the world. But what about a non-commercial venture, a not-for-profit organisation or any worthy cause out there? I haven’t so far seen anything this big and organised either. I’ve seen demonstrations, people going out on the street, political revolutions with plenty of media coverage, but never an organised, systematic, office-based grassroots marketing movement like this.

I think this opens the possibility and a potential model for other campaigns. The key issue is understanding what can move people to this extent. What could make people dedicate their earnest efforts to spreading an idea like ‘vote for Obama’?

I suggest that at least 4 boxes need to be ticked:

1. Identity.

For some people identity means nationality, politics, religious belief or skin colour. For others it could be a brand they strongly support or identify with or their football club. In any case, a true grassroots movement needs to play with people’s feeling of identity; it needs to resonate strongly with who they think they are, or with how they like others to perceive them.

2. Conviction.

There is always a degree of irrationality and a deeper emotional response in a ‘conviction’. Religious belief, amongst other topics, is proven to solicit a response in different parts of the brain. Volunteers who had their brains ‘wired’ while scientists asked a few questions, showed that reasoning followed a different path in the brain when convictions were brought into play. These convictions could be more or less serious topics, spanning from religion to football as we’ve seen above. Rationality has very little to do with it – it’s not about weighting reasons in favour or against something. At most, we start with a pre-determined answer and just work our way around to justify our own attitude and beliefs.

3. Momentum.

I think it would have been a lot harder to mobilise swarms of Obama volunteers if there wasn’t a hard date scheduled for the election. This gave the grassroots campaign a strong sense of structure, timeline and objective. ‘The time is now.’

4. An initial budget and a central organising body.

I’m unsure if there are any reporting lines or management levels in Obama’s campaign offices, or to what extent volunteers and paid staff interact. I’d imagine there was at least an initial organising body, which facilitated some sort of operating model for how the offices would run.

The next question is: how could we apply these principles to other causes and ideas?

I’d certainly not suggest marketing grassroots tactics for a commercial venture. I believe that trying to instigate volunteerism would only taint a brand if social responsibility was not at the core of its objectives. There are some hybrids – I’m remembering Vodaphone’s fundraising text-messaging service for non-profits -, but generally speaking, mixing the world of causes and the world of for-profit is a bad idea. It just undermines consumers’ trust in both the cause and the brand.

However, we should be able to apply the Obama grassroots marketing model to social innovation initiatives and not-for-profit organisations? How do we achieve that, being neither gimmicky nor patronising?

Time to put the thinking cap on, be back in a sec 🙂

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