Half-life in Politics and Marketing

January 22, 2008 at 6:11 am | Posted in Advertising, Books, Communication, Decision making, General, Jaffe, Joseph - Join The Conversation, Marketing, Online marketing, Politics, Responsibility, Web 2.0 | 3 Comments
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In his new book “Join the Conversation,” Joseph Jaffe explains the faults of the one-to-many model of marketing. The idea goes like this: if you throw a big enough net, you’re sure to catch a fish or two. Junk mail is the perfect example. But you can narrow down this model by knowing a little about your audience. Jaffe says:

“One-to-many assumes that it is possible to divide and categorize human beings into generalist buckets, using artificial variables such as age, sex (yes, please), occupation or education, and, to a lesser extent, attitudes, interests, and opinions.” (Jaffe, pg. 13)

In a way, this goes against what I have learned in politics. Generalizations, polls, surveys, and focus groups all get you close to an idea of what people want. So much is determined by these methods. It makes sense to do a Get Out The Vote (GOTV) campaign in the district that voted most heavily for your candidate’s party in the last election. It makes sense to want to know that when you’re talking to a middle-aged, white, suburban mother that you should talk about your candidate’s national security stances while you might want to discuss the environment with a local college student (and about their voting eligibility).

The natural result of this obsession is Mark Penn. He is a chief strategist to Hillary Clinton and developed the idea of “soccer moms” for Bill’s run in 1996. His new book, “Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes,” seems amazingly misguided in this new era. Or perhaps I can just feel this mode of thinking going extinct more and more every day. This NYT article does a good job of breaking down Penn’s thesis.

It is against this model that (I believe) Jaffe rebels. In the brave new world of personalization (real personalization), how useful are broad polls or trends? In fact, in an effort to know our audience, don’t generalization/trends/polls get us close, but in tandem ensure that we don’t reach this last intimacy with our audience?

In science, a half-life is the time it takes for half of the radioactive atoms of a given object to decay. Imagine this is a pie: first we cut it in half, then another half takes it down to a quarter, then another half takes it down to an eighth, continued ad infinitum. But by this method you are guaranteed never to get rid of all the radioactive atoms completely. Despite the small size, there is still half that decay and half that stays.

Likewise, polls and the like get us close to our audience. We do learn important facts that have helped win elections. But this method also guarantees that we will never truly know our audience. By the very manner of data extraction, we are generalizing all the time. A candidate could have a personal connection by talking to Jane Smith. But a candidate can never have a truly personal connection by talking to a “soccer mom,” or “NASCAR dad,” or any of these other ridiculous groupings of people that make up Penn’s microtrends.

It turns out that people are more complex than that. They can’t really be grouped this way because we don’t think in lock-step. Heck, most of the time we’re not even logical. Knowing people is difficult. Perhaps we can learn something at the intersection of science, politics, and marketing.



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  1. WWRD: What Would Rove Do? Didn’t he take off where Penn left off?

    Interesting thoughts, and timely ones, what with the failure of polling to predict and understand the Democratic primaries.

    It’s my guess that using identity categories to understand voting blocs works when we look at past elections. The New Deal’s courting, wooing, and winning of African American electorate at the expense of Southern whites is a good example of this. And, for that matter, the conservative coallition, which is hopefully splintering, is a prime example of identities and interests being forged into an Identity: I am a Republican.

    But, in our post-CRM, advanced-/neo-liberal, postmodern world, identities are too flexible and fractured for these large scale identities blocs to function. We’ve arrived at a point at which people see themselves as self-sufficient entrepenuers. Without a unifying movement–like the New Deal and the CRM, which unified African Americans, white ethnic groups like Jewish and Irish Americans, labor, and northern liberals–we see ourselves as individuals, not part of a greater collective.

  2. Barbee, you are totally correct and bring up some great examples.

    In the political realm, there has been interesting headway. I’ve heard that PDAs are sometimes given to door-knockers for two purposes: They can show a number of ads based on what the voter tells them they care about right then (data out), and they can record this data for future knocks or phone calls (data in). But solutions like this are expensive and not fool-proof.

    Some idea of your constituency/customer is better than nothing at all. So what’s the answer? Maybe the answer is simple; maybe we just need to ask them. Ask your audience what they care about, what they would like to see more of, what needs improvement. In the end, this may be the only way to get truly accurate data.

    Like you mention, we are certainly all individuals and very complex. Thanks for the examples.

    PS: When you wrote “CRM” I thought you meant “Customer Relationship Management” rather than “Civil Rights Movement.” It’s a funny example of the different ponds in which we swim…

  3. […] that failed miserably in this regard. (You may remember Jaffe from when I mentioned his work here, here, and […]

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