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21 Sep. 2012 | Comments (0)

After Fox News ran a story marveling at the fact that Mitt Romney's campaign was prying donations out of neighborhoods that are traditional democratic strongholds, an AP reporter tried to get some insight into how it is doing that. Jack Gillum picked up the trail where Fox left it, with Dick Boyce—an active fundraiser in the San Francisco Bay area and a former Bainie. A veteran marketing executive turned private equity guy (he's with TPG), Boyce is precisely the kind of person who would port a successful business practice over to the political realm. He reportedly connected the Romney camp to Buxton Co., a customer analytics firm.

The article raises one important question about whether Buxton's services are being paid for or whether they constitute an illegal in-kind corporate contribution—but the reporter doesn't spend much time on it. Most of the piece is devoted to conjuring a sinister mood, and intimating that data mining itself may be a political dirty trick being taken here to extremes.

To me, that's not the story. Of course sophisticated analytics are being used to find pockets of money, just as they have long been used by financial service companies. And while Tom Buxton offers powerful techniques, he isn't some evil genius concocting formulae no one else on the planet can fathom. Other database marketing companies like Axciom and Epsilon do the same kind of thing for businesses every day. When I asked Gary Hawkins, who lives and breathes retail customer analytics, about the approach implied by the story, he said, "I would characterize it as leading edge rather than state of the art." Larry Downes is even less overwhelmed, calling it "far closer to mundane." Like Dunnhumby (the customer intelligence partner to Kroger) and Target's in-house analytic team, Hawkins explained, Buxton is probably accessing the data on all of us made available by third-party companies like Acxiom and Experian. Both simply assemble the massive amounts of data made available by all of us when we, according to the fine print we don't read, "opt in" to the capture and use of personal information.

The real story here is not that political campaigns use the tools available to raise money. It is that customer intelligence techniques have reached the point that a campaign—political or marketing—might be able to engage "the silent majority."

Fans of U.S. politics will recognize the term. The silent majority was a Nixon-era phrase for the members of the public who did not agree with Vietnam protesters and other vocal activists, but didn't give voice to their own views. Whether Nixon was right that such people constituted a majority, it was true enough that they were out there in some number—and were frustratingly anonymous.

We're now in an era when "big data" yields real insight into people's attitudes and probable actions, at the household level, whether they choose to air them or not. That is a huge benefit to marketers, since few consumers deliberately announce themselves to be in the market for something before they buy it. It's also a benefit to the political campaign whose supporters, for whatever reason, do not shout their views from the rooftop. Presumably they would show their support on election day—but being able to identify them allows the campaign to ask for their support in advance.

The interesting contrast buried in the piece is this: that the Obama camp "employs its own form of data analysis to lure potential supporters, via Facebook and Twitter" while Romney's fundraisers are looking for probable affinities by mining for things like "purchasing history and church attendance." Undoubtedly both sides are using both approaches, but a relative emphasis on social media by the Democrats would make sense if you believe, like Nixon, that progressives are apt to voice their opinions in public settings, while conservatives keep their own counsel.

This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 08/24/2012.

View our complete listing of HC Analytics blogs.

  • About the Author: Julia Kirby

    Julia Kirby

    Julia Kirby is an editor at large for HBR. She is coauthor with Chris Meyer of the forthcoming Standing on the Sun.

    Full Bio | More from Julia Kirby

     

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