It may seem counter-intuitive to say that startups can learn from conservative, risk-averse, old school political parties with messages targeted at appealing to the lowest common denominator. Nothing could be further from tech startup culture, right? Well, in fact, inside the crucible of an election campaign you will find some of the most agile, data-hungry, reactive organisations which are able to pump out fresh material and ads within half an hour’s notice in response to the latest news development or market research.
A political party’s campaign is entirely set up to distribute these messages to hundreds of politicians, candidates and campaign staff with the aim of keeping everyone on the same page at all times. So, after working in both spaces for a number of years, I thought I’d share the lessons political campaigning taught me, which help me on a daily basis with startup marketing.
Data is king
Understanding your customer’s (or voter’s) motivation is paramount to every marketing action you take. Polls are all about discovering the motivating factors which drive voter sentiment. Political parties use all metrics at their disposal to help craft their message including demographics, past voting behaviour, future voting intention, correspondence, comparing leader favourability, important issues, candidate recognition and party perception. The best startups (or political candidates) will really drill down into why their target market behaves the way it does and uses that information to maximise the effectiveness of their campaign activities. The beauty of digital marketing is the ability to measure the performance of different ad versions and channels. For example, you can say the same message with 3 different ad image variations on Facebook and monitor how many people interact or click with each. You can then see the most popular ad version out of the 3 and use that image and message across other channels in the knowledge it has better cut-through.
The personal touch is best
Public events and door knocking are powerful in politics. In a market where the candidate is the product, it’s hard not to respect someone who makes the effort to speak with you personally. Meeting someone face to face is easily the best way to connect with a voter and make them feel like part of the story. Likewise, nothing beats personal, direct contact with your customers because it puts a human face to your startup, creates an emotional connection and shows you genuinely care.
Micro target to promote your macro vision
Tailoring messages seen by certain demographics of voter helps political parties both keep costs down and communicate the most effective messages to the most receptive audiences. Political parties often target messages to specific areas, which can be broken down by street level, or tiny chunks of suburbs called statistical local areas (SLAs). Grassroots campaigning, where you genuinely engage with your local community around common issues is similarly effective. Startups can borrow these techniques to connect with their customers directly in their neighbourhoods or social groups, creating a warm local feel to what might otherwise be a geographically disconnected brand.
Keep your message short and sharp
Distilling your value proposition down to a short, sharp message is important in a crowded media landscape. Political three word slogans, despite the sometimes negative reactions they create, work to communicate a much larger story than their individual words. If it can't be written on a postcard, don't bother saying it.
- Emotion vs facts – focus on benefits before features.
- Human nature – is to value personality over policy.
- Be genuine – people have seriously good bullshit detectors.
- Build a story around your brand – people want to understand why you’re doing things.
- Repeat your message even if you’re sick of it. No one will ever hear your message as much as you say it.
- Have a strong call to action – ask people to do something specific eg: vote 1 / sign up now.
Pivot early, pivot often
When the facts change, even political parties change their policy positions to suit their political objectives. The same rings true for startup business models when the market changes. Every successful business is different today from the day they started. Staying nimble and ‘agile’ is important for both survival and growth, so be open to learning lessons and embracing change.
Sometimes old school is best
It’s a fact of life that even in 2021, everyone still has a physical letter box. This means flyers and direct mail can be a potent medium if used well, as it can reach people in their homes. Likewise, outdoor signage (billboards, lawn signs, posters) can’t be avoided by anyone who wants to leave their house. Think about the most impactful way to reach your customer base, even if that means going old school.
Spend quality time on PR
Politicians spend a big part of their time dealing with the media. This is because free media is probably the single most effective way to get your message out to the world. Good PR can leverage the reach and credibility of a media outlet brand and align it with yours. Startups that create compelling, interesting content and understand how to engage the media can greatly benefit from putting time and effort into public relations.
Third party endorsements
What someone else says about you is 10x more powerful than what you say about yourself. A common form of political campaign material is a list of endorsements or testimonials from high-profile community members. If someone with credibility and stature in your community is endorsing you, it sends a very strong signal that you are worth supporting. Likewise, startups with little existing track-record can amplify their credibility with positive testimonials or reviews from early users. This helps to de-risk your offering for new prospective customers by demonstrating that other people just like them are successfully using your product.
High impact, low cost startup marketing
While politics can be a polarising topic, there’s no reason early stage startups shouldn’t borrow campaign techniques from political parties. These methods are potent, behaviour changing, and best of all low cost ways to promote your product to a large audience. If otherwise boring politicians and political parties can use election campaign techniques to inspire an electorate, imagine what they can achieve for your fresh, exciting tech startup.