Taking a page from politics: Local communities at scale

  •   July 24, 2019

Over the past two decades, the race for audiences propelled a shift away from local. Mainstream national news trumped local, national chain stores pushed out local shops and national advertising campaigns became the default over local. But this trend is changing. Now more than ever, local communities are thriving. The desire to connect with people, no matter their geography, shaped the digital landscape. Now, that desire for human connection is swinging back towards the familiar: the community and the local.

Local has become a more dominant focus for brands as well. Search, for example, is fueled by local-driven queries, with local advertisers serving as the primary driver of Google’s revenues last year. This is a fundamental shift away from traditional mass marketing, as well as an important step towards hyper-personalization. Local marketing is its unique beast – what works in Jensen Beach, Florida, will not resonate with audiences in Billings, Montana.

For many brands, local marketing is only logical at a certain scale: targeting several local communities, across a broader geographic landscape. Anything more specific requires too much additional work, from creating custom segmentations, messages and managing the campaigns (although adtech has helped significantly with the last issue).

This has been a longstanding challenge for political campaigns, particularly those of Political Action Committees, national and statewide candidates. Campaigns win by engaging voters and gaining votes which require connecting with constituents at the local level, often across many unique communities. Personalization is everything. How can you execute on a mass scale, without losing personalization?

Ethan Roeder is the director of campaigns at Forward Majority, and a former director of data for President Obama’s presidential campaign. In his current role, he focuses on state legislatures and districts where Democrats can win back elected positions before redistricting happens in 2020. This mission is cross-country, and last year the organization embarked on a six-state campaign, working in a total of 120 districts, during the 2018 election cycle.

We spoke with Roeder about lessons learned and best practices when it comes to tackling local campaigns on a massive scale:

Identify promising localities with a mission-driven focus

While Forward Majority’s overarching goal of more Democratic elected officials was a national one, their approach needed to be local. To make the most of their efforts, and budget, they identified locations which were best positioned to benefit from their involvement, both on a state and district level. Spreading resources too thin would limit the effectiveness of their work, but limiting the number of locations would minimize the organization’s impact.

“The last election cycle was a critical opportunity for us to change the tides,” explained Roeder. “To achieve that, we first focused on our selection process. We looked at states that were Republican-controlled, had large congressional delegations and were facing contentious redistricting fights post-2020. With that screening, we narrowed our focus down to six states.”

From there, Roeder and his team whittled the focus further to specific candidates. They relied on a predefined set of criteria that was mission-driven to guide this process. As an organization, they were willing to take on more risky bets, so, as Roeder explained, they decided to focus on candidates with limited monetary resources that were also under-supported from traditional party factions.

Be flexible to identify uncovered insights

In tackling 120 campaigns across six different states, Roeder and his team faced messaging needs for each local community. Messaging must resonate with each audience, and the best way to capture that understanding was through research and on-the-ground resources. As with most political campaigns, Roeder leveraged various research methods to comprehend better local sentiment and hot-button issues using that information to craft the perfect message.

Roeder’s research in Wisconsin is an example of this. At the time, a pending deal with Foxconn brokered by the state’s governor was a point of contention for many local voters. The deal was to provide generous subsidies in exchange for a $10 billion plant, with 10,000 plus jobs, in Wisconsin. When Roeder and his team tapped their local Wisconsin resources, they were advised that Foxconn was the way to win campaigns in the state.

“When we conducted our virtual focus group research, we found that while Democrats in the state were very fired up about Foxconn, Independents and Republicans saw the issue differently,” said Roeder. “It wasn’t a vote-swaying issue for the latter groups, which was our target audience.”

This information was pertinent to defining the right message for the right audience. If they went with the Foxconn angle, they would be motivating the Democratic base, but not the audiences they needed to activate to win the campaigns. It was the flexibility with which they approached the research that allowed Roeder and his team to uncover this valuable insight. They instead led with protecting health care for people with pre-existing conditions and increasing funding for Wisconsin public schools and were able to improve Democratic vote shares by 2.5 percent even in majority-Republican districts.

Strike the right balance

With so many local communities on their radar, Roeder explained it was essential to strike the right balance in their approach. The desire to be granular must be balanced with practicality.

“We created over 250 digital videos for our candidates but we had limited production capacity,” said Roeder. “The issues and themes we used were similar across similar districts, but still varied based on the candidate and local insight.”

The wisdom gained from the political trail is particularly applicable in local marketing, as it is built on personal engagement. As Roeder’s work highlights, a research-driven strategic approach provides the necessary information for executing a successful local campaign at scale.


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