What Next for Database of 3 Million Barack Fans?

President-elect Likely to Continue Digital Dialogue With American Public

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The numbers border on unbelievable: Nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars in donations and some 3 million people who opted in to become agents of change.

During his two-year election campaign, Barack Obama and his marketing machine achieved unprecedented success in their use of direct/database marketing for a politician. Steve Cone, chief marketing officer of Epsilon, said Mr. Obama's is the biggest non-evangelical database of active donors he has ever seen.
Hope: Obama supporters at Lincoln Memorial.
Hope: Obama supporters at Lincoln Memorial. Credit: Alex Wong

But if you were one of the 3 million or so people who received an e-mail or text message from the president-elect right before his acceptance speech in Grant Park thanking you for your support, you know that his outreach/marketing efforts and use of that database won't end with his election.

"We have a lot of work to do to get our country back on track, and I'll be in touch soon about what comes next," the personalized message from Mr. Obama read.

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As effective as the database was during the election, many direct-marketing professionals said it can be even more important during his presidency.

Mr. Cone, who has a political-marketing background, said there are three ways Mr. Obama could continue to utilize his database, which was created largely in-house. He could use it to promote Democratic candidates during mid-year elections and also contact members asking them to reach out to legislators in support of a piece of legislation he's trying to pass. But Mr. Cone said he sees a much more immediate use of the database as well.

Top-of-mind issues
"I'd contact them immediately and ask, 'What are the three major issues that concern you right now?'" said Mr. Cone. "And then the dialogue going forward, where it makes sense, can refer to those issues. That's the power of political online communications that has not been done to date."

Mr. Cone said he offered that advice to both the McCain and Obama campaigns early on. "They didn't take [it]," he said.

Paul Price, global president of Rapp, said Mr. Obama's digital community is unlike any other and won't simply disperse. And he said his use of social networking and database marketing created an intensely loyal group of voters that marketers and agencies should heed. "You saw mass-microtargeting discriminating on the basis of people's issues, concerns, geographies and demographics," said Mr. Price. "It was a remarkably powerful demonstration of the power of database marketing and data-driven marketing."

But he said parallels between what Mr. Obama achieved and what can be attained in commercial contexts need to be drawn cautiously. "It was for a very high purpose," said Mr. Price. "The motivation of people to join and be part of that is at an extraordinary high level."

Mr. Price said the choice to rely on digital communications and not direct mail also allowed Mr. Obama to repurpose a lot of money while bringing a new generation of voters into the fold.

Working with PR folks
Gary Laben, CEO of KnowledgeBase Marketing, said what Mr. Obama and Hillary Clinton were able to achieve in terms of database building bodes well for the industry "because it reinforces the power of direct marketing."

Mark Penn, CEO of Burson Marsteller and chief campaign strategist for Sen. Clinton's presidential campaign, said Ms. Clinton is still using her database, which has climbed north of one million people. He said the examples of Mr. Obama and Sen. Clinton are evidence that major news events can serve as excellent database-building opportunities, so long as they are managed and promoted correctly. "[But] it's critical that database marketers work with PR agencies in managing how to maximize list potential out of these events," he said. "Events that are publicized properly can drive hundred of thousands of people in a very short period of time to join a cause."

Marc Fleishhacker, managing director of Ogilvy Consulting, said Mr. Obama's database represents a great opportunity but is also a big challenge. "Obama has built millions of direct relationships," he said. "Now those people have a very high set of expectations and are accustomed to getting direct communication from a man who is now going to be president. Will he stop writing now, and does he continue to use these direct channels to reach the populace?"

Epsilon's Mr. Cone expects Mr. Obama will not only continue to cultivate his database but that he will grow it substantially throughout the course of his term. "My guess is that he could double or triple the size of that database if he has a team focused on that over the next four years," said Mr. Cone. "And that will bode extremely well assuming he maintains some level of decent popularity as he tries for a second term."
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