Five Lessons Marketers Can Learn From the Iowa Caucus

Political Advertising Isn't Pretty, but It's a Textbook Case of Efficiency

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While hot agencies in Miami, Los Angeles, Sao Paulo, London and many other cities have shone over the past two decades, New York remains the center of advertising and marketing. Accusations of the industry having an East Coast, or even New York, bias have some merit. Sure, what "works" in TriBeCa or Williamsburg can be a good gauge for launching a fall fashion line or the latest superpremium tequila. But New York probably isn't the best trial market for a chain of fast-casual dining spots or for road testing a person who could be the next leader of the Free World.

Many marketers also tend to view politics, and especially political marketing and advertising, as declasse. While politicos don't enjoy the huge budgets that many of us do courtesy of the automotive, beverage and pharmaceutical industries, if you need to get a message out on a shoestring and drive real results, you'd be hard-pressed to find folks who do more with less that political advertisers.

I love the talent of our industry, but I respect the hell out of the efficiency and effectiveness of political advertisers. Also, I'm huge fan of the Midwest -- particularly Iowa.

I learned some of my most valuable life lessons in Iowa. As a college wrester, I spent many an afternoon and evening on my back counting lights on the ceiling while getting thrashed by Iowa's finest. As a recovering political pollster and media consultant, I've sketched out ad campaigns on the backs of cocktail napkins in the finest dives in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, devoured untold pounds of M&Ms. while watching focus groups in strip malls and listened to stump speeches in living rooms throughout the state.

Later in life, I sold the social-media marketing company I founded to the terrific folks at Des Moines-based Meredith Corp., where I experienced some of my most rewarding moments and successful negotiations while also having my rear handed to me a few times.

Safe to say, I've learned some of hardest and best lessons of my life in the fieldhouses, bars, boardrooms and living rooms of Iowa.

The first-in-the-nation caucuses held every four years to kick of the presidential campaign are often dismissed as too small to matter (only about 130,000 people participate). But when it comes to what works in marketing, our industry would be wise to pay attention.

1. TV Advertising Still Works. And this is coming from a social-media guy. According to Kantar Media, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who narrowly emerged from Iowa with the most votes, also had the second-most positive points on the air over the past month. His aggressive advertising helped Romney shore up support in a state that was never in love with him and that he rarely visited until the closing days before the caucuses. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich had nearly four times as many negative ads as positive. A pro-Romney super PAC ran TV ads that helped remind Iowans about what they didn't like about Gingrich. Newt failed to define himself before others defined him. The takeaway was clear: TV ads can still be incredibly effective.

2. Social Media Alone Doesn't Save. Social media works only if it's supported by the proper infrastructure. (That's why Obama was so successful. It wasn't social for social's sake but to drive an action.) Gingrich was infatuated with "running a different kind of campaign" and said that "we may not do any TV advertising. Only social media." Fact is , that 's not particularly innovative. He maintained a Facebook page and a Twitter feed, but there was no infrastructure to capture information by his campaign and no call to action. All of the leading candidates used social and mobile. But in 2012, those approaches -- "revolutionary" just a cycle ago -- were so 2008. Though social media is vital for campaigns, it's no longer a differentiator.

3. Identify your Audience and Focus on It Like a Laser Beam. Candidates and marketing campaigns get into trouble when they try to be everything to everyone. The reason Rick Santorum did so well in Iowa is that he understood that about half of the conservatives would be up for grabs. As explained by his lead strategist, John Brabender, a former boss of mine and one of the most creative political advertisers in the business: "There will be three tickets out of Iowa and three primaries for all factions of the party: the libertarian primary, the moderate primary and the conservative primary. ... We're aiming to win the conservative primary." Santorum knew who he was going after and focused relentlessly to close the deal.

4. Message Matters Most. In politics, principle will always beat process. Gingrich's campaign started to spiral downward in Iowa when he began to complain incessently about the attacks ads against him -- highlighting the negative changes and hindering his ability to get out his own message. In contrast, Ron Paul, Romney and especially Santorum appealed to the principles of their audiences and were rewarded for doing so. It's important for us to do the same. We need to occasionally step back and ask ourselves: What do we do, what does our product stand for? Are we articulating that in a clear and concise way? And what is it that we are asking people to do?

5. Let'em Squeeze the Charmin. Part of the appeal of Iowa, New Hampshire and all retail politics is that everyday voters can get close and personal with the candidates. Here's why that matters: If a candidate can't go toe-to-toe with an old crank in a town hall without losing his cool, how is he going to debate a skilled communicator like Obama? The process of the Iowa caucuses may seem needlessly grueling and a throwback to another era. But the people of Iowa (and New Hampshire for that matter) have some of the most sophisticated BS barometers I've ever seen. Why? For generations, every pol who wakes up with White House ambitions has tried to sell them every bill of goods under the sun. Iowans may seem Midwest nice, but if you ever think you're going to pull one over on them, you do so at your peril.

Every good product needs a beta. Campaigns and products are almost always improved by a good road test and squeezing of the Charmin.

The GOP nomination won't be wrapped up until late April at the earliest. No matter what you think of President Obama (full disclosure: I'm chairing the GOP campaign efforts in Virginia), he is one of the most remarkable campaigners and communicators of our time. After all, Ad Age named the Obama campaign the Marketer of the Year in 2008. Whoever wins the Republican presidential nomination will face enormous marketing and communications challenges in the general election campaign.

And for other marketers, the message is clear: Listen and learn from Iowa. Those fine, savvy folks can teach us all a lot.

Pete Snyder is the CEO of Disruptor Capital. He founded New Media Strategies, the world's first social-media marketing agency, and served as its CEO for 12 years. Pete is also a recovering Republican pollster and political media consultant.

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