How data analysis helped Obama win

Smart people use behavior-based data. They make decisions based on what people actually do.

From a web perspective, the 2008 Barack Obama campaign was all about analysis and testing. One thing they learned very quickly was that the things the internal web team thought were going to be really successful weren’t successful at all. For example, the dramatic videos they made didn’t work at all. In fact, on the homepage, videos almost always underperformed images.

The campaign rigorously tested donation-related words such as Donate Now, Please Donate, Why Donate, Donate and Get A Gift, Contribute. They found that “Why Donate” was by far the poorest performing phrase. “Donate And Get A Gift” worked best for those who had not yet signed up for the campaign. “Please Donate” worked best for those who had already signed up. “Contribute” worked best for those who had signed up and already made at least one financial donation.

If the 2008 campaign was rigorous, the 2012 campaign was scientific. As one official told TIME magazine, the era of “guys sitting in a back room smoking cigars, saying ‘We always buy 60 Minutes’” is over.” As TIME summarized, “In politics, the era of big data has arrived.” If the worst way to try to win a political campaign is to have five smart people in a room smoking cigars and pontificating, then the worst way to manage an online presence if to have five smart people in a room drinking lattes and opinionating.

“We are going to measure every single thing in this campaign,” campaign manager Jim Messina said after taking the job. According to TIME, “He hired an analytics department five times as large as that of the 2008 operation, with an official “chief scientist” for the Chicago headquarters named Rayid Ghani, who in a previous life crunched huge data sets to, among other things, maximize the efficiency of supermarket sales promotions.”

There are many who oppose this new measurement-driven approach. They talk about creativity and gut instinct and magical things like that. Data in the wrong hands is garbage. We need creativity when it comes to interpreting the data. In the age of Big Data, processing power will be cheap and plentiful. The scarce resource will be the people who can effectively interpret and act on the data.

One thing I hear again and again is that senior management doesn’t get the Internet. They have the wrong expectations and don’t properly resource it. It is our job as web professionals to change how senior management thinks. The Internet is an absolute goldmine but we are selling it as a coalmine. In many situations we are just not communicating properly with our stakeholders.

We need to stop talking shop. Because outside our comfortable professional worlds nobody really cares about our tools, methods, usability, design or content. Managers care about and understand numbers. Can something we do move the needle? Yes it can! But we have to prove it. And we prove it in the domain of human behavior. How does what you do affect customer behavior? Show it. Prove it. The potential rewards are very, very substantial.

Inside the Secret World of the Data Crunchers Who Helped Obama Win



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