What can you learn from the Obama campaign’s culture of testing?

How did the Obama re-election campaign negotiate the tricky balance between data collection, privacy and testing? Director of Digital Analytics Amelia Showalter explains.

As Director of Digital Analytics Amelia Showalter participated in President Obama’s successful re-election campaign. Her new mission is to bring the Obama campaign’s culture of rigorous testing and analysis to progressive organisations, campaigns, and companies.

You are promoting a “culture of testing“: What does that exactly mean for you?
A culture of testing means relying on data, rather than gut instinct. It’s important to test out lots of messages and images, and to use every opportunity to learn more about your audience’s preferences.

How can companies with lesser budget and manpower than the Obama Campaign built up this culture?
Start small! If you have an email newsletter, you can divide your audience randomly in half and test out some new messages and formats. Or you can run a test on your website, and try out new ways of getting people to make purchases or sign up for your email list.

To build up the culture of testing, you just have to start somewhere and keep testing out new ways to improve.

What does implementing this culture of testing mean for a team, its structure and processes?
It does mean people will need to do a little more work, to come up with different versions of each email or webpage. It is important to plan ahead. And, of course, the leaders of a company will need to approve the process. It’s very hard to have a culture of testing if the people at the top aren’t on board.

Testing is almost always the answer.

Many people – especially in Germany – are afraid of extensive data collection. Using data – as a company or for a public campaign – has big trust implications. What would you recommend companies do when it comes to collecting and using data? What is the right balance?
The most useful information about people is the information they voluntarily give you. On the Obama campaign, our supporters didn’t find it scary that we knew their postal code or which political issues they cared about, because these are things they voluntarily told us. That way, it is more like a conversation.
And what are no-gos in terms of data collection as well as for for social media / newsletter marketing?
If you buy email addresses or mobile numbers, instead of getting people to sign up voluntarily, you’re running a big risk. Firstly, people don’t like it — nobody wants spam. And secondly, you’re more likely to trigger spam traps (email addresses that are set up specifically to catch spammers).

What should every marketer know / take to heart when it comes to big data?
Testing is almost always the answer. If you’ve got ideas about which marketing messages will work on your audience, you should test them out and let the data prove you right or wrong.