In the past few years, much has been written about the political industry’s technology arms race. The 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns were widely judged (and criticized) by the technology they could build and deploy. But, despite some innovations in areas like big data analysis and database application development at the presidential and party level, down-ballot campaign technology and business practices haven’t changed all that much.
So why haven’t we seen more trickle-down innovation?
The political industry remains highly insulated against change, even from within. Insider innovation and outside investment are largely absent for two reasons:
- Any meaningful advances in technology have come from consulting firms merely seeking a competitive advantage. The political industry’s consultant-driven economy creates little need for public-facing, scalable products or technology-aided services.
- A lack of industry knowledge and no visible success stories largely keeps venture capital away. When was the last time you heard of a notable exit or IPO from the political space? Without outside investment and the creative ecosystem it creates, there simply isn’t an environment that drives risk and forces innovation.
But, we can change this.
To alter the way we currently invest and invent in the political space, I believe we ultimately have to alter how we (from the Beltway to Silicon Valley) view politicians and the campaigns built to elect them.
Defining A Political Startup Culture
While the term “startup” has been around for quite some time, in recent years we’ve witnessed its saturation of popular lexicon. The term has been used to describe everything from small, scrappy mobile application companies to well-funded biotechnology companies. But what exactly is a startup?
The highly regarded programmer and co-founder of startup incubator Y Combinator, Paul Graham, has written one of the most cited pieces on how to identify and define these startup ventures. In his essay, he writes:
A startup is a company designed to grow fast. Being newly founded does not in itself make a company a startup. Nor is it necessary for a startup to work on technology, or take venture funding, or have some sort of “exit.” The only essential thing is growth.
In addition to growth, startups tend to have small staffs, seek investment, and aim to disrupt an existing industry.
What’s unique about politics is that unlike other industries, these characteristics are inherent in every political campaign.
Campaigns Are Designed For Rapid Growth
Over the years, I’ve worked with non-profits, corporations and political campaigns to build very successful online brands through technology, digital marketing, and data analysis. Despite the client, there was always one thing that remained the same: growth. They all wanted more of something, more sales, more volunteers, more emails, more users — more conversions.
Growth is particularly fundamental to political campaigns. Finding traction with your voting base, accelerating growth among your acquisition channels (email lists, donations, volunteers, etc.), and building momentum through word of mouth and earned media are all key components to a healthy campaign.
Most campaigns have a matter of months to reach as many people, raise as much investment, and drive as much traffic as possible. But, unlike a hardware store, neighborhood deli, or law practice, a political campaign is an organization specifically designed to scale quickly because its success is dependent on it.
Campaigns Need Investment To Scale
Campaign victories are finite. No amount of innovation, investment or acquisition can extend the election day deadline. So, campaigns must raise (and spend) as much capital as possible in a very short period of time. They court large investors and small contributors en masse. Some even choose to bootstrap their campaign, hoping that traction will draw investment eventually.
While we make the distinction to call these financial supporters “donors,” classifying these contributions as gifts wrongly removes any context for a return on that investment. Almost every “donation” comes with the hope of a return, whether morally, socially or otherwise.
Campaigns need to begin looking at these investors as external stakeholders and thinking about what return they are going to offer on that investment.
Campaigns Are Built To Disrupt
By necessity, every political challenger must find ways to upset the status quo if they are to win their election. Working to position themselves as a fundamentally different product, they claim to offer better results with less friction. They aim to disrupt the status quo.
Some companies and organizations once protected by scale and regulations are now facing similar challenges as their industries adapt to new competition leveraging digital transformations. Some companies and industries remain sheltered. But what makes political campaigns unique is that despite the party or the level, each one is inherently disruptive.
Redefining Campaigns As Politically Disruptive Startups
So what does all of this mean?
It means that we can, and should, objectively redefine political campaigns as politically disruptive startups. Doing so opens up a much broader conversation on startup marketing best practices, models for investment in democratization tools, and innovation in a largely stagnant sector ripe for disruption.
When we start to view political campaigns as startups, we begin to see donors as citizen investors and politicians as products for their engagement in government. Political candidates are running as a vessel, a tool, a product for which regular citizens can engage in the democratic activities of legislation and governing.
Campaigns are waged to introduce these products to the American people. Ultimately, they aim to challenge the current political status quo by deploying lean organizational teams tasked with quickly finding product/market fit, accelerating growth in key acquisition channels, and raising capital — to steal from startup lingo.
This fundamental shift in thought does more than applying new terminology to existing strategies and tactics, though. It should force us to rethink how political campaigns and the greater political industry are run.
Party leaders can begin asking themselves how popular communication apps and the technology behind them might be deployed to increase citizen engagement in the field. Campaign managers can start asking themselves what startup marketing best practices should be applied to their campaigns. In addition, this shift in thought also empowers political campaigns to serve as the market’s voice, demanding more from its technology vendors and digital consultants.
And that is what this blog is all about, exploring the unique relationship and unseen advantages of startup mentality in politics.