At the same time, networks, advertisers, ratings companies, cable and broadcast companies, media buyers and TV consultants already successful within the current model have plenty of reason to resist these changes and treat them as potentially disruptive to their businesses. The ratings/points system currently in place is largely working for them. The model based on GRPs, DMAs and cable zones is profitable and there are both technological and operational infrastructures built on it that would be difficult to change.
Outside of the largest campaigns, most TV consultants and media buyers don’t yet have to suffer through the same kind of moment-to-moment analytics scrutiny that new media consultants do. The status quo might be favorable from a business standpoint.
As cool as total addressability may sound, how it’s ultimately priced will truly be the determining factor as to whether it’s a better solution for a campaign. The narrowest targeting of online advertising is still pretty expensive (though that’s changing), and the inverse proportion between waste and cost still drives a lot of dollars to more bluntly targeted, lower-cost alternatives. Even if more efficient, innovative ways of targeting and distributing TV ads were rolled out pervasively tomorrow, they would need to be priced very low to become significantly disruptive to the DMA/cable zone/GRP model.
Consider the QWERTY keyboard— a layout that dates back to 1878 and took hold initially because it resulted in typewriters with fewer jams at higher speeds. A full 135 years later, the jamming concern is moot, but QWERTY prevails despite the possibility of more ergonomic or faster layouts.
Switching to a different, more ergonomic or efficient layout would not only require retraining typists, but it would also mandate massive investments by computer, mobile and accessory manufacturers, software writers and other businesses that currently use QWERTY. Since the existing layout is so dominant, there’s an inherent economy of scale and QWERTY is currently “locked-in.” Just ask your campaign’s finance or field director to switch from the campaign software they’re familiar with to the latest and greatest alternative and you may experience a version of lock-in.
Consulting’s Path Dependence
The fact that general consultants are still winning races largely relying on tried-and-true formulas without fully embracing the latest, most innovative practices is most certainly leading to what some psychologists and behavioral economists call path dependence—the reliance on experience and history, even when the underlying circumstances may have changed. This “history matters” approach is pervasive in political consulting and it naturally slows tech adoption. It might also have hampered Mitt Romney’s campaign, which relied on media buying tactics in contrast to Obama’s data-driven Optimizer.
Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard and author of the New York Times best-seller, “Stumbling Upon Happiness,” notes that “every animal in the world, even those without a central nervous system, will do again what they were rewarded for doing in the past ... [traditional] campaigns aren’t using crazy strategies. They’re using old strategies. They’re using strategies that were quite successful before. The other thing to consider is that these are teams. People who are making decisions that will be scrutinized by others, who are accountable to others, can be very conservative in their thinking.”
However fast technology transforms political consulting, the exuberance, rational or not, will likely play an important part in laying the groundwork for future campaigns. The biggest players with the most to gain from the status quo are hedging their bets. They’re investing and experimenting with new technologies, and they’re working to make sure their companies are well positioned regardless of how fast change occurs. For example, Comcast is embracing the third screen. Nielsen is swiftly adapting its ratings system to account for mobile devices and computer viewing.
These investments, while surely prompted to some degree by actual changes in the marketplace, will no doubt have the effect of enabling broader tech investment and adoption over time. Even after the dot-com bubble burst, companies like Cisco and Amazon emerged as survivors operating in a more favorable environment.
In "Totally Wired: On the Trail of the Great Dotcom Swindle", Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist during the dot-com bubble, offered this observation on what this history can teach us: “A friend of mine has a great line. He says, ‘Nothing important has ever been built without irrational exuberance.’ It means that you need some of this mania to cause investors to open up their pocketbooks and finance the building of the railroads or the automobile or aerospace industry.
And in this case, much of the capital invested was lost, but also much of it was invested in a very high throughput backbone for the Internet and lots of software that works, and databases and server structure. All that stuff has allowed what we have today, which has changed all our lives. That’s what all this speculative mania built.”
Speculative mania is too strong a term to apply to what’s happening in political technology today. But is this rational or irrational exuberance? The answer may lie in the timeframe and psychology of the innovators themselves.
Professor Gilbert points out that the exuberance many new tech entrepreneurs feel could be an example of what psychologists term optimism bias. “It is easier and more rewarding for us to imagine our odds of success than our odds of failure,” he stated.
Gilbert also points out the popularity and exposure generated by successful endeavors also distorts our imagination making it even more likely we don’t imagine failure.
“If Walter Issacson had written a biography of every person who was every bit as smart as Steve Jobs but whose idea just didn’t work, they’d fill the Library of Congress,” he said. “But there’s just one biography and it’s the biography of the winner. So it’s very easy to have optimistic illusions for these kinds of reasons.”
For true innovation to filter down through the campaign world, companies and strategists must navigate through many institutional and psychological obstacles and build strong, persuasive arguments for deployment. Expect quick adoption, or be overly optimistic about the benefits to the campaign, and you may wind up being shelved.
Brian Franklin is president of Impact Politics, which specializes in campaign communications and new media strategy. He is the co-chair of the AAPC Technology Committee.