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Big data has reached critical mass. Even SxSW, the multi-media conference that happens in Austin each year, is tackling the subject. On March 13, attendees were treated to a panel on how “Big Data will choose the next U.S. president.” The uninitiated could be forgiven for thinking that data is the new cigar chomping party boss. 

But don’t let that intimidate you. Using the four principles below, you can begin to demystify data and start to build better lists for your campaign or cause today.

Have a 360 perspective on data.

Information flows into campaigns in many ways, almost always in different forms. Phone banks, canvassing, email, surveys, and fundraising all generate data with needed insights but typically aren’t standardized. 

You need to think of all data as the same: It’s information that when pieced together builds a concrete narrative. The more disparate the data and classification, the more inaccurate and incomplete the story will be.

An example of this would be the “tag soup” you might  are familiar with. You’ve no doubt seen this in a campaign database at some point. One staffer tags a voter under “Jobs” while another tags “Jobs and the Economy” and yet another tags as “Economy.” For all intents and purposes, these three tags mean the same thing.

Data is as easy as it looks, which is to say, if everything looks the same, it’s easy.

Keep all data acquired on or offline in one database, or at a minimum in separate platforms that are capable of talking to each other. Define key issues and engagement metrics for staff to use for tags in your database and strictly enforce it.

Don’t jump in the deep end right away.

Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign built nearly 200 data models heading into the Iowa caucus. The campaign tailored content specifically for each segment and launched a coordinated, multi-channel messaging effort. It was well worth it for the campaign.

Now, 99 percent of campaigns lack the resources to execute this plan, but that doesn’t stop them from purchasing the third-party data which could make it possible. 

There are a few problems with this. Smaller campaigns will struggle to create enough tailored content to serve to all audiences. Not to mention that data models shouldn’t be built solely on third-party, or purchased data.

Don’t out kick your coverage. It may be possible to build 50-plus audiences based on third-party data, but if you don’t have content tailored to these specific audiences then it’s not a worthwhile exercise.

Focus on building first-party data, not buying third-party data.

In a “League of Their Own,” Tom Hanks plays a surly baseball manager who responds to a player who wants to quit his team by saying: “It’s suppose to be hard. If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it. It’s the hard that makes it great.”

That’s first-party data. As the name suggests, first-party data is data you acquire first-hand. It comes from as close to the source as is possible. As a result, it’s the most reliable. 

There’s clearly more value when someone actually tells you they’re voting for your candidate, as opposed to inferring they’ll vote for your candidate based on their household income or the magazines they read. 

When a volunteer knocks on a door or calls a voter to ask for support for a campaign or cause an awareness is created, and a relationship is started. 

Put a plan in place that prioritizes the acquisition of first-party data above all else. Set goals for volunteers and field staff and hold them accountable when they fail to meet those goals.

Most importantly, be sure you extract value from it. Don’t let valuable first-party data go unused in a staffer’s inbox, dropbox account, or on a sheet of paper.

Pay attention to who’s listening.

Doesn’t it seem like the remnants of your Amazon shopping cart are haunting you all over the Internet? This is retargeting. For those unfamiliar with the term, retargeting is when digital ads are served to those after they have visited a specific web site. 

The visit to the site indicates some interest in the brand. This makes the visitor a worthwhile target for a conversion so targeting them with digital ads across the web makes lots of sense.

Digital platforms provide insight on who is engaging with your message by visiting your web site, clicking through on emails, and listening to robocalls for example. If they’re paying attention to you, you should pay attention to them.

Create a tag of all contacts and voters that have engaged with your brand in some way, regardless of the channel. You should get more nuanced underneath the umbrella, but build one segment called “Engaged.” This would include those who’ve interacted with your campaign in some way. Maybe they clicked through on an email, or contributed, or liked a Facebook post, or listened to a robocall in it's entirety.

You don’t need an in-house data director to launch an effective data program. Building on these four principles with the right vision, commitment, and consistency, any seasoned campaign staffer can build a data powerhouse.

Justin Gargiulo is the founder and CEO and VoterTrove, a data management and voter contact platform offered exclusively to center-right campaigns and causes.