With so much digital and tech adoption in general, why isn’t the poli-tech space booming? Instead, why is there noticeable chatter about missed sales goals, lower marketing budgets, and in some instances, layoffs?
Four years ago, I wrote an article for C&E, “The Slow Boom of Campaign Tech,” which discussed the many factors that were then inhibiting the poli-tech market, not least of being the psychology of general consultants and behavioral “lock-in” and path dependence.
In that article, I also made comparisons between the exuberance of digital firms and vendors and the irrational exuberance I saw as a young advertising creative director that led to the dotcom boom and crash of the late 90s.
Four years later, many of those conditions are still inhibiting growth. But there now seems to be a growing disconnect between digital consultants and the many vendors who service or provide products to them.
Now, I’m not arguing we’re heading for a 90s-style tech-bubble bust in the campaign industry. In fact, there’s a lot of good news driving the market. Traditional media consultants have accepted digital as an important part of campaigns and general consultants have started to budget accordingly. More and more of us in the digital realm are running campaigns as general consultants, which naturally gives us a bit more freedom to adjust the mix the way we feel is appropriate.
It’s also never been easier to find our target audiences. Digital consumption has lived up to the hype. Seniors are on the internet, and most do read email and text messages. Broadband penetration and faster network speeds in homes and on mobile devices are accelerating the consumption of video. The consumer data and modeling markets give us enormous insights and targeting power.
In short, all of the fundamentals are there for digital to continue to be a good bet. Why then is the political tech space not exploding? Why are many firms struggling to gain, or keep, market positions?
Some of this can be attributed to more irrational exuberance on the part of vendors. General consultants and campaign managers may have seen the light on digital, but that doesn’t mean they’re ready for a radical departure from traditional media buying.
Optimism and early sales have also led to some sloppy and lazy marketing on the part of many vendors — some very established — who clearly have not taken the time to learn the key attributes of their competitors’ products, or possibly fail to recognize the similarity of their mutually claimed benefits.
I’ve been in digital advertising in some form or another for over 20 years. Time and time again, I’ve heard vendors talk about proprietary audiences, proprietary algorithms, or some truly groundbreaking way to speed signups or contributions. After you’ve heard the 20th similar claim in the span of a couple of weeks, never mind 20 years, a natural resistance builds up. You become a bit skeptical and cautious. These claims are easy to make and often difficult to prove.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t great new products. But in many cases, they aren’t uniquely great. Or they are uniquely great, but they’re too organizationally taxing on the campaign to want to jump at trying them out.
For example, in order to test one ad network’s “unique” audience or property over another, it should be done at the same time, with the same creative, with as many of the same parameters as we can have. If it’s not an outright scientific test, it should at least come reasonably close.
We do a lot of these kinds of tests, and we often discover the claims are true. Proper testing, however, means syphoning resources out of tactics that I know work well and that my clients may already be believers in because I’ve done them enough times in the past. Most clients aren’t excited to lop off a good chunk of their first month’s budget to test new products—especially in a tight race where digital may still be underfunded. To get excited about a test, it either has to have a low opportunity cost, or I need to really believe in the potential.
Vendors are also falling into the trap of believing in the superiority of their products so dogmatically, that they view them as infallible. Yet, over and over again, I run into vendors who claim to be the best in the market, but can’t answer basic questions about their competition. In some cases, they have absolutely no idea what their competition is doing.
Last cycle, it was clear that two of the major database software providers I was talking to had not recently examined each other’s product. Their sales points had no connection to the current marketplace. It was like they were boxing with blindfolds on.
This happens all the time.
Now, it’s easy, once your company is rolling and you’ve got sales, to forget to do a SWOT (Strengths/Weaknesses/Opportunities/Threats) analysis on a regular basis. But when you don’t, it’s that much easier to blow your own sales forecasts or get caught flat-footed as another company overtakes you.
There’s another reason why the poli-tech business is going to continue to grow more slowly than many anticipate. There are now a ton of digital firms and seemingly no standard approach to buying.
Talk to 10 digital consultants, and you’ll get 20 different philosophies about online buying. We’ve taken over from firms that have been fired mid-buy, and the differences in approach are shocking. This lack of standardization can lead to very unpredictable outcomes across the industry. There’s no center of gravity.
Finally, it’s simply hard for these vendors to get the time or access they need to make sales, particularly with consultants outside of the Beltway. There are simply too many introductory emails and cold calls to respond to.
That’s why conferences are so important and why it’s so important for vendors to keep going, year after year. Some of these sales occur over the course of multiple, repeated conversations. In the face of so many choices, it’s natural to call the people you know, who have been around for a while, and have, sometimes over the course of years, cornered you at an event or meetings to explain why they’re actually worth trying.
Ask the established players in poli-tech field and they’ll tell you that it took years of cultivation and demonstrating to get a foothold. Even the ones with patented, proprietary and unique offerings had to work into it, and get past consultants’ path dependence.
Brian Franklin is the president of Impact Politics.