Competitive advantage can be achieved in a political campaign through the better use of a blackboard and chalk, more phone lines for the phone bank, more volunteerdrivers or better use of new technology.  We’re never sure which technological wave will stick and which one will affect the outcome of a particular campaign.  I speculated about such things after reviewing candidate and party web pages for the network television program “Politics”, hosted by Don Newman. 


A recent all candidates’ debate during a national leaders’ campaign got me thinking about one of my pet peeves—research.  Below, I offer some upgrades to the unscientific focus group—a mainstay of modern research.


I was just asked to review the performances of 11 politicians in an all candidates’ debate months before voting.  Since anything can happen in even a month in politics, I struggled with what perspective I would offer on a TV show called “Politics”.


Issues could change, candidates can drop out, scandals can hit and so on   I saw little point in reviewing content and policy so early in a campaign  I remembered an old technique from focus groups.  It sometimes pays to show a candidate talking on video with no sound and get reactions to the body language only.  It’s revealing the specific information respondents produce based on watching a silent picture of a candidate speaking.  They are reacting to eye contact, facial expressions, speaking vs listening time and intensity in listening, among many other factors.


I asked the TV network to pull short clips of all candidates so I could review them in split screen with no sound each was speaking with the audience or debating other candidates.


Here’s what we found.  First, several candidates were spending most of their time reading.  If you have to read “Good evening ladies and gentlemen, I’m pleased to be here with you”—you have a real problem.  Surely you can remember you’re pleased to be somewhere.  Live audiences and TV viewers will not vote for the top of a candidate’s head while the head reads a speech.


The next thing that was obvious was the candidates who did not appear to be comfortable in their own skin.  This seems to be an intangible matter, but audiences know it when they see it.  A stiff delivery, awkward gestures, fidgeting, pacing and other things that would put you off in a party, also put audiences off in large political venues.  Conversely, a candidate who can step to the side of the podium, reach out with a natural double hand gesture look at ease and smile has a huge advantage over those who cling to the podium and script.


The value of testing politicians’ performances with no sound is just one way to get more value out of a focus group.  Another is anamatics.  That’s a catch-all word that means make the testing as close to reality as possible.


Here’s how it can work in politics.  Most focus groups sit eight to ten people around a board table while a client watches from behind two way mirrors.  Depending on what you’re testing, this can be such an unrealistic atmosphere in which you don’t really learn much.


Take campaign literature, householders or direct mail pieces.  People don’t sit around a board table with strangers reacting to paper being passed around the table.  How about throwing the odd-mail piece or brochure on the floor with a bunch of other mail and see if anyone picks it up?  How about leaving a bunch of material on the board room table and leaving the participants alone to see if any of them show any interest in the stuff?  If not, you have a big problem that asking their opinions of the graphics won’t fix.


My New York partner, Ken Kansas, helped invent anamatics during decades of high end attitudinal research, directing ad agencies and funding civic arts projects.  He advocates testing a TV commercial in graphic story-board treatment only.  Audiences are sophisticated enough to review production techniques and ignore the content.  What are you electing, a video editor, graphic artist or a candidate?  Story boards cause an audience to review the steak, not just the sizzle.


Then, instead of showing test audiences the commercial in a false setting like a board room, how about a room set up like a living room with a couch, newspapers and other distractions normally found in the home. This might test whether people are interested in the commercial at all.


How about actually using someone’s basement TV room into which the homeowner invites all the neighbours?  How about stripping the ad into the actual TV show in which it will run and surrounding it with other ads so the audience’s reaction is tested in a realistic setting.  Ken used to take such ads to shopping centres and run hundreds of people through a room over a few days to get a large sample and increase the reliability of the data.


Since Ken did his work, new technology presents new possibilities.  Focus group respondents can be picked up in a van equipped with video screens.  As they are being driven to the alleged focus group room, they can be shown a real TV show with the ads to be tested stripped in.  During the drive the people can be watched to see how much attention they pay.  Once in the focus group room they can be debriefed on what they remember.  If it’s nothing, it’s back to the drawing board.  There’s no point in making them look at an ad and react to it if they wouldn’t voluntarily watch at.  The same technique can be used with even better results with radio ads in the van, since it’s more realistic to listen to the radio than watch TV in a vehicle.


In industry, empathic testing means using a real person in a real kitchen to test a real coffee pot.  There are documented cases of manufacturers learning valuable lessons that save or make them millions.


The lesson in politics is surely that the candidate should be tested in realistic circumstances too.  Whatever else motivates voters, they are surely voting to put that candidate in their living room TV sets multiple times per week over the duration of the mandate.  So, it’s in real living rooms, in real TV programs that the candidate should be tested.


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Conscription if Necessary, but not Necessarily Conscription

An equivocating Canadian politician, Prime Minister William Lyon MacKenzie King, was asked about the divisive issue of conscription.  French and English Canadians didn’t see eye to eye on the issue, leading up to World War II.

Kind famously said “Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription” or words to that effect to reassure French Canadians that even a “Yes” vote in a plebiscite during the war might not necessarily mean actual conscription.    

This is how I feel about the activities of communications departments—communication if necessary, but not necessarily communication. But I mean something much more specific than Prime Minister King did.

What are the goals of the communications department?  Surely we are trying to sell goods and services?  We might also want to enhance reputation or engage in a great corporate social responsibility campaign.  But everything is secondary to the health of the enterprise.  

With that, here are some principles:

  1. Do we really need original research?   Are there no peer-reviewed journal articles on the topic we seek to understand?  Has no one else faced our market challenges before?  If so, let’s conduct research, but let’s also be sure we are building on the thousands of journal articles that already exist.
  2. Focus groups are unscientific gab-festivals and a good way to have a snack behind a two-way mirror.  They can be a good way to have a deep and long conversation, but this might be with people who are telling you what you want to hear.  
  3. Polling is really expensive – tens of thousands of dollars for reliable, national polls.  It’s even a thousand dollars or so to put your question on research company’s regular poll.     

So what do we do?  I would be in a preposterous position if I were arguing against research.  I’m not.  I’m just arguing for a certain type, at the right time.  

The first thing I want to do is deconstruct the buying decision.  Why do people buy?  When do they buy? Is that a different time than when they order or decide to buy?  Are other people involved in the decision?  Here’s what may be the case with a winter vacation in Florida.   The item goes on the credit card in November for a December trip.  This might spark advertising in October.  The advertising might be to credit card holders.  But it just might be the teenagers in the family who caused the decision to be made, and they may have been agitating in September when they went back to school.  Or they may have been bored during summer holidays in July and started thinking about going to Florida.  Or it may have been a family decision the previous cold February when everyone decided they were sick of winters.  

Who decides, and helps decide what and when is key.

It’s only after I really understood my customers’ and clients’ decision making process that I’d think about further research on my reputation.  Even then, I’d want to know if there’s already a strong impression about my sector of the economy.  If everybody hates a certain sector, it’s going to be hard for me to buck strong impressions.  So, back to first principles—sell the goods and services.  

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