In 2014, I ran for local office in Northern California on a budget of four grand. During the race, an outside PAC came in and spent more than $100,000 supporting my opponent. As we didn’t have the budget for direct mail or advertising, we decided to try something different.
We implemented a friend-to-friend outreach strategy that relied on identifying and convincing local community leaders to send out emails on our behalf to all of their local friends.
When election night approached, we didn’t know what the result would be. But after the votes were counted, we were surprised to learn that we had beaten our PAC-backed opponents by almost a 50-percent margin. They had spent $11 per vote and lost while we had spent forty cents per vote and won.
After the election, we founded VoterCircle to automate the process of a candidate tapping his friends, and friends of friends for support.
We got out an initial product quickly, but it had so many bugs it was barely usable. Once we had fixed all the bugs, we thought we would be off to the races. But we learned the hard way that a working product was not enough.
Even though we had created something powerful, no one wanted to use it because it was too difficult to navigate. We went back to the drawing board and launched an entirely new design in mid 2016. Our first campaigns with the new product had great success. The product was efficient, easy to use and often delivered significant increases in turnout.
Now, we needed to reach more campaigns. We had little to no competition and the product was inexpensive. In our mind it was a no-brainer and every campaign should be using it. In the last 6-12 months we have had healthy growth serving more than 100 campaigns. But it hasn’t been the explosive success we often hear of in Silicon Valley.
So why is selling a new product into the campaign market difficult? Here’s what we have learned.
Campaigns run crazy lean.
In a short time frame, campaigns have to build infrastructure, recruit a team, raise money and then convince thousands or even millions of people to support a cause or candidate they have never heard of. There is so much to do and not enough time to do it. Convincing a campaign to adopt something new when they don’t have enough time to do what they are already doing can be difficult. Even if the new technology will save them time, they still have to find time to evaluate, prepare and implement the new approach.
Old habits die hard.
If you have ever worked on a campaign, you realize very quickly, running for office is hard. Typically, you don’t have enough time or money. Quickly you become sleep deprived and stressed out. When that happens, most of us naturally revert to what we have done in the past. So introducing a new technology can often get pushed aside to what you have done in the past. So if you are used to direct mail, you do direct mail. And if you are used phone banking or door-to-door canvassing that’s what you do.
An election is often a high stakes winner-take-all affair. There are so many decisions to make and the reality is it is often hard to know when you are making the right or wrong decision. So many decisions come down to who you trust. It takes time to build relationships with consultants, campaign managers and candidates. As a result, a new approach, product or company maybe viewed with skepticism vs a “tried and true” approach.
Timing is everything.
Campaigns ramp quickly and end quickly. If you talk to a campaign too early, they may not have the staff or resources to make a decision. If you talk to them too late, they won’t have the time to implement something new.
Rapid technological change creates uncertainty.
With the ubiquity of the internet and smartphones, the industry continue to change rapidly. Every cycle there is a new technology that’s introduced and an old technology that dies. With so much change, there’s often a lot of uncertainty. When there’s uncertainty, getting a campaign to make a decision can take time.