Want an Audience? Listen Carefully

There have been several excellent pieces that have dissected the Obama campaign’s effective use of digital technology.  Jon Ward added to this collection with his Republican Party Path Back From 2012 Election Requires Shift In Culture, Not Just Tactics.

While reading his post I came across a new term, “micro-listening”.

Ward writes about Harper Reed, the CTO of the Obama campaign,

“In June 2011, about one month after taking the job on the Obama campaign — his first job on any political campaign ever — Reed went to Foo Camp, an annual get-together of the technorati organized by Tim O’Reilly, founder of O’Reilly Media and an influential advocate for open source technology.

I called Reed to find out more about what he learned. He told me that at one session, he asked for input from others.

“I sat there and I basically said, ‘I’m the CTO for Obama’s reelection campaign, and I want to know what you guys think we should be focusing on,'” Reed said.

O’Reilly sat across from him and said, Reed recalled, “You hear a lot about micro-targeting in campaigns. I want to suggest that there should be more micro-listening.”

“That really resonated with me,” Reed said. “How do I activate those people to tell me more?'”

It is fascinating to read that Tim O’Reilly suggested the term “micro-listening”.  O’Reilly is a very smart man when it comes to understanding the evolution of web technology. He coined the phrase, “architecture of participation” to describe the social web.

The term, micro-targeting, is used by many who work in the world of Big Data- that area that promises that if brands can gather enough data points about each consumer, they can more effectively sell their wares because now they can craft the perfectly tailored sales pitch.

The “micro-listening” approach turns the micro-targeting strategy on its head.

Instead of pushing out the perfect message to get the consumer to say yes, it aspires to create a relationship by building trust.

It believes that someone is more likely to trust your message when you have allowed them to tell you what they think and care about. Only then will they join you, either to give you their vote (as with a campaign),  and/or their money (as with a campaign or a product).

The listening approach is more sophisticated and nuanced. It takes more time and effort because there is a lot of back and forth.

It is also more finely tuned to a networked society where consumers and citizens comment and share within their social networks.  As Tim O’Reilly would say, they are operating within an “architecture of participation”.

The micro-targeting approach still relies on a mass media model that pumps out a singular message to large numbers of people.  It refines the model slightly by making adjustments to the content of the  message or the form in which it is delivered. But it is clearly not interested in what the consumer has to say.  Listening is not part of the equation.

Ward goes on to quote another member of the Obama campaign staff.

“The biggest thing is listening and not just barking at [voters]. People don’t want to know our 10 point plan,” Jeremy Bird, the 34-year-old organizer who oversaw the Obama campaign’s field operation, told me. “They want to know that we’re listening to them, and that last time we talked to them, and they told us their son was an Iraq war vet, we listened to that and therefore we’re going to talk to them about that and not come at them like political marketers.”

“That was just huge for us. People stopped thinking of us as political marketers once they knew we were listening to them.”

The Obama campaign used technology to reinforce the human touch of their ground campaign.  They were able to harness the power of their campaign workers and volunteers by letting them know who they had to reach, how to reach them and finally, how to listen.

What Can We Learn From All This?

Anyone who wants to reach consumers with a value proposition, be they a big brand or an indie artist can learn from the Obama campaign.  Each company who says “buy my soap” or record label who says “listen to my music” or indie film maker who says “watch my movie” can emulate this strategy.

They each have to ask themselves the question that Harper Reed asked early in the campaign,  “How do I activate those people to tell me more?”

So how do you take advantage of digital technology in our networked  society and get people to buy what you are selling?

Listen carefully.

About Chris Dorr

I consult with companies on digital media strategy and business development. Clients include Samsung, MTV Networks, Tribeca Film Festival, Shaw Media and Canadian Film Center. I created the Future of Film blog for Tribeca. I have worked in the movie business for Disney Studios, Universal Pictures, Scott Free and in the digital media business for Intertainer, Sony and Nokia. Contact me at [email protected] or follow me at @chrisdorr
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  • ivalscifi

    Great post! As a recovering television executive, it’s mindblowing to consider listening to your audience instead of simply aggregating them into different demos.

    • chrisdorr

      Hi Ian, Thanks for your comment. Yes, I think the combination of micro-targeting and micro-listening has taken us all far beyond the standard demo categories.