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Salsa Blog

3 Things about Data

by Shayna Englin, Principal, Englin Consulting

In last week’s 3 Things we said one of things from election 2012 we’ll all be talking about long after we only sort of remember why we were saving Big Bird is the rise of data. We noted:

While the end has long been nigh for campaign decision making based on the the hunch and a feeling of a guru, 2012 marks it’s official demise for serious campaigns.

From here on out, campaigns that don’t take a serious look (and plan to make a serious investment) in knowing as much as possible about what’s happening on their lists and using that information to guide decision making will be left in the dust.

While the vast majority of nonprofits and advocacy campaigns have neither the resources nor the deep data available to the Obama campaign, there are important lessons learned even for the small, resource-challenged, and data-deprived.

Unlike the Obama campaign, you probably don’t have a billion dollar budget or an analytics team holed up in a cave doing data mining and simulations. But even the smallest advocacy programs can benefit from the lessons of campaign 2012 and get smarter about data.

1. Know Your Goal

While the quants, models, and number crunching magic at the center of the Obama campaign’s fundraising and targeting juggernauts are rapidly gaining mythical status, the real story for advocates might be the campaign’s exceptional dedication to the end game.

To oversimplify: OFA was trying to maximize dollars raised over a limited period of time to fund media and organizing in a set of states and among a set of voters prioritized for their prospects of delivering 270+ electoral votes.

All of the data analysis in the world isn’t helpful without such a specifically delineated path to victory and understanding of the goal. In fact, so much data can lead to analysis paralysis without a highly honed way to use it.

Electoral campaigns have the luxuries of a solid end point, a clear cut win or loss, and a distinct apparatus (the party committees) intended to sustain movement building between campaigns.

Advocacy campaigns are generally run out of organizations with sometimes competing missions: build and sustain a movement while funding and running a campaign to win.

The lesson from Obama 2012 for advocacy campaigners: when both winning and building are goals, decide which is the most important one in that moment. Would you sacrifice winning if what was necessary to do so got in the way of movement building? How about vice versa? If you don't know, you can't be smart about what data to use and how to use it.

2. Know Your List

Know who’s on your list, what motivates them, and what they need from you to act. Know who’s not on your list but should be, given your goal. The Obama campaign did that through extensive data mining, constant testing, and modeling from expansive combined data sets of the voter file and their donor lists.

Most advocacy organizations can’t do all of that, but with surveys (in-house or through tools like the RAP Index), message testing (for content, asks, and engagement over time), analytics tools built into every major CRM, and a basic commitment to learning from the Obama campaign’s leadership to “measure everything” and measuring as much as you can afford to, many advocacy campaigns could do a lot more than they do.

The time frame for acting on measurement and analysis may be long or short, but in either case data can only help.

3. Be Prepared to Use Data for Decisions

We’ll step back that last statement a bit: data should only help, but if you don’t have a structure for funneling data into decision-making, more data is more likely to lead to analysis paralysis and that’s certainly not helpful.

If you know your goal, and you know your list, you can figure out what data you need to inform specific decisions.

Examples of decisions that data should have a starring role in:

  • Message segmentation (on Facebook, you can target sponsored content to highly specific sets of people - use data from email messaging to decide what to test, then use data from sponsored content to decide how to further segment or message?)
  • Mobilization segmentation (who are volunteers, donors, leaders, evangelists, etc.?)
  • Mobilization investments (do you invest in more list purchases via change.org, or do you invest in a field staffer?)

There's more...

There’s more to this for sure, but we call this feature “3 Things” and we’re sticking with that. Watch for three more things on data in the near future.

Topics: Supporter Management