Behind the Brand

Here's What Brands Can Learn From Hillary's Grassroots 'Differentiator'

How political campaigns find and energize volunteers is a model for finding brand evangelists from among your best customers.
Here's What Brands Can Learn From Hillary's Grassroots 'Differentiator'
Image credit: Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

As September ends, the presidential candidates are in the home stretch of the campaign. Ask our sitting president or nearly anyone else keeping an eye on electoral politics and they’ll tell you: mobilizing a community of volunteers is one of the most important things you can do to win an election.

In 2008, the Obama for America campaign implemented a community organization model we dubbed “the Snowflake Model” to empower individuals to change their own communities. This approach transformed community activism, allowing volunteers to be responsible and accountable in the name of a common goal. That same model that helped deliver the presidency to President Obama is now being employed by Hillary Clinton to organize and empower volunteers participating in her campaign. Part of what made Obama’s and makes Clinton’s community so successful is a strong alignment between the values the campaigns espouse and what’s being asked of the community. Campaigns that celebrate “Yes We Can” are best served empowering the volunteers within.

Last year, Clinton delivered a speech in Iowa that was broadcast to 650 house parties spread across each of the 435 congressional districts throughout the country. In the speech, she urged viewers to “get involved in this campaign.” Recently, Clinton launched a mobile volunteering app that encourages users to check into rallies and speeches, share social content and compete with their friends on challenges. These steps are carefully designed to serve as entry points into the campaign's volunteer infrastructure, while forging a deep web of connections between her supporters through shared responsibility.

Community, whether political or otherwise, can’t be manufactured or bought. It can however be cultivated, nurtured and organized. It can be scaled. And it can be extremely powerful, whether its goals are around winning an election or engaging consumers around a brand. Embracing and organizing community is one of the few things companies can do to truly connect with customers and employees, and if done correctly, the impact can be immense.

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Same-same, but different.

What are the commonalities between what a political candidate and a brand face? Well, they’re both constrained by time, size and bandwidth. There’s only one Hillary Clinton and while she has a team, paid staffers can only do so much to reach their audiences. So political candidates look to multiply their efforts. They seek out volunteers or individuals that share their views and as those volunteers exhibit greater interest in participating, their unique skill set or talent is put to use. By organizing groups of individuals into teams, a multi-armed organization is born, each one capable of fulfilling the roles of an independent micro-campaign. Think of it like the A Team, only with many varieties of Hannibal, B.A., Murdock and Peck but without explosions.

On a corporate level, communities can operate using the same model but without an end-date like an election. Corporate communities have a different drumbeat and cadence. They can keep customers and employees engaged in a company’s activities while focusing attention on shared goals. However, creating milestones within those activities is key for long-term commitment. Brand-centric communities need a sense of urgency, like in political campaigns, while maintaining a long-term view that values continued development in addition to planned and manufactured activity spikes.

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Striking the right balance.

So how do brands ensure their unifying vision is clear even when they scale? In a political campaign, it comes down to applying operational discipline to the ‘soft’ art of relationship building--and making sure everyone has a clear view of what they’re working toward. That means using metrics to track how involved individual community members are and using that data to systematically push those community members toward deeper engagement.

Take Hillary Clinton’s announcement around vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine. Because the Clinton campaign invested in developing a large network of volunteers and grassroots leaders, her campaign quickly disseminated not only the news, but also the reasons behind Kaine’s selection. Organizers associated with the Clinton campaign could make a strong argument for why he was the right choice on the ticket, and spread that message to their specific regions and selection of voters.

Businesses should use the same operational discipline to gain insights into who interacts with their brand. JetBlue is often praised with responding to every customer on Twitter, a commendable effort for a brand of its size. But how much does the company really know about its community on Twitter? How long have they flown JetBlue? Have they referred their friends? How likely are they to do so? To leverage the power of the community, these data points must be collected and connected in a way that allows them to drive strategy.

Gaining this level of insight isn’t easy, especially for large corporations. It requires infrastructure that is scalable, self-sustaining and built to last. That means paid organizers in place to nourish relationships and engage volunteers and brand advocates as they create their own self-sufficient communities. But as companies and brands gain insights into the individuals in their communities, they can create relationships built on something more than transactional consumer habits--something built on emotional loyalty. Those strong relationships are what will drive real, long-lasting engagement and collaboration.

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"All politics is local" is a common refrain from political operatives, but brands should think of their own communities the same way. The Snowflake Model hinges on empowerment, and brands that celebrate those same doers will be able to celebrate accountability throughout their community. The principles around engaging, organizing and mobilizing large groups of people are invaluable, and as companies embrace grassroot philosophies, they’ll see real change in how they interact and communicate with everyone their brands touch.