Revenge of the Nerds

Why “new math” won the election and what it means for business

We’re just recovering from a crazy election. One that took a lot of people by surprise. People paid extremely close attention to the numbers, the polls, and the television ads, trying to tune into the pulse of the American voter. Pundits representing every political persuasion studied numbers religiously, plotting their moves, readjusting the dollars they were spending, and redirecting their strategies trying to lead their chosen candidate to victory.

The problem for many people who got it wrong couldn’t be attributed to not trying hard enough. It was a matter of trying extremely hard to execute a strategy, equipped with antiquated perspectives and tools that were not designed to reach a large percentage of today’s voters.

There are two great books that explain the basics of today’s research and data analytics: The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg and The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver. I think every business leader should read both of them right now, and do a reality check on our business metrics, our customer feedback, and our competitive intelligence gathering to make sure we’re not about to miss a shift in our own markets because we’re very busy monitoring the wrong information.

The Victory Lab reviews the history of the art and science of politics and tracks innovations over time that gave candidates the edge including the integration of direct mail techniques into elections (a trick learned from the mail order catalogue business) and the refinement of polls to oversample for new groups of voters when voting patterns were about to change (like the lowering of the voting age).

Nate Silver has become a pop star of equations lately. His blog FiveThirtyEight and his book straighten out our basic assumptions about which numbers matter. For example, polls that are based on calling landlines versus polls that include mobile numbers are bound to have biases that miss a large part of the electorate. Ad campaigns that exist only on broadcast television that aren’t woven into social media can lure us into complacency—it can be argued that the Democrats out-social media-ed the Republicans in this election.

The real question for all of us—whether politicians or business leaders is, “How can I be sure I’m in touch with all of the people?”

We’re lucky today. It used to be that we had to wait to ask questions before we could figure out what people thought. There would be lag time, interpretation error, and analysis challenges, but we could cobble together our best guesses and craft our views of what our customers might be telling us. But today our tools have finally come of age (as was proven by the social media savvy winners of the recent election). If we learn the magic of social media analysis and market intelligence, we can observe in real time what people are saying to each other, figure out how the information links together to micro-target our messages (avoiding the creepy side of surveillance) and connect people with the aspects of what we have to offer that are a perfect fit for what they’re looking for. We can be more responsive. Instantly responsive.

Business might not be about winning or losing a single race with a four-year impact, but it is definitely about winning loyalty over the long haul. Reading the pulse of our markets is the key to staying relevant.

As a colleague John Girard says so eloquently, “Why interpret the echoes of the market when we can read the actual market in real time?”

2 Responses to “Revenge of the Nerds”

  1. Marilyn Lebovitz November 16, 2012 at 7:32 pm #

    Having just worked intensely with our local field office promoting the Obama campaign, I can attest first hand to the close attention to refining lists within lists of potential supporters and allowing no illusions to sidetrack the ultimate goal. To ignore social media feedback is to ultimately risk defeat whether with voters or clients.

  2. Andrea Kates November 17, 2012 at 2:01 am #

    The “inside baseball” adds a valuable dimension. Thank you.

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