Monday, December 21, 2009

If politicians sold records

Sunder from the Fabians has an entertaining post about how Simon Cowell should ask politicians for advice about how to sell records, after Joe the X Factor winner was beaten in the Christmas singles chart by Rage Against the Machine.

But imagine if political strategists had been in charge of setting up a campaign to beat the X Factor winner to Christmas number one. They'd have done their research and found that the only people who buy records at Christmas are older people and teenagers. Then they'd have done focus groups on these key "swing" demographics to find out their priorities, and tried to develop "dividing lines" and soundbites carefully targeted to win over people who had bought Alexandra's or Leon's song but who were ready for Change this time. They would have grovelled to Rupert Murdoch and the newspaper editors, and gone cap in hand to wealthy donors to pay for annoying advertising on billboards in key areas where the potential purchasers live and shop. And they'd have produced some waffle about how vital it was to use new technology as part of the campaign.

That, after all, is how political strategists try to get people to vote for their party.

But what the grassroots campaign which got Rage Against the Machine to number one did was very different. They concentrated on the people who didn't normally buy records at Christmas, with a simple and clear negative message about Simon Cowell. 450,000 copies of Joe's song were bought or downloaded, 175,000 more than the winning single in 2007. But so many people who don't usually download songs at Christmas got involved that Rage Against the Machine sold 500,000. And, rather than waffling about it, the campaign organisers actually made effective use of new (and traditional) media. Though the net result is that Simon Cowell ended up making even more money, so it is unlikely to have wiped the smile off his face.

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Reflecting on recent political opinion polls, the founder of the Ipsos-Mori polling firm explained that a turnout of just 50% would return a Tory majority over all other parties of over 100, a 78% turnout would see a Labour majority of about 25. The difference is that people who are certain to vote - mainly older and more wealthy people - are strongly supporting the Tories, whereas people who aren't sure whether they are going to vote prefer Labour. If only the people who say that they are "10 out of 10 likely to vote" do so, the Tories will win easily, if everyone who has a preference does so, even if at the moment they are only "5 out 10 likely", then the polls suggest Labour will win.

Political strategists tend to focus on trying to win the support of the people who are certain to vote, and often consider it a waste of time to try to appeal to the people who are less likely to participate in the democratic process. The analyst Bob Worcester talks of older people having twice the 'voting power' of younger people, because in past elections they have been twice as likely to go to vote. But as Joe could tell you, just because groups of people haven't done something in the past, just might mean they are waiting for the right kind of campaign.

Getting people to go and vote is obviously a very different kind of business to getting them to download a song, but whether you are trying to get to the top of the charts or win an election, it's worth paying close attention to the people who haven't got involved in the past, not just those who have.

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