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The methodology is really key. Or the novelty of the method. Successful target-marketing methods are always—almost immediately—widely imitated. Response rates inevitably fall, and the targeting method becomes less, well, targeted (you have to approach more people in order to get the same total number of responses). But the first use of a new marketing strategy can be quite amazing—and distorting. The people you target pay too much attention; they respond unnaturally.

The Dean campaign, everyone knows, has been made possible by the Internet. The campaign is a pure response-rate phenomenon. By being the first presidential candidate to deftly and efficiently access interest groups assembled through the Internet—a method first demonstrated by liberal groups like moveon.org—Dean has assembled a financing basis that threatens to swamp his competitors.

The campaign has even made its ability to instantly raise money through its Internet method something of a sporting event. On occasions when the president has held one of his fabled (and traditional) many-thousands-a-plate dinners, the Dean campaign has accepted the challenge and raised as much with an Internet plea.

The Internet—which has still not revealed how it will ever reliably produce profits for the commercial sector—turns out to be a remarkable political money machine. A goose laying golden liberal eggs.

For marketers, the promise of the Internet was that it would be some next-stage, even ultimate, precision prospect-targeting technology. From under the masses of the disinclined and apathetic and undermotivated, you’d be able to home in on exactly those people who were predisposed and energetic and full of passionate intensity.

For the politically minded, on the other hand, the Internet was supposed to represent some new, striking, paradigm-shifting democratization of the political process. Open access. Political peer to political peer. Reaching over the heads of the biased and conventional-wisdom-spouting media—and without the prohibitive cost of 30-second spots or of the direct mail that had once worked so cleverly and economically for George McGovern (and thousands of candidates since)—to the real people.

This populist fantasy assumes, of course, that Internet behavior mirrors real-life behavior—that the Internet is some great mall of ordinary, uninformed, and uninterested zhlubs who have just been more efficiently organized and, by the wonders of the medium, happily politicized. In fact, the Internet, for political if not commercial causes, turns out to be a way to efficiently reach people whose very engagement (even overengagement) separates them most from ordinary zhlubby citizens.

Indeed, anyone who is regularly in touch with people who respond instantly and passionately over the Internet knows they are not like you and me.

This is the most worrisome point. Not that the Dean campaign is based around policies that are too liberal, but that it is based around people who are too engaged. Too happy to be involved. Too emotionally joined at the hip.

Too convinced of their own specialness—in turn imbuing the campaign itself with an exaggerated sense of uniqueness.

Now, the Dean people tell you that the Dean dream will spread (that he is really quite middle-of-the-road, even) and that you have to run a successful primary campaign one way and then change the way you run your campaign for the general election.

But I honestly don’t think that’s really what anyone believes. Rather, I think that what’s going on has to do with a bit of marketing mythology known as the tipping-point thing.

In this model, there is a beginning of something, a glorious, random coming-together creating an event whose very spontaneity and unexpectedness provokes other events. The thing spreads; critical mass is reached. It tips into popular acceptance. Even the apathetic—otherwise known as the independent voters—tip with it.

People less inclined to drink the Kool-Aid would more reasonably argue that this is balderdash. That the tipping-point blah-blah is just a misunderstanding of the workings of a response-rate algorithm. By dint of good organization and clever methodology, you penetrate a pre-selected group. The high response of that group (the early adopters) catalyzes the responses of a series of like-minded groups. All of whom respond at exaggerated rates until the market is sated. At this point, you have to either reinspire your base through new products or new marketing schemes or expand your base through broader distribution and pricing.

Of course, if you’ve really, really done your job well—which the Deanites seem to be doing—your core group remains dedicated to your product precisely because it has idiosyncrasies and an exclusiveness that keep it from the mass market.

“They’ve revolutionized the political process with this campaign,” said Lester Wunderman, one of the fathers of direct mail, about the McGovernites, two months before disaster befell the campaign. “You see, direct mail is essentially a populist medium. Put it to work the way they have and you have really created participatory democracy on a level that was never before contemplated. And because it opens up the possibility for real dialogue—in a way that television can never do—it’s a twentieth-century hustings.”

Right.


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