Health With a Capital H

What Health Communications Professionals Can Learn from Political Campaigns

August 12, 2009

By Kim Callinan, Senior Vice President of Communications and Social Marketing

photo of Kim Callinan, Senior Vice President of Communications and Social Market

Today I had the pleasure of attending the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing and Media. It dawned on me when listening to Bill Novelli's keynote speech that while politics can be intense and combative, Health communications professionals can learn a lot from analyzing and implementing the strategies that political campaigns use to elect candidates to office.

I spent the first ten years of my career working to elect political candidates to office. Similar to social marketing campaigns, political campaigns are about behavior change. These campaigns are trying to convince supporters to volunteer on their campaign or donate money, persuade likely supporters to register to vote, persuade swing voters to vote for a particular candidate, or convince a supporter to vote on Election Day.

The added benefit of political campaigns (or at least high profile “targeted” campaigns) is that significant resources are spent and significant analysis is done to assess the effectiveness of these efforts. This offers health communications professionals an opportunity to figure how to apply these strategies to our work.

Below are some “lessons learned” from political campaigns that can be applied to social marketing efforts:

Target narrowly: Political campaigns spend a significant amount of time identifying their target audience—they figure out who are the base voters (the people who are already going to support them); who hates them and will never change their mind; and who are the “swing voters,” the people who have not made up their minds or might change their minds. Typically, 10% - 35% of the electorate are “swing voters” in a given campaign and the vast majority of the resources are spent figuring out who these voters are and developing communications materials and strategies to reach only these voters.

All too often in public Health, we are targeting very broad audiences—the “general public” or “health professionals.” What does this mean? It means that we are spending a significant amount of time communicating with people who are not affected by the disease under discussion or will not be persuaded to change their behavior regardless of what we say to them. And it means that we are not spending as many resources as we can talking with those people who might be persuaded if they were made aware of the requested behavior change.

Invest in research: Effective political campaigns spend considerable resources in qualitative and quantitative research to understand their target audiences. It’s common for a high profile senate campaign to conduct a baseline survey to gauge awareness and trends and to identify target audiences; multiple rounds of focus groups to help with message development and to test the advertisements; and tracking surveys throughout the campaign and especially during the final weeks to assess the effectiveness of communications efforts and make midcourse adjustments. Based on the results, an advertisement might be pulled down, more money might be is invested in a certain advertisement or in a certain market, or a candidate’s response to a crisis might be modified.

When was the last time that a Health communications effort that you were a part of spent this amount of resources on research? Some large efforts do, but all too often this important step is skipped. Political campaigns, which are carefully scrutinizing every dollar spent, invest in research because they have seen time and time again that the investment pays off.

Make use of multiple channels: A cornerstone of successful political campaigns is the use of multiple channels. Why? Because it takes multiple contacts to persuade a person to change his or her mind. (For political campaigns, media buyers often purchase enough air time for 30+ repetitions among the target audience.) Messages are delivered on television, radio, and in print; through direct mail; via the telephone with live and recorded messages; in churches; online through web sites, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and more; and through partnerships with various constituencies including environmental groups, unions, women’s groups, and many others.

By the last few weeks of the campaign—a well-run and well-funded campaign—the target audience has to work hard to escape the campaign message. What’s the end result? An increase in voter turnout, more voters persuaded to vote for their candidate, and ultimately a victory on Election Day. And often, political strategists can point to tracking polls that show exactly which messages moved voters, where the voters lived, and when their minds were changed. Behavior change—whether it’s for a political campaign or focused on public health issues—requires the messages to be delivered to the same target audience multiple times.

Many of the successful efforts that we have heard about over the past day at the CDC Conference clearly are using multiple channels to reach their audiences; however, it’s just as common for public Health efforts to be focused on the development of a brochure or a poster with little thought given to the dissemination channels.

While Health communications professionals can learn a lot from watching, understanding, and studying political campaigns, I recognize that there are also differences between the two—one of the biggest being that most Health communications efforts must sustain the behavior change over time. It’s not enough to get somebody to eat healthy one day out of a year. We must figure out how to create the excitement and interest to sustain this commitment over time. That’s an even harder task.

Despite this difference, and many others, we can learn a lot by studying, understanding, and implementing strategies employed on political campaigns. If this is a topic that interests you, check back for future posts.