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Can Republicans Learn to Dance Digital?

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The Grand Old Party faces a big old effort in 2016.
The Grand Old Party faces a big old effort in 2016.

Praise for President Obama—even grudging praise, as is the case here—is not something often heard emanating from the Republican National Committee. But there was RNC Chairman Reince Priebus in late May, addressing a group of New Hampshire Republicans, and darned if he wasn't giving Barack some props. Not for his healthcare plans or his exemplary advances in fair tax collection, but for the one resounding talent that not even The Great Communicator Ronald Reagan would dispute, were he still among us. Priebus stood humbled before Obama's marketing prowess.

“We can't be a five-month parachute party, raising a lot of money and dropping in and expecting to succeed,” Priebus, accompanied by 2016 presidential contender Rand Paul, told the crowd. “Because you know what? We're not running against John Kerry and Al Gore anymore.”

Indeed not. The eventual Republican standard bearer in 2016 will be facing the political stepchild of the Obama digital marketing juggernaut, the one that out-emailed the Romney campaign 20 to one last year, complete with behavioral and regional personalization. And that steamroller has not stopped rolling. Obama's savvy marketers changed the theme of his emails from Obama for America to Organizing for Action and continue to be in touch with constituents. I never cancelled my opt-in to Obama campaign emails and they never stopped sending them. In recent weeks I have received messages concerning climate change, reproductive rights, and immigration reform, all with links asking me to sign a petition or receive further information. Yesterday's email thanked me for hanging on the OFA list and invited me to click a link to enter myself in a contest to meet the President backstage at an upcoming event. I mean, what product or service company, no matter how big, can offer up the POTUS as a sweepstakes prize?  Obama & Co. are pushing their agenda, to be sure, but what they're also doing is keeping an active list and working tirelessly to segment it.

Meanwhile, back at the RNC, a June 20 press release was issued announcing that the committee had rustled up $7.3 million in donations in May, bringing total cash on hand to $10.8 million. Reince, baby, I hate to break this to you, but Salesforce.com just laid out $2.5 billion for ExactTarget, a fancy-dancy email company.  Better pick up the pace.

Imagine that Coca-Cola won an exclusive contract to supply Wal-Mart, Target, and the top five supermarket, C-store, and fast-food chains. Pepsi, vanquished, fired its CEO and announced it would shut down operations for three years to rethink its position in the marketplace, thence to return in Year Four to whoop Coke's butt. This digital marketing game changes so fast you can't afford to take a week's vacation, let alone a sabbatical. But that is the unhappy position in which the Republicans appear to find themselves. Priebus knows it, too.

“We've gotta protect our brand,” Priebus told the New Hampshire Republicans. “Our digital and data capabilities have to improve. It's going to take a lot of time and a lot of money and a lot of people to get on the same page. Sharing data, Big Data, is an endeavor we have to work at.”

It can safely be said that the toughest marketing challenge with the biggest potential payoff lies not on the desk of some rip-roaring, tech company CMO, but at the feet of a young guy running a rag-tag SMB operation in Washington. Priebus appears girded for the challenge, but man, it sure is a bear.

“If we're going to compete, we gotta be huge, right now!” he vowed. “We've got to work on our branding and marketing. We don't tell people who we are anymore. We're the party of freedom, opportunity, and equality, but you wouldn't know it because we're not out there saying it.”

Priebus told of a recent meeting with a big-pockets Republican donor. The successful businessman said he admired the RNC chief and that he could have a job at his firm any time he asked for it, but that, as far as this presidential politics thing went, he'd better go big and bold or just forget about it and go home.

It's going to be an interesting game to watch these next few years—not only for what Priebus and the RNC do to revive the GOP, but also to see what price President Obama exacts for what will be a robust customer file in 2016. If ExactTarget was worth $2.5 billion, what will the Obama file be worth?

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