Digital Can Amplify a Great Story, Not Make up for Lack of One

Political pollster Glen Bolger once famously said, “You can’t win on turnout if you’re losing on message.” I thought about that insight when I read a POLITICO piece from Democratic consultant Dave Gold, provocatively titled “’Data-driven’ Campaigns are Killing the Democrat Party.”

It’s one of many post-mortem analyses from the 2016 election, but I thought it succinctly captured a problem that confronts many communicators: targeting — a tactic — is receiving more attention than storytelling.

In a recent conversation with a colleague, also from a communications firm, he noted that clients these days all want to talk about “digital, digital, digital.” It was an obvious expression of where we are as an industry, but it contained a whiff of frustration. And I understood.

For all of its potential for audience segmentation, digital is at its core is an advertising channel. It’s similar to someone 30 years ago saying, it’s all about “T.V., T.V., T.V.”

If we as communicators have learned anything from recent history, it’s that hundreds of millions of dollars spent on advertising and sophisticated targeting cannot overcome a product or message that does not emotionally connect with its target audience.

I can’t help but think of the difference between scientists and artists – one group driven by reason and confident that behavioral outcomes can be predetermined with the cold replication of formulas functioning inside sophisticated models (If I tell this person X, they will do Y.). The other group driven to elicit emotion, first and foremost, knowing that it’s a necessary precondition to inducing behavior, which may even be considered irrational ($200 basketball shoes? Sign me up!).

It seems like we’re due for a course correction, as Mr. Gold proposes, where we focus first on developing a compelling narrative to connect with the emotional core of an audience. Let the tactics flow from that.

Communications professionals can develop a strong narrative while still understanding that it needs to be deployed in a way that efficiently reaches its audience — leveraging the unique benefits that digital provides, for instance. But, absent an emotional connection, the best data and tactics will simply sound like white noise to its intended audience.

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