The logic be­hind those gazil­lion e-mails from the Clin­ton cam­paign

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENTS - Tim Hig­gins

Af­ter the 2012 elec­tion, when Mitt Rom­ney’s vaunted, cus­tom-built Orca get-out-the-vote sys­tem failed on Elec­tion Day, Repub­li­cans pub­licly promised that they’d close the tech­nol­ogy gap with Democrats by 2016. In­stead, the party has a can­di­date who doesn’t seem to think much of the data an­a­lyt­ics op­er­a­tion pi­o­neered by Pres­i­dent Obama. “I’ve al­ways felt it was over­rated,” Don­ald Trump told the As­so­ci­ated Press on May 10. “Obama got the votes much more so than his data pro­cess­ing ma­chine. And I think the same is true with me.”

Hil­lary Clin­ton, by con­trast, is dou­bling down on data. Ear­lier this month the cam­paign ad­ver­tised three dozen an­a­lyt­ics, dig­i­tal, and en­gi­neer­ing open­ings, in­clud­ing one for an e-mail writer. The list­ing spec­i­fies that an ap­pli­cant should have ex­pe­ri­ence us­ing mass dis­tri­bu­tion pro­grams and be fa­mil­iar with A/B test­ing and op­ti­miza­tion of sub­ject lines and con­tent: “E-mail is the dig­i­tal heart of the Clin­ton cam­paign.”

The cam­paign is look­ing to build on the dig­i­tal en­gage­ment strat­egy de­vised by the Obama team, cus­tomiz­ing the mes­sages e-mailed to the es­ti­mated 8.6 mil­lion peo­ple on its list to make them as per­sonal as pos­si­ble. In March the cam­paign sent out 728 dif­fer­ent kinds of mes­sages, ac­cord­ing to es­ti­mates from EData­Source, which mon­i­tors com­mu­ni­ca­tions from po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns. That’s al­most dou­ble the mes­sages e-mailed by her Demo­cratic chal­lenger, Bernie San­ders, and al­most 10 times more than Trump, who sent only 74 vari­a­tions to his list, which now has ap­prox­i­mately 1.1 mil­lion ad­dresses.

Clin­ton’s us­ing tech­nol­ogy de­vel­oped by Michael Slaby, who worked as the Obama cam­paign’s chief in­te­gra­tion and in­no­va­tion of­fi­cer in 2012. To­day he’s co-founder of Timshel,a startup that’s de­vel­oped a tool it calls the Ground­work to or­ga­nize the vo­lu­mi­nous data gen­er­ated by mass e-mail pro­grams, donor track­ing sys­tems, and mar­ket­ing an­a­lyt­ics data­bases so that cam­paigns can wring the most from their sup­port­ers. “We are in some ways a head start,” says Slaby. “Don’t worry as much about things like per­for­mance and scal­a­bil­ity. Let us worry about those prob­lems, and you fo­cus on the cam­paign.”

Tech­nol­ogy will be key to help­ing Clin­ton turn out Demo­cratic and in­de­pen­dent vot­ers in Novem­ber, es­pe­cially if Trump con­tin­ues to ben­e­fit from free me­dia cov­er­age. “This is about max­i­miz­ing your base,” says Lara Brown, di­rec­tor of Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity’s po­lit­i­cal man­age­ment pro­gram. “It’s mostly mo­bi­liza­tion. She’s go­ing to need that, but I would ar­gue that any can­di­date in what’s go­ing to be a neg­a­tive cam­paign—which is where we’re headed—is go­ing to need that.”

Clin­ton has spent al­most $500,000 on the com­pany’s ser­vices since an­nounc­ing her can­di­dacy in April last year, ac­cord­ing to Fed­eral Elec­tion Com­mis­sion records. The cam­paign didn’t re­spond to a re­quest for in­for­ma­tion about its data an­a­lyt­ics strat­egy or its ar­range­ment with Timshel, which was first re­ported by the web­site Quartz in 2015. Trump has spent about $40,000 on data ser­vices pro­vided by Na­tion­Builder, which ad­ver­tises it­self as a turnkey so­lu­tion for cam­paigns that’s cheaper but also less so­phis­ti­cated than cus­tom-built plat­forms.

Timshel, which means “you may” in He­brew, was in­spired by the end­ing of John Stein­beck’s East of Eden, which ex­plores the bi­b­li­cal idea that peo­ple have con­trol over whether to do good or evil. Its in­vestors in­clude for­mer Google Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fi­cer Eric Sch­midt, now ex­ec­u­tive chair­man of Google par­ent com­pany Al­pha­bet. Slaby pre­vi­ously worked for Sch­midt as chief tech­nol­ogy strate­gist at To­mor­rowVen­tures, Sch­midt’s in­vest­ment fund. Sch­midt de­clined to com­ment.

Slaby, 38, sports hood­ies and a beard speck­led with white. He wouldn’t dis­cuss the specifics of the ser­vices he pro­vides to the Clin­ton cam­paign. He says his goal with Timshel is to make the kinds of dig­i­tal en­gage­ment strate­gies he’s de­vel­oped for po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns avail­able to non­prof­its and ad­vo­cacy groups. Timshel’s web­site notes that it’s or­ga­nized as a for-profit to bet­ter “re­cruit, re­tain, and re­ward” its staff.

By set­ting up a free­stand­ing com­pany, Slaby be­lieves he can at­tract and keep tal­ented pro­gram­mers, rather than let­ting them dis­perse in be­tween po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns. “We want this to be­come the foun­da­tion for a lot of the in­no­va­tion in the so­cial im­pact com­mu­nity,” he says. “If that ends up be­ing true for cam­paigns, that’s great.”

For in­vestors, though, Timshel of­fers a ve­hi­cle for pro­vid­ing an im­me­di­ate ser­vice to the Clin­ton cam­paign. “Fed­eral law is clear,” says Paul S. Ryan, deputy ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cam­paign Le­gal Cen­ter, a Wash­ing­ton non­profit watch­dog that tracks cam­paign fi­nance is­sues. “Can­di­dates must pay fair-mar­ket value for any goods and ser­vices in or­der to avoid re­ceiv­ing an il­le­gal, in-kind con­tri­bu­tion.”

Timshel has signed other cus­tomers. An­other early client was the Hive, an ini­tia­tive of the non­profit foun­da­tion USA for UNHCR, which sup­ports the United Na­tions’ refugee pro­grams. Di­rec­tor Brian Re­ich says he can see ev­i­dence of Ground­work’s ef­fec­tive­ness in the e-mail com­mu­ni­ca­tions he re­ceives from Clin­ton’s cam­paign.

Last month, as the Demo­cratic pri­mary in New York grew closer, the San­ders cam­paign called Re­ich sev­eral times to ask if it could count on his vote. Each time, he told the per­son on the other end of the line no. Clin­ton’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions, he says, seemed to ac­count for his pre­vi­ous re­sponses, mak­ing him feel as if he was hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion of sorts.

“Over the course of this cam­paign, their mes­sag­ing to me, their asks of me, you can see it get­ting more and more so­phis­ti­cated, just even based on what I like on a Face­book post or Twit­ter,” Re­ich says. He re­ceived cus­tom­ized text mes­sages, and sub­se­quent e-mails re­ferred to those mes­sages, mak­ing it clear the sys­tem

“Let us worry about those prob­lems, and you fo­cus on the cam­paign”

knew what he’d read and what he hadn’t. “They’re clearly lis­ten­ing,” he says. But “there lit­er­ally isn’t a hu­man be­ing who is lis­ten­ing to me and go­ing, ‘Oh, Brian seems to care about this.’ ”

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