A few weeks ago, I poked some fun at a PR stunt from the Boston-based packaging consultancy Affinnova, which claimed that its "repurposed algorithms devised for genetic research" had tested potential Romney running mates and determined that Condi Rice would have been the most valuable addition to his ticket. It seemed like the classic example of corporate marketers exploiting a media appetite for “Big Data” stories about politics without any idea of the problems campaigns try to solve.
Now the company seems onto a more productive collaboration with political professionals. The Republican data firm Vlytics and Indiana-based mail vendor Gridiron Communications approached Affinnova in September to see if those so-called evolutionary algorithms could help improve the process by which campaigns develop direct-mail pieces. Now they are often generated through the worst design-by-committee impulses, where consultants and campaign staff arrive with holistic concepts and then litigate the particulars. “In mail meetings, everyone comes in with a few ideas and then they tweak crappy ideas,” says Scott Tranter of Vlytics. “Everyone is just going from their gut.” Why not start by identifying all the individual parts and systematically test each element against other options to develop the best result?
That’s the way Affinnova helps corporate clients, like Procter & Gamble and Microsoft, shape their product packaging or (in the case of credit-card marketing) the offers themselves. The company reduces a design to its essential components — a tag line, bottle color, image, slogan — and then solicits as many as dozens of different possibilities for each. Those elements are reassembled in various combinations into complete designs juxtaposed against side by side before an online panel of consumers who pick the one they think works best. The winning ones are then pitted against one another in what Affinnova vice president Kris Green calls a “survival of the fittest” competition.
To test whether this approach would work for political design, Gridiron’s Chris Faulkner developed individual components for an imaginary anti-Obama mailer, and sent all of them to Affinnova for testing. The company screened its panel for undecided and leaning voters in battleground states and, over four weeks, showed around 500 of them the elements in various combinations. “A lot of the time we are guessing about which images of President Obama work best on moving voters,” Faulkner says.
Perhaps the most radical assault on traditional consultant expertise came in the way Affinnova used its panel: as would-be experts rather than as voters. Respondents weren’t asked which one they liked most, or placed in a survey experiment to see if their views of Obama changed in response to certain pieces, but were asked which design they thought was “most likely to change opinion against Barack Obama.”
It is an indirect formulation that Affinnova uses on behalf of commercial clients, to adjust for the fact that not all respondents are necessary target customers: If you were running this company, which would you launch? Such a “gamified question,” as Affinova’s Mayur Kshetramade describes it, can “make them more invested in this decision-making process, so they think their decision has a lot of value,” he says. “You get consumers and voters interested in the process and they’re more thoughtful.”
It is a peculiar way of detaching voters from the decision about what might change their opinion, and the political professionals involved in the project say it’s just a tentative foray into new methodologies for testing mail. “It’s definitely not how traditional pollsters ask the question,” says Tranter. “It sounds good, it definitely makes sense, but do I know it works? No, I don’t.”