Marginal gains

Silver bullet - some rights reserved by eschipulToo often people come into political campaigning searching for a silver bullet which will revolutionise their candidacy and transform the electorate into ardent fans overnight. It’s the most common mistake of first time candidates. Those of us who have already spent decades stuffing letterboxes know that a quick fix doesn’t exist.

That isn’t to say there aren’t campaign game-changers – the advent of television or how some candidates have harnessed the internet, but in truth they are few and far between. Instead candidates and campaigns continue to be successful by evolving with the times and making marginal gains – small incremental improvements throughout their campaign which combine to yield a substantial leap forward in parliamentary majority.

It’s a technique borrowed from big business. In 1987, American Airlines wanted to improve their bottom line. But how do you improve the bottom line of an already successful business (or candidate)? A bright spark (probably an accountant) at American Airlines suggested removing one olive from each salad served to customers in first class – $40,000 saved over the course of twelve months. $40,000 would be a huge windfall for any political candidate in the UK, but to American Airlines $40,000 is a relatively small saving. But as anyone who have ever run a household budget knows, $40,000 saved here and a little more there, soon adds up to a far larger saving.

It’s an approach adopted by sports scientists more recently, including by British Cycling – marginally improve a cyclist’s diet; shave a few grams off the weight of their bike; develop a more aerodynamic fabric for their clothing; warm the track temperature by a few degrees. Each action in isolation sounds hardly worth the effort, but the reward is Gold. The same applies to electioneering. By making incremental changes or ‘marginal gains’ in different areas of the campaign, candidates can make a big difference to the overall result.

One example of where we as a Party can make marginal gains is by improving how we use data. We are already using smart data, but if we are truly honest, we use it sporadically and it’s often left to individual constituencies to plough their own furrow. As a result, our true understanding of how best to harness demographic and psychographic data is in its infancy.

But it is one example of an area where we can and should start to make improvements. If we can understand our audience better and stay in touch with what motivates them, we can then use that data to improve our communications – the quality of the design, the content and the targeting strategy – all components that played a significant role in my increased majority in 2010.

So perhaps candidates need to spend less time chasing the impossible, less time longing for a miracle which will deliver them victory – and less time worrying about how we are viewed nationally by pollsters or columnists. Instead, head back to the drawing board. Can you use and collect demographic data more effectively; improve the quality of your online engagement; produce better leaflets; build a better relationship with the local press; make yourself more accessible to constituents; target more stakeboard sites; take better photos? Ask yourself: can you lose an olive here and there?

* Tom Brake is Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton and Wallington, and Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

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2 Comments

  • Mark Inskip 5th Jan '13 - 2:34pm

    Marginal improvements are crucial when you’re already in a strong competitive position, shaving a fraction of a second here or there to gain the edge of the Ferrari or McLaren or vice versa. However if you’ve found yourself in the HRT you’ll need to make some very radical changes to get yourself off the back of the grid.

  • Good article. Mark’s right that marginal gains won’t win us constituencies or wards where we are in a poor third but in the many wards and seats where we are competitive and where it may well come down to differential turnout, for example, it could be the difference.

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