For every loyal Republican, the post-2012 discussion of the party’s digital strategy has been painful to follow. The Growth and Opportunity Project, released two weeks ago, includes a digital vision that moves the party in the right direction, but it misses critical details that will determine the success or failure of the GOP’s digital reboot. The report’s core digital recommendation, to build a digital platform, is solid and demonstrates a willingness to innovate. If this vision is executed correctly, it can enable the party to foster innovation and overtake the DNC in digital strength.
But what the RNC needs to build first is a core digital product, which the elements that its digital plan does include — an API, a platform, and an app store — need in order to flourish.
An API is a tool used to connect your data to another system seamlessly. External APIs allow developers to build games on Facebook or to embed Google maps on their sites. However, without a core digital product, there is little reason for an app store or an external API, as campaigns and staffers will be asking, “What am I connecting to and why?” The current plan lacks sufficient detail on the most difficult elements of fostering a strong ecosystem of technologists building products for the GOP.
The report loosely outlines a relationship between the RNC’s future platform and app-store developers. Apps created by third-party developers on the RNC’s platform will provide the real attraction for end users, who will be primarily party operatives. The RNC’s platform appears to be only a vehicle for collecting data and reselling the value created by third-party developers. A sustainable ecosystem of apps and technologists working on a platform typically develops through a virtuous give-and-take relationship. To foster innovation, the RNC platform will need to create a more robust value proposition — i.e., to have an appealing answer to the question “What’s in it for me?” — to drive app developers to build an app exclusively for the GOP.
For third-party applications, an app store is a distribution channel to acquire new users. For the platform, an app store delivers incremental value to its existing user base through outside development. For example, Apple’s app store is successful because third-party developers can reach millions of Apple users, while Apple receives value through offering app developers access to its users. Consumers purchase Apple products regardless of third-party applications available in its app store, because Apple devices deliver significant value by themselves. The RNC’s app store-vision is missing this key concept. It starts with an app store instead of an independent product.
A similar problem exists for the RNC’s future external API. Today, external APIs are used to easily send out text messages and process credit payments. Without external APIs, companies would have to recreate the wheel rather than focus on their core business. External APIs typically deliver ongoing value with usage. As the plan stands, the RNC’s future external API delivers limited continuous value. There is a strong incentive for third-party developers to pull data from the RNC, but they have no incentive, other than “it’s good for the cause,” to post data to the platform.
To solve for both of these problems, the RNC should first invest in creating a compelling product-based value proposition for building an app on its platform and for posting data back into the API. One product the RNC could create is a data-visualization tool that allows campaigns to input their voter data into the RNC’s file, merge it with existing data, and create detailed analysis on where a campaign should invest volunteers to door-knock or send out mailers. A similar product was created by Obama for America and used for a single candidate; if the RNC uses this product across all races, the entire party benefits from the exchange of data and will attain economies of scale.
The lack of a product vision highlights an oversight in the GOP report. It barely touches on the need for product managers, who define the problems to solve, set the vision for the product, and are responsible for a product’s execution and results. The GOP has plenty of technologists; the main problem is that their technical minds are not being put to work on problems that matter.
An example of this knowledge gap is the need to develop GOP.com into a platform. As the report outlines, the idea of developing GOP.com into a platform has enormous potential, but it is unclear what exactly it could be or should be. The report says that GOP.com needs to become “a social media platform,” but that can be translated to meaning any of hundreds of different product permutations.