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.
Political consultants are notorious in the technology community for having limited understanding of how to develop and iterate on a product. It is common to hear politicos say “we want a mobile app” or ask “can you just build us a website.” This reflects a deep-seeded mentality that must change if the party is to succeed in technology. For a product to be successful and to make an impact, political consultants need to engage with technologists at a much deeper level. Digital efforts cannot be successful if they are disconnected from the needs of political operatives.
These gaps are where product managers can help. Product managers act as liaisons with the interested parties to determine how to solve problems and to assure that the solutions are effective. Product managers are empowered to set the product vision and give the final approval on what to build. They scope the cost and benefits of product ideas and build those that have the highest return on investment. Product managers also protect the technology team from tendencies of non-technologists to interrupt development cycles with last-minute product requirements, for example, or with the use of vanity metrics. Product managers assure that decisions are made to solve problems that matter and to solve them in ways that can be quantified.
For example, a product manager should lead the RNC app store and API regulations. Every good app store ecosystem or external API has rules; however, the app-approval process mentioned in the report could easily turn needlessly political. Application approval must be driven from a product and a data perspective. If the approval process is held hostage by political operatives, technologists will refuse to invest in the API or to build an application for the GOP app store.
Including a product manager in the report’s recommended long-term data team will help the party avoid these pitfalls. The report authors write:
Recruit and competitively compensate talented and committed long-term data staff at the RNC. The Data team at the RNC is too small to adequately provide strong data and analysis of data for all state parties, candidates and organizations. The RNC is a national party and must have the staff resources available in this area to assist all 50 states, not just battleground states.
The RNC should round out this data team with a fully resourced product team, staffed with engineers, designers, data scientists, and product managers. The RNC needs not only a long-term data team but a long-term and self-sustaining product team to build applications for the GOP.
During the drafting of the Growth and Opportunity Project, GOP-leaning technologists from Silicon Valley advised the creation of a similar product team as the most effective and efficient means to leapfrog Democrats in digital capability by 2016. These technologists boldly recommended that the RNC create a “supra-campaign” internal product team. The team’s sole job will be to win general elections through product development. As the party uses the team’s in-house developed products, it will collect optimizations, data, and lessons, assuring that the party is consistently learning and improving. In a presidential-election year, this team becomes the core digital presidential-campaign team. With four years of lessons from hundreds of state-based campaigns and proven products in the field, this team will be a force to be reckoned with from day one.
The RNC is heading in the right direction to solve many of the problems that plagued the party in 2012. Many technologists were surprised by the boldness of some of the recommendations in the GOP report. The decision to open a San Francisco office will be greatly welcomed by Republicans in Silicon Valley. Fostering a culture of testing and rapid iteration will go far toward closing the gap with Democrats. The report was not afraid to expand the reach of digital capability and technology beyond communications and into core campaign operations.
To execute on the report’s recommendations, the RNC must go on a serious recruiting effort beyond the bubble of Washington, D.C. The best practitioners exist and are willing to help the GOP, but they are concentrated in Silicon Valley, Austin, Dallas, and Salt Lake City. Putting the wrong team in place would destroy any momentum and respect the GOP has within technology circles.
Digital is about execution and delivering value to users. It’s also about measurable results. The difference between success and failure in rebooting GOP digital comes down to one thing — team. Without a deeper focus on users, product, and recruiting the right team, the GOP risks returning to the same pattern that plagued it in the 2012 election.