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August 28, 2013

Q&A With Andy Barkett, The RNC's New Chief Technology Officer

After the 2012 election, it became pretty clear that the RNC had fallen badly behind Democrats in their digital and marketing abilities. In an effort to change that, this past June the RNC hired Andy Barkett, who had been working at Facebook. Andy took some time to speak with me last week and answer some questions about the RNC's new digital direction.

JE: What was your previous position with Facebook and how long were you there?

AB: I was there for over two and half years. I think I started in December of 2010 or January of 2011. Around Christmas, right around that time. I was a senior manager of production engineering, which is an infrastructure engineering group.

JE: What, specifically, is your technical background?

AB: I have an extensive technical background, as a software engineer, as a systems engineer. I was a software engineer at a start-up in the semiconductor industry a long time ago. I worked at Google on the infrastructure side building data centers and designing networks. I worked at a consumer electronics company called Livescribe for a while designing hardware and software. Also hardware, embedded software and web software all in one big system. You can think about it almost like an iTunes type system where you have an iPod, iTunes and then a store that goes with it. The product was actually called Livescribe and it's a device that was sold at Best Buy and Target and a bunch of other places.

So, I'm a big nerd. Basically.

JE: Do you have an interest in politics in general and do you have any particular interest in conservative and Republican politics or is this just a new opportunity for you?

AB: Oh, I'm certainly committed to the cause. I've not been very active in politics, but ever since I took an economics class, I've been a Republican. I studied political science and economics in college at the University of California Berkeley. I also, later, got an MBA at UC Davis and I studied economics more there, including behavioral economics and behavioral finance. Through all of that, especially the economics, I came to believe very much in limited government, lower taxes and a role for government for making markets work instead of interfering with them. Those were the core issues that started me down the path of being a Republican.

JE: What do you think are some realistic goals for the GOP moving towards the 2016 election in terms of matching Democrats in their technical and digital abilities?

AB: Well, first, I'd say we're going to be working on things for the 2014 midterms, but whether it's in 2014 or 2016, I think a realistic goal for us is to move the needle and do a little better with the under-30 crowd. So definitely work on doing a better job reaching those people who are moving around, going to college, relocating to different states. Maybe they don't have a land line, maybe they don't have a permanent mailing address. We didn't do a great job of communicating to some of those people the last time, so that's definitely a goal. Also, another one is to move the needle in some of the niche markets. So, if it ends up being, y'know, Filipino people who speak Tagalog in Daly City, California, that's a group that we need to do a better job of communicating with. If there's a group of Protestants who are willing to support a candidate in upstate New York, but haven't historically been actively engaged Republicans, we need to do a better job of finding that group first, then engaging them.

So, I think the way I would measure it is two things. How we do with under-30 voters and how we do with getting really specific in reaching a lot of very targeted groups within the country.


JE: A lot was made of Team Obama's micro-targeting operation and the ability to find and market to people on a very small, local level. Has there been an effort to reproduce this and then expand it at the RNC?

AB: Yeah, we're definitely doing that. We've talked about and we've begun to work on a mass customized model. The Obama team got down to where they could target smaller and smaller niche. We want to go further. We want to have a model of every single individual. So if that individual person has clicked on an email from us and said that they care about a particular issue, if we've knocked on their door and asked them a question, we want to understand every single one of those people on a personal level and know how to communicate with each one of them. So, where we want to get to is that when we send out an email blast, that email is customized to each recipient.

JE: Some of the post-election criticism focused on the campaign's satisfaction with "hitting their numbers", sending out a certain number of mailers that tend to get tossed straight in the trash and other raw number metrics. Do you feel as though the RNC is coming to understand the importance of analytics, tracking and evaluation so that they can gauge the effectiveness of these various programs?

AB: Yeah, I think they do. I don't know about in the past since I wasn't here, but I think that right now there's a lot of will and it may come partly from having lost in 2012. There's a lot of political will, all the way up to the chairman of the RNC and even with some of our friends at the other committees and other places. There's a lot of will to do this a lot better, and they're understanding now that we need to take somewhat of a different approach than how we've done it in the past. We're still going to work with some of the same vendors that we've been working with, but we're going to make sure that as we work with them, we're able to implement this deep targeting based on real analysis. More data-driven decision making about what's effective and what isn't effective in campaigning.

JE: One of the major successes in Obama's 2012 campaign was how easy they made it to donate. Has there been any effort to streamline the donation process, making it easier to donate more often, in smaller amounts and through non-traditional payment gateways?

AB: Yes, there definitely is. We're already working on projects in that area including the ability to donate right through your cellphone bill and other features like that. So, we haven't released it yet, but those are things we are actively working on right now.

JE: Outside of Facebook and Twitter, what is the RNC looking to do to expand their influence and reach into other social media and online communities?

AB: We're looking to partner with Google and LinkedIn, for example. Both on the social media side and also on the advertising and targeting side. We really want to help people do more efficient targeting of online advertising to very niche groups. So, on Facebook you could do custom lists where you can target an actual specific set of people, which has a minimum group number of about a thousand people. On Google, we're going to be able to do very good geographic and language-based targeting of ads. So we would like to make it as simple as giving the campaign a button that says "How do I reach, for example, Hindi speakers in Fairfax County?" They should be able to click a button and it'll say, "For $397, we can reach approximately 2,000 people that fit this criteria", and it just does it. That's something that we want to make a lot easier. I was talking to some folks over at Google this week, actually, about how we can accomplish this. I have meetings with Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft coming up. We'll be working with all of the tech community crowd in advertising, search, analytics, social media, all of those areas.

JE: Another area Obama's team really excelled in was rapid response. After the "Big Bird" debate, they were able to rush out a video the next day mocking Romney on YouTube along with ads on Facebook. Do you think the RNC is going to have both the staff and the structure in place to be able to pull off this type of response as well?

AB: Yeah, we actually already have some good guys at the RNC who produce the videos. I think what we lack right now is the tools to effectively target who we share those things with. We do send them out to some people now, but not enough and not targeted well enough. We're going to work on improving that. I'm pretty confident that we'll continue to create good content and probably do even more of it. We'll also help the campaigns, who will have their own staff creating those types of things and give them better tools to get the message out as well. What we're doing is both to help the RNC as a committee, but also to help the campaigns the RNC works with.

JE: That sort of leads into my next question. There has been in the past the tendency for the candidate, once they secure the nomination, to almost completely take over the digital and GOTV efforts. As we saw with Romney's campaign in 2012, this didn't exactly work out as well as expected. Is the RNC trying to maintain more of a leadership role after the candidate is chosen, specifically on the digital side?

AB: Once the candidate is chosen, they're the boss and we're going to support that candidate. The way I look at it is by the time that candidate is chosen, which I hope will be earlier than in the past, we should be handing them the keys to a tank that's already gassed up and full of ammunition with a trained and experienced crew. What I don't want to be handing them is a bunch of problems. So, I think that, to use you words, we're taking a leadership role in the sense that the day that candidate is chosen as the nominee, they should already be in full digital campaign swing. They shouldn't need to change anything. They should just need to keep going and use our tools to increase what they're doing. That's the way that I view success, that if they take over that day and say "thank you very much, we'll keep using what you've got", then I've done a good job.

JE: I'm not sure if you're aware of Howard Dean's "Fifty State Strategy". It took some time to develop since he started it around the 2004 election cycle, but it's performed very well in the last two cycles. Republicans have been quite successful recently on the state and local level, is the RNC trying to build on that success in hopes of transferring it to success on the national level?

AB: Yes, we are. One of the things that we haven't done well enough in the past is we have gone out and knocked on someone's door and used our huge number of volunteers that help the Republican Party and used all of our campaigns that have done an excellent job in many of the states and we talked to a lot of voters and learned a lot about them. What we haven't done well, is that then once that campaign is over, we've sort of forgotten what we learned about that voter or about that person. What we want to do is we want to get better at having a long-term relationship with those voters in every state. So, it'll be a long distance relationship with people that are far away from Washington, D.C., but the person that they're interacting with should still be a volunteer that's knocking on their door right in front of them. What we really want to do is get better at using that great volunteer force that we have and extending and leveraging the value of what they learn about the voters beyond the election that they're volunteering on and be able to build up an understanding of that person's preferences. How they want to be communicated with, what they care about and remember that over time. That way those voters can feel like they're having this relationship with a party that cares about and understands them consistently year after year.

JE: Are you looking towards the explosion in the growth of mobile in recent years as the best opportunity to leapfrog the Democrats digitally?

AB: Yes. Mobile is the key thing. When I was at Facebook, we were working on what Mark [Zuckerberg] announced [last Wednesday]. They're trying to find ways to bring broadband experiences to billions of people around the world who primarily use mobile devices to access the internet. Luckily, in my job, I only have to worry about 300 million people, not billions. But even among these 300 million people, there's obviously an increasing move towards smartphones as the primary communication device. Also the primary device for receiving news and other content, so certainly that's a major thing we're going to tackle from every angle. We want people to be able to donate on their phones, we want them to be able to take surveys on their phones, we want to be able to communicate with them both directions through the smartphone. Make sure our web pages are formatted for mobile. It's going to permeate every dimension of what we do.

JE: Finally, how are you liking the job so far?

AB: Well, it's a lot different, I will tell you that. I'm not used to having such a big office. At Facebook, I had the same size desk as Mark and here I have a big office. I don't know what to do with it. So, there are differences but so far I really like it. The best thing so far is the people at the RNC. I kind of expected a bunch of stuffy old guys and it's not like that at all. I mean, Raffi Williams is sitting here next to me, who is a young minority guy, and everyone I've met here is actually really cool. That was a pleasant surprise and it was invigorating for me because I got here and there were a lot of people within the building at the RNC who were eager to help me find better ways to solve some of these problems. It wasn't what I was expecting. It wasn't a bunch of old white guys who were resistant to change.

Big thanks to Raffi Williams, The RNC's Deputy Press Secretary, for setting up the interview and thanks to Andy for taking some time to speak with me. You can follow them here on Twitter:

Andy Barkett: @abarkett
Raffi Williams: @RaffiWilliams

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