Marketing Lessons from the Iowa Caucus Disaster

Adam Smartschan

Partner & Chief Strategy Officer

By now, you’ve certainly heard about what happened in Iowa. The state Democratic party failed to declare a caucus winner due to reporting “inconsistencies.”

It’s … not good.

Campaigns are angry, to say the least.

Opponents are reveling.

Pundits are calling for the end of the caucus system entirely.

So yeah. Turns out when your results look like this at 9:04 a.m., things went poorly:

Iowa caucus results

But this isn’t a political blog. We’re here to talk about B2B marketing. And there are plenty of marketing lessons we can draw from the 2020 Iowa caucus disaster.

Marketing Lessons from the Iowa Caucuses

Marketing Lesson #1: Have a Crisis Comm Plan

Every organization has a potential crisis somewhere. Your company probably isn’t as high-profile as the Iowa caucuses, but something could go horribly wrong.

This is why you need a crisis communications plan. And no, it can’t wait until a crisis actually happens.

Fortunately, planning for the worst-case scenario isn’t rocket science.

Start with a vulnerability audit. Talk with people at every level of the organization and ask them what could possibly go wrong. Let them be creative – there are no wrong answers.

Once you have a general list, wargame the scenarios. What are the talking points you’d need? What would the protocol be in each event? Who should speak for the company … and who shouldn’t?

Build a checklist. Create plans for communicating internally and externally. And make 100% sure that everyone in the organization is familiar with them.

The worst thing you can do in a crisis is to be unprepared. If you are, the story will get ahead of you – not the other way around.

As we see in the news about Iowa, that’s a bad thing.

Marketing Lesson #2: Beware of Tech Creep

The Iowa caucuses are complex things. There are about 1,700 caucus sites around the state, each of which is supposed to send results as soon as they’re tallied.

But … 1,700 really isn’t that many. Even if each one is reporting 10 pieces of data, that’s only 17,000 numbers – total.

There are plenty of existing tools that can handle a load like that. You’d never use it, but hell – a Google Sheet could do it.

There’s probably a reason the Iowa Democratic Party developed a custom app to report results. But I can’t figure it out right now.

This appears to be classic tech creep. And here’s the marketing lesson: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

It’s sexy to build from scratch. But if a preexisting tool can handle the load, why not use it? It’s not clear if the app caused the issue, but it certainly added complexity to a complex process.

Marketing Lesson #3: Walk Before You Run

There were a bunch of new rules in this year’s Iowa caucuses. Again, we can’t draw a causal relationship, but we can point out a marketing lesson.

When you’re making changes, work slowly and assiduously.

Isolate variables. Roll new things out one at a time. If you mix up everything, you’re going to cause confusion.

And confusion, as we’re seeing in the Hawkeye State, is a bad thing.

Marketing Lesson #4: Have a Real Backup Plan

The Iowa Democratic Party had backups for reporting results.

Turns out they weren’t enough.

Just like in crisis communications planning, assume the worst. Don’t just think about “what happens if.” Accept it.

This forces you to create real backup plans.

It’s not enough to check a box. Backups are there for a reason. If they’re insufficient, they’re making a small problem into a massive one.

What’s the worst case for your marketing organization? A hack wiping out your website? The tradeshow backdrop not arriving? Your marketing automation account getting suspended?

What would you do?

Everyone has heard of a fail-safe. Not many folks realize there’s an opposite: a fail-deadly. If you don’t really plan for the worst-case scenario, you’ve created exactly that.

The Bottom Line

You’re not going to be lucky enough to avoid something bad happening forever. But smart B2B marketers can mitigate the consequences.

Have a plan – a real plan – for a disaster. Don’t build unless you have to. And please, roll out changes responsibly.

Otherwise, you’re going to have a lot of explaining to do.

Adam Smartschan

Adam Smartschan heads Altitude's strategic marketing and branding efforts. An award-winning writer and editor by trade in a former life, he now specializes in data analytics, search engine optimization, digital advertising strategy, conversion rate optimization and technical integrations. He holds numerous industry certifications and is a frequent speaker on topics around B2B marketing strategy and SEO.