Mark Penn on Microtrends, Technology, and Politics

At first glance, Mark Penn – one time pollster for the Clinton administration and the “most powerful man in Washington you’ve never heard of” – may seem an odd choice to steer the brand and strategic direction for tech behemoth, Microsoft.   After all, established tech, marketing, and politics are not terms you often see go hand in hand as far as personal resumes go.  But make just a tiny scratch at the surface of Penn’s pollster chops and you’ll uncover all the makings of a great marketer – an appreciation for data, an eye for the dots yet to be connected, and most importantly – the art of communicating the complex as simple and actionable terms.

Penn calls today’s world as akin to “living in an impressionist painting” – with lots of individual dots coming together to form a larger picture.  Because rather than focusing on larger trends, Penn argues that more attention should be paid to the “1%” and the micro-currents that contribute to ‘micro-trends’ – changes in behavior that are bubbling just under the surface but can have much bigger implications for the way we work, live, and the way decisions are made.  Even as Penn starts to reveal just some of these microtrends he’s uncovered (and likely those he finds most counterintuitive and provocative), you can see them reflected in the strategies the organizations/teams he’s worked with:

  • ‘Foot loose and fancy free’: People are choosing to stay single longer.  In the last couple decades, the time period between college graduation and marriage has extended from an average of 5 years to 10 years, translating into more time spent dining out, more time spent with media, and more discretionary income spent on entertainment.
  • LAS-ers (long attention spanners):  Instead of targeting the ADDers of the world (and trying to reach them through 15 second and 30 second spots, or even six-second Vine spots), what happens when you focus on the LASers, those individuals who become fascinated and delve deeply into a topic? The Internet is fueled by these individuals and we see a substantial subset of people who want to learn more, just as there are individuals who are issues-driven voters that are more interested in the details of a plan versus overarching strategy in a political campaign.  How does this manifest?
    • If you think about Bill Clinton, he paid a lot of attention to helping draw out the grittiness and details of his plans – speaking directly to these LASers
    • For Microsoft, it’s about explaining the technicalities and inner workings of the technology and products that they’re developing – and in general, you see this reflected in the rise of content marketing.  For marketers (just as it is for political strategists), it’s about reaching that most effective swath and cross-section of potential consumers and constituents
  • Impressionable elites:  Especially in politics, you find that the more highly educated and affluent an individual is, the more impressionable they’ll often be.   This is the group that will more likely be found saying: “I wish Hilary was more likable”.  They are typically not the ones actually living the challenges at hand, and as a result, are much more personality driven and to an extent, easier to sway.  By contrast, you’ll actually find the middle class to be your harshest and most detailed critics, and the biggest advocates for issues-driven decision making.

Especially in his role at Microsoft, you can see Penn’s political roots take shape in one of his opening campaigns that debuted in the 2012 holiday season (and continues today) – ‘Don’t Get Scroogled’ – firing direct hits at competitor Google.  In addition to changing the perception of what Microsoft stands for in the techosphere, here are the three main challenges – and opportunities – Penn sees for tech in the near future:

  • Technology and privacy: in a 10 country poll that MSFT led (and presented at the World Economic Forum in Davos this year), most people overwhelmingly saw technology as a net positive – except in privacy.  Privacy was the biggest concern and you really see a country’s cultural roots reflected how much they worried about it. For example, France and Germany were two markets which were most concerned about privacy – why? Perhaps it can be traced back to Hitler having lists back in the days of Nazi Germany.  Online privacy in particular treads in uncharted waters that can leave even the most optimistic tech user weary (and are areas that you see Microsoft unabashedly taking shots at in their Scroogled campaigns)
  • Technology as a beacon of hope: more than anything, the biggest US trend you see today is pessimism, where the country has been on the longest stretch of pessimism since the 1930s (reflected in approval ratings on the hill, outlooks on future).  The only exception? Technology – which has been a glimmer of light in sparking the imagination and changing the way people live and make decisions.   While good news for the general tech industry, the challenge for MSFT is to reclaim its seat the table in the consumer mind – as a company, it’s been more or less disintermediated from the consumer experience, even if there’s a lot of MSFT that people use on a daily basis that they may not even realize (e.g., Microsoft Office).
  • Communicating the value of technology: beyond the grander visions that technology can conjure, the most pervasive ongoing challenge for marketers and tech lies in communicating the way technologists understand products they’re building with the ways consumers perceive and understand them.  Just as in politics, there is the beltway opinion versus what your average citizen sees – and especially in technology, there is a long ways to go in bridging the gap between an ever-changing suite of technology products and how we inspire and educate consumers.
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