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Staying Ahead Of The Curve: An Interview with Toni Cowan-Brown

Toni is currently the VP of European Business Development at NationBuilder.

How did you find yourself working at Nationbuilder?

Toni: I like this question because it’s actually such a great story. I had been working at Burson-Marsteller for 2.5 years and was ready for a change. I wasn’t a 100% sure as to where I wanted to work but I was eager to work somewhere where the role technology plays today was not up for debate. Thus, a tech company, such as NationBuilder, made sense. We sort of found each other. During a trip to Brussels, Emily Schwartz - now VP of Organising at NationBuilder - met people who (clearly) know me very well and suggested that NationBuilder might be exactly what I was looking for. It was the perfect time for us to start talking, as NationBuilder was ready to expand in Europe and build up their awareness on the continent. And I was ready for something different and definitely up for the challenge of bringing NationBuilder to Europe.

It feels like politics has been going digital for a long time now, do you think Europe is a long way behind the US in this sense?

Toni: I do think Europe (mainland Europe more so than the UK) is behind but that is not necessarily a bad thing. This actually means that European political parties and politicians have been able to learn from both the successes and failures from across the Atlantic. That is a pretty great position to be in if you ask me. I am actually really excited to see what is currently happening in France in preparations for the 2017 Presidential elections and the centre-right primary elections. French politics has embraced digital and technology full heartedly. I think we are entering a maturity phase in Europe with regards to digital and tech in politics. We are no longer impressed (solely) by flashy gimmicks, Facebook likes, Twitter followers, Vine loops... but rather we are seeing a real focus on building proper tech infrastructures to power and organise digital and field campaigns. We don’t do ‘digital’ because it’s a box we need to tick; political parties are investing time, effort and money in the necessary tools, tech and people/skills to create successful digital campaigns.

Your background in digital marketing is very impressive, what learnings do you take from your past work to help you grow NB's presence in Europe?

Toni: Thank you. I was very curious about this new digital space and 7 years ago I decided I was going to learn everything I could in this new and intriguing field. At the time, there wasn't a lot of information or research available so the best to learn was to build a website, create a community of like-minded people, harness the power of social media... There was a lot of trial and error but it taught me everything I need to know about 'building stuff' online. There are definitely some takeaways for these past 7 years that I have and will continue to apply to my current job at NationBuilder.

  • Companies that succeed in Europe are those that understand that every country and every city needs to be approached individually and with a certain amount of respect for European, local and national rules and laws. Success in London doesn’t mean you will succeed in the rest of Europe.

  • Hire local talent and expertise (I cannot stress this enough) - speaking the language, understanding the culture and being aligned with European business tactics are crucial to your success.

  • Europe is fragmented and a complex environment to navigate but if you are able to navigate those complexities and if you take your time to do so then you can potentially have access to a very large customer base.

  • The ‘skills spillover’ has been huge for me. Everything I learnt or taught myself in one space has helped me think about new ways of approaching challenges. I am a big believer that whatever you have learnt in one area can absolutely be useful in another.

  • Finally, it’s no longer enough to keep up with the change, you need to be ahead of the curve in order to stay relevant. At NationBuilder, we are constantly listening to our customers to understand ‘what is next’ and this is crucial in helping us to continuously offer the most relevant tools to our customers.

In terms of new digital tools, do you think we will see anything new that can compete with the current crop of super-social media apps at the moment (Instagram, Twitter, Periscope etc).

Toni: I couldn’t predict that. If tech history has taught us anything is that it is so hard to predict where we will be and how we will be communicating in six months, a year, 5 years.

That said, one thing that seems to remain true (and possibly increasingly important) is that people love to tell and share stories. This is exciting because stories are obviously the backbone of our society yet until recently sharing stories was only in the hands of the few whereas now so many have access to tools and platforms like Instagram, Twitter, Periscope, Meerkat, Vine, Instagram.. to tell and share their stories.

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