How to eCampaign like Obama
When you think about the Obama Campaign for US President (2008) or Republican Scott Brown's 'surprise' election as US Senator (Jan 2010), one of the aspects many people focus on is the way the campaigns used the Internet. While the Internet was an important channel for the campaigns, there were many factors that contribute a campaigns' success.
Obama's Secret to Internet Success
Obama's campaign was widely acknowledged as being highly successful online. Obama's Democratic and Republican competitors all had Internet activities. Most were even run by veterans of the Howard Dean campaign in 2004 that pioneered the approaches Obama's campaign used (which itself copied and adapted the techniques non-profit campaigning organisations had been using from years, especially MoveOn.org).
So if the strategy and tools were not new, what made the difference? Joe Rospers, the Obama Campaign Online Director spoke at an event I attend in December 2008 and confirmed what I suspected. The difference was that the Online Director (Rospers) had autonomy and authority and had a direct presence at all top-level meetings.
Thomas Gensemer (BSD Managing Director)
Rospers was one of the first people hired to the Obama campaign before there officially was an Obama campaign. He attended all of the top campaign meetings and regularly shaped the campaign strategy and messaging. He had authority and budget to hire people and implement the tools necessary (he was on secondment from Blue State Digital (BSD) which provided the tools the Obama campaign used).
Obama's competitors had people with similar skills, but they were constrained by the hierarchy, usually reporting to a communication director who participated in top meetings and had budget and hiring authority. Giving Rospers a seat at the top table gave the Internet more autonomy and priority in the Obama campaign, including influencing relevant offline aspects of the strategy, and thus set itself up to have highly successful Internet activity.
This seemingly small difference has multiple impacts:
- Direct experience with online campaigning at the senior level means direct participating in shaping the overall campaign as well as strong vision and leadership for the team delivering the campaign online.
- More attention for delivering online campaigning because it isn't just one of many areas of responsibility of a communications director.
- Fast decision making and implementation because little or no negotiation is needed to divide resources since the resource available for online campaigning are already known.
- Ability to set priorities based on experience and evidence rather than perceptions and hype (e.g. email vs. social networking).
The eCampaigning Myths
While many people underestimate the power of having an e-campaigning expert at the top table, they also overestimate or mis-attribute other factors. The top myths about Obama's e-campaigning are:
- Myth: The Obama campaign used new / novel tools
Fact: No new tools were used that others had not used before. The Obama campaign integrated, optimised and managed existing tools by people with the appropriate expertise and time.
- Myth: They had a large budget for Internet activities
Fact: They had a relatively small budget to start with. However they knew the return from the online work and as this return was realised, their budget grew accordingly.
- Myth: They started with a lot of staff to run Internet activities
Fact: They started with the online director and hired the right people at the right time as the growing budget allowed. They ended up with a large team (81 staff, almost 100 volunteers).
- Myth: They started with a large online supporter base
Fact: They started with no online supporter base. However they had lots of potential supporters since there was already considerable excitement around Obama's candidacy and they had a fantastic launch and were ready to convert the potential into actual supporters.
- Myth: Social networking sites were important to the campaign
Fact: Rospers has said that the value of supporters on social networking sites was in the "single digits", so fewer than 10% of support originated from the social networking sites. While they had a lot of membership (5 million friends) and publicity around their social networking support, it produced little tangible results in terms of donations or participation. It likely helped recruit some supporters and supported the impression of a youthful and trendy campaign.
Being Online Matters, but for Different Reasons
When journalists and others allude to the fact that Obama won the because of the Internet, they were mostly wrong. Being online still matters, just for different reasons than most think: the marginal boost it provides and the perception it generates (and/or prevents) if the campaign appeals to people.
Ultimately, it is not being online that matters, but getting more attention and harnessing it. Online provides a relatively small boost in getting attention since the herd-behaviour of mass media still reaches almost everyone at the same time. However this attention from mass media is fleeting and cannot be sustained. Online is an excellent medium for sustaining and deepening attention once contact details (e.g. email address, mobile phone number) are obtained. Then attention can be sustained independent of mass media by sending regular, direct and timely communication to supporters.
In addition to this tangible benefit of campaigning online, there are other benefits. For politicians and organisations, being online:
- Shows they are suitable for today and the future, not stuck in the past
- Shows they adapt to new trends
- Bypasses and extends on mass media coverage for candidates and supporters (un-filtered message)
- Makes them seem more approachable and genuine
- Strengthens inter-supporter bonds by connecting them to each other
- Builds supporter commitment through doing things for candidates (favours/volunteers)
- Enables and supports people to self-organise
- Allows the crowd-sourcing of campaign data collection, idea generation and a local presence everywhere
- Allows the opposition to capitalise on dissatisfaction with the current regime: online is an unofficial channel to confront, counter and parallel government / official channels
Obama's eCampaigning Formula
Technology was only one factor in Obama's success. Real e-campaigning success comes from having:
- People with the right expertise
- Strong strategy and plans (campaigning and e-campaigning)
- Power: top level involvement, budget and decision making authority
- Integrated and coordinated activity with the broader campaign
- A compelling message and ask
- Tools that allow the strategy and integration to be implemented and measured
Since I made a formula for Obama's overall success, here is one for his e-campaigning success:
Expertise + Planning + Power + Message + Integration + Tools = Success
All these online success factors build on the overall campaign success factors, including being seen as an underdog. The Internet is a particularly good medium for opposition because it is unconstrained by the rules and activity of governing. Being perceived as the underdog is relevant for both the Obama campaign and the Scott Brown campaign and translates particularly well on the Internet were it is relatively easy to organise dissent. Thus Organising for America (the post-election name for using the Obama campaign online network and resources) is less appealing now that Obama is the sitting US president.
Not only are people less inspired to support a sitting president's agenda, but the 'energy' of the Obama campaign has now been replicated by the Tea Party movement: the conservative movement that has sprung up to oppose Obama's agenda now that the Republicans are the opposition.
Obama's experience as a local campaigner (called a community organiser in the US) was also crucial online. The principles of campaigning locally - focusing on people and personal relevance - infused all parts of the campaign and are particularly relevant online. When the Obama campaign asked people to take action, some were online actions like donating and promoting. Yet other activity was offline like organising house parties and canvassing door-to-door. Differentiating between online and offline activities is thus an artificial divide because online communications got real people to help offline in real ways. Online was simply another communication channel.
Obama's Digital Tools and Practices
I've said that the Obama campaign used no new tools. So what tools did his campaign use? The most used were:
- Email, especially fundraising: constantly updating supporters and asking for specific things they could do. Email is still the most universal and flexible way of reaching people online. By election day, the email list had 13 million members.
- Website(s): the end-point of all emails, online ads, social media links, etc., it started with a prominent ask to join the campaign by providing an email address and zip code and also consisted of latest news, insider commentary, the Obama campaign social network (MyBO, 2 million accounts), downloadable content, etc. A separate voter registration site was also used with less obvious Obama branding.
- Online Advertising: primarily focused on email list building: an easy, low risk asks that could be followed by other asks. Toward the end of the campaign, specific constituencies were targeted. Some advertising was also done to coincide with key milestones. Online advertising was a small proportion of the advertising budget because mass media still reaches more people, faster than online.
- Video: most videos were of why people supported Obama and usually didn't even have Obama's image in it. They were timely and often had local appeal. Some were even produced by supporters and adopted by the Obama campaign. The result was 2,400 videos viewed for a combined total 2,000 years.
- Blogging: while the Obama campaign did have its own blog, more important was getting supporters with blogs to write about the campaign to help reach each blog's existing community.
- Social media: social networks and other social media were primarily a recruiting ground for the email list. There was basic continuous engagements with key social networks, but most engagement was via email
- Analysis: analysis of what was working was crucial for smart campaigning. This goes beyond split-testing emails and web pages to testing rebuttal strategies and analysing data supporters collected.
- Segmenting: unlike mass media, targeting specific profiles of people online is relatively easy, and the Obama campaign did this extensively online. Auto-segmenting was by location and a number of 'tracks' exists for people to opt-into.
- Other: there was also activity via Twitter, mobile phones but its overall contribution to the campaign was primarily in the perception of Obama.
How Supporters Were Put To Work
The digital tools were used to ask people to support the campaign by:
- Donating: repeat donations of small amounts were one of the key differences with other campaigns past and present. Critical to this was precision timing to coincide with mass media stories, events and key milestones. 3 out of 4 donors gave online.
- Do-It-Yourself: The Obama campaign provided guides, fact-sheets, videos, photos, speeches, phone scripts, data, etc. to supporters as raw materials to create their own campaign material and activities for use online, face-to-face and by phone. The result was hundreds of thousands of user-created pro-Obama videos, blog posts, phone calls, door-step visits, etc.
- Organise / participate in local events: people were encouraged to organise house parties, video screenings, phone calling and other events to get supporters and potential supporters together to organise to help Obama win. The result was millions of volunteers other campaigns didn't have and couldn't match by hiring (McCain's campaign hired local unemployed people at minimum wage, and they were often Obama supporters!). They were also the origin of a lot email subscribers.
- Local canvassing: supporting going door-to-door promoting Obama and armed with fact-sheets and self-printed/produced materials as well as record-keeping sheets to collect data (e.g. email addresses) and record the results of each visit.
- Collecting Data: when people are interacting with others online, on their doorstep, by phone or at events they are creating a constant flow of data about who is a supporter, who's not and their perception. When structured, stored and analysed it can be more accurate than polls and surveys.
- Fighting back: Obama's campaign was confronted by a deluge of unsubstantiated and potentially damaging accusations. Supporters were asked to identify them, alert the campaign and counter them via their own networks (e.g. reply-all to an email with the lies backed up with links to references). The Fight The Smears site was set up to support this. This strategy kept Obama focused on positive messages while supporters directly responded to accusations.
- Get-out-the-vote: Being a supporter doesn't mean you actually show up to vote. So a get-out-to-vote effort makes voting social and attempts to remove any obstacles to you voting. On election days (primary and national), Obama supporters were emailed and texted a list of 5 others to call to see if they were going to vote. Online advertising was also used. Even lifts were offered to people who had mobility challenges.
Obama's Online Strategy
In general, the strategy evolved over time based on what was working and what was needed at different phases of the campaign. However the general online strategy involved:
- Make the campaign about people's hopes, not Obama's, and with the voice of a supporter, hence the slogan: Yes We Can. Online this also means multi-way communication: campaign-to-supporter, supporter-to-campaign and supporter-to-supporter. Supporters should feel they own the campaign. It means talking to people not at them.
- Attract everyone to the campaign website and get them to 'join' the campaign by providing their email address (to re-contact them) and zip code (postal code to identify political constituency). As Joe Rospers recently put it "having someone become a fan on Facebook, share something or follow you on Twitter, those are the opportunities to begin relationships with new people in places they are already spending time. What going to determine the outcome of the election is which party or organisation can manage to turn those beginning of relationships into deep meaningful relationships."
- Make everyone on the email list a starting-point for further connections with their network and community online and offline.
- Support self-organising: a locally owned and directed campaign everywhere is more effective than any centrally directed campaign. Provide customer-service team to help people help the campaign.
- Authenticity: respect supporter spontaneity in how they talk about and promote the campaign. This means providing direction but not enforcing a message. It also means talking to them like adults.
- Provide a range of options for them to be involved so each person can determine their participation themselves. As a result, 80% of supporters did something to support the campaign.
- Make donating an emotional act to immediate needs. Being timely is critical for urgency and relevance and being easy and affordable is important to encourage anyone to donate and re-donate (donors gave more than 2 times on average).
- Scale-up the online team as the fundraising results grow. This ensures the people are there to continue engaging and mobilising supporters. Hire experienced people (300 people by election day).
- Provide Incentives: Donors and volunteers were entered into draws for dinner with Obama, told that an existing supporter would provide a matching donation, were able to write a message to a new person their matching donation convinced to donate, got to attend events by taking caucus training. In many cases, the incentive was social: reinforcing you were part of a movement for change by connecting you to that movement.
- Focus on creating great content. A conviction that great content is more important than great tools meant a focus on the message not the medium.
- Constantly improve. Discover what is working through constant testing and analysis and apply it immediately.
- Anticipate success and threats and respond proactively. One example was that a team working on building a presence in states that held primaries after 'Super Tuesday' before 'Super Tuesday' primaries were even held. If Obama was out of the nomination on Super Tuesday, it was wasted effort. If he was still in, he was ahead of the competition. Another example was having a full presidential transition site (change.gov) up within minutes of Obama's win being announced.
The successes and lessons of the Obama campaign are highly relevant to NGOs because they show:
- Expertise and planning to plan and run an effective campaign are crucial and provide a higher return than inexperienced people
- Successful e-campaigning depends on the overall campaign being well researched and planned yet still nimble to opportunities and threats
- Obama's campaign copied techniques and tools used daily for civil society e-campaigning. These are easily reproducible with the right expertise and priorities.
- A well organised and integrated e-campaigning with the right priorities can make a significant contribution to the overall campaign.
- Daily/weekly incremental improvements multiply into significant online success over the life of a campaign. This is why split-testing and analysis is so important.
- The real barriers for many NGO organisations' e-campaigning are not tools and techniques, but expertise, research, strategy, planning, priorities, budget, leadership, etc.
Any NGO campaign that can get the organisational issues addressed is 90% of the way to being successful at e-campaigning. Obama's campaign versus his competitors is simply one of most recent and dramatic examples.
Further Reading and Viewing
- Online Tactics for Success, Jan. 2009
- Learning from Obama, Colin Delany, Aug. 2009
- Is this man the future of politics? (with video) Guardian, Feb. 2009
- Near-Flawless Run is Credited in Victory, New York Times, Nov. 2008
- The New Organizers, What's really behind Obama's ground game, Zack Exley, 8 Oct 2008
- How Obama Really Did It, Technology Review, Sep. 2008
- Video (below): Applying Obama Online Lessons to Local Campaigns (22 Jan 2010)
- Unread: The Audacity to Win by David Plouffe (book), Nov. 2009 or read excerpts
- Audio: Talking digital election with Joe Rospars (10 Mar 2010)
- Article with video: The Digital Election: Prepare to be Spammed (12 Mar 2010)