Notes on Obama’s election campaign

[Last week, Australia’s Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner wrote about Government 2.0 in The government wants to blog. Later today ABC Radio wants me to talk about how Barack Obama’s presidential election campaign used social media and social networking, so I’ve been reviewing my liveblog of the presentations made by Ben Self at Media 09 and Joe Trippi at the Microsoft Politics and Technology Forum. Trippi has worked on various Democrat campaigns including as campaign manager for Howard Dean‘s 2004 unsuccessful presidential nomination campaign. Self’s company Blue State Digital managed Obama’s online fundraising, constituency-building, issue advocacy, and peer-to-peer online networking during the primaries. I figured I might as well share my notes. Enjoy.]

More than two years since Barack Obama’s presidential election campaign, the numbers are still staggering. $770 million was raised, roughly 65% of that online. There were 3.2 million individual donors, with the average donation under $100.

This is completely different from traditional political fundraising, which revolved about dinners and other events costing $2300 a ticket — the maximum unreportable donation donation allowable from a couple at that time under US electoral laws. Obama’s campaign really did reach out and mobilise millions of ordinary Americans.

Yes, millions. The progressive Democratic Party network is now 15 million people online.

Online social networking tools made all this possible, sure, but the success came through the clever application of those tools. The key word here is “personal”.

The campaign’s central managers provided a framework within which individual campaign workers could do their own thing in their own communities. The technology was created specifically for the campaign, but you could do all of it with Facebook and a few optional extras. And while fundraising was obviously a key goal, so was involvement.

  • At a rally with 10,000 people, Obama’s team would ask everyone with a mobile phone to SMS a certain number to pledge a $5 donation. Or, even better, a 1900 number so the donation is charged directly to their phone bill. Bang! $50,000 raised in 60 seconds. And you’ve captured their phone number.
  • Once you have someone’s contact details, you can ask for more. Another $5? Can I just have your age please? How about an hour of your time to help the campaign?
  • Every donor was sent a thank-you letter — not in bulk by an anonymous central office administrator but individually by a real person from their own neighbourhood.
  • People who volunteered their time to door-knock were given the names and addresses of 25 people in their neighbourhood and a training video explaining how to campaign legally. Once they knew what these people’s hot button issues were, that was fed into the database, and they could be sent personalised campaign material addressing their concerns.
  • Everyone spoken to was asked to suggest another 25 people who needed to be convinced to change their vote.
  • The central system allowed campaign workers to organise their own groups and local events in their own way. Eventually there were 20,000 groups from a national “Latinos for Obama” to thousands of “My neighbourhood for Obama”, who between them organised more that 200,000 offline events.
  • Campaigners could blog about their activities and post photos and videos. More than 100,000 people were blogging regularly. 1800 videos were uploaded, and more than 14 million people-hours spent watching them.
  • The campaign office created a “Fight the Smears” website debunking the negative myths about Obama, then bought Google keyword advertising. If people searched for “obama arab” they’d see a link to that website.
  • On election day, local campaign workers phoned people to remind them to vote. 6 million calls.
  • There was measurement at every step. What worked? What didn’t? That information was shared so everyone learned.

The election of Barack Obama was Politics 2.0, the election of the representatives. These same tools can be used for Government 2.0, the running of the nation and our communities.

Some of the examples we’ve seen are:

  • In Kentucky, residents wanted to stop a controversial condo (apartment block) development because there’d been poor communications from the authorities and a lack of opportunity for community input. Using these techniques, they gathered 1600 active members on a Facebook group to save the existing building. They organised 20 events, packed the City hearings with observers, and eventually had the proposal killed
  • Here in Australia, the Hugh Bamford Reserve Protection Group saved a park at North Bondi in Sydney. The Waverley Council issued the planning information near Christmas for a $20 million industrial-zone development on protected land. Local residents gathered more than 2500 members through their Facebook group, forcing the Council to extend the time for public comment. Eventually the Mayor caved in and pulled her support for the development even before that time had expired.
  • MillionTreesNYC is a public-private partnership to buy a tree, or suggest a spot for a tree, or offer to dig the hole and plant the tree, and link everyone up. 97,000 trees have been planted so far
  • In the UK, FixMyStreet allows people to report potholes, illegal dumping, broken street lighting and graffiti. An Australian version is under development, It’s Buggered, Mate, where you simply tell it “What’s buggered?”, “Where?” and “How exactly is it buggered?”

The key to all of this is building your list of people by making personal connections, and maintaining that relationship by staying in touch.

  • You don’t marry someone on the first date. So talk regularly. Not only every six months because that’s too infrequent, but not every ten seconds either because that’ll turn them off.
  • Be relevant. Obama’s biggest fundraising day was when Sarah Palin made a disparaging comment about community fundraisers. They capitalised on that quickly be getting a message out the very same day, “We’ll show her”!
  • Be authentic. Don’t send press releases to list of supporters. Nobody wants to read press releases. Emails need to come from a person, and be written in a personal tone. Senator Al Franken, in his election campaign, would email out scanned images of hand-written letters.
  • Lower the barriers to entry. Make it easy for people to engage, in little ways. The most active campaigners for Obama were females aged 53 to 57. Design your systems to suit.
  • Raise your expectations. Ask people to do stuff. Ask them to host a dinner. Ask them to pay. Ask them to write comments. Ask them to refer your product. You’ll be surprised how many say “yes”.
  • Foster your regulars. Give them special access, special privileges.
  • Measure everything — from different subject lines in emails, different styles of videos, whatever. As an aside, I discovered recently that the Huffington Post writes two headlines for every story, and after five minutes chooses the one which generates more click-throughs.

James Carville used to say in the 1990s “It’s the economy, stupid.” Now it’s “It’s the network, stupid.” How big is your network? How well are you using the tools to create and focus that network?

The power of individuals to organise themselves is the big change. And organisations who don’t take this on board are in denial. And yet it’s more of a cultural change, not a technological one.

As Joe Trippi said, it’s not about the tools, it’s about what you do with them. It’s about the listening. And it’s being willing to have the conversation.

Bonus links

11 Replies to “Notes on Obama’s election campaign”

  1. What a fine, meaty summary. So chunky you can carve it.

    Reading this concise presentation of distinct points, examples and guidelines further cements my distaste for the terms such as ‘social media.’

    As these tools have arisen and become an expected utility alongside electricity and sewerage, it has been interesting observing particular individuals and groups proselytise their unique insights and branded methods for exploiting people.

    The way a person describes these technological networking tools is a kind of Rorschach test.

    In my case, I see an Agora with varied boutique market stalls — some that stock adult magazines under the counter, mad pamphleteers hawking their madness, more second hand books than can ever be sold and people meeting up by the fountain having a chat about politics, religion and relationships.

  2. Totally agree with the press release fail. It doesn’t achieve anything any more. We stopped doing them about 3 years ago. We get more press by not doing press releases. “Measure everything” is the most critical factor. If you measure well across as many variants as possible you start to adopt an old school system called “evolution” where the best variants to promote/market survive.

  3. @Sylmobile: I’m starting to feel the same way about the term “social media”. It’s too floppy to have much meaning, especially when people are using it to cover everything from comments on the Sydney Morning Herald website to furry group sex on Second Life to tagging photos for the Powerhouse Museum on Flickr to Twitter to whatever the next flavour of the month might be.

    There’s certainly Something Very Big Indeed going on here, but I’m not sure that “social media” is the right focus.

    I thoroughly agree that the tools are becoming utilities too. Focusing on one aspect of it, like the social-ness or the media-ness or the ability to post comments or the always-online bit or whatever else misses the point. That’s like looking at the Industrial Revolution as the copper wire revolution or the railway signalling revolution or the postal revolution. They’re all pieces of a larger whole.

    And that’s why it’s the Rorschach test. For political wonks trying to get their candidate elected, it’s Politics 2.0. For a media proprietor trying to gather an audience to sell to advertisers it’s… well, it confusing and threatening and scary.

    @Marc Lehmann: I’m with you on the media release thing. Most I ignore, because they’re written in such a generic stilted way and tell me little about the product or service being flogged.

  4. It’s taking a surprisingly long time for the “Politics 2.0” vs. “Government 2.0” concept to settle in. I blame “social media experts” using Obama’s campaign as an example of Gov 2.0 all the fucking time.

  5. typo? “There was measurement at every. What worked?”
    probably needs to be “There was measurement at every *step*. What worked?

    Great article!

  6. Thank you, gentlemen. The typo is fixed. As for the title, well, yes these guys did actually know how to use the tools and achieve something, based on years and years of experience. As opposed to reading a few articles on ReadWriteWeb and shovelling factoids into a PowerPoint presentation.

  7. The ‘building your list’ mantra is a fairly stock standard thing in political campaigning, but the real sweet joy in the Obama campaign’s use of social networking went further than that. Yes, they built their lists considerably, but where they gained real traction was by pushing more on their lists to become activist, and thereby increasing their networks (plural).

    Networks are infinately more valuable than straight lists. Basic concept is this: you have someone on your list that you have pushed through the levels of engagement to activist. The activist gets the email, tweet or message through whatever means, and then rebroadcasts (or retweets) that message.

    Because that message is reaching a network of people via a trusted connection, the message has a much greater cut-through value. The network was then empowered to discuss what ever it was – thereby really getting the true power of SN, understanding it is interactive/a conversation – where as list communication is almost entirely one way.

    The real gold in the Obama Campaign was not that they had enormous lists, but the massive proportion of their lists they had pushed through to activists, thereby massively increasing their networks and ultimate reach. A proportion of those in the networks would join the lists, sure, but many don’t, and in the Obama campaign structure it didn’t really matter. They wanted people to all be doing their own thing to help the campaign and gave them the tools and resources to do so.

    The networks worked in both communication and fundrasing. The veritable army of Obama activists wo would rebroadcast their messages for them were also empowered to run their own fundraising with personal fundraising pages, encouraging grassroots events and the like. They didn’t have to be one of the 20,000 groups on mybo, they could be anybody who was moved enough to do something. was a good headquarters for activity, but certainly wasn’t the sole source of activity nor reflective of all activity, and arguably wasn’t as awesome as it could have been. The Obama campaign learnt a great deal throughout the campaign and I think you’ll find Organising for America and the re-elect campaign will benefit from what they have learnt. (That’s campaigning – you try stuff, and try some more stuff, and then if it works after the campaign you can call yourself a guru and do the lecture circut… or if you’re a good political operative you start the next campaign with a blank sheet of paper and try some more stuff).

    You are right to separate Politics 2.0 and Government 2.0 – they are very different concepts that simply use the same tools to achieve very different objectives. I think it is fair to say that few have really managed to understand how to use social networking tools, largely due to older comms and advertising people still trying to use them like traditional forms of advertising and communications. The big mind shift is being prepared to let go of your network (read list), and embrace the networks.

  8. One more thing – the $2300 limit (which I think is now $2400) is reportable. That’s the maximum limit you can donate to a campaign as a couple full stop. Companies were prevented from donating to a candidates campaign (overturned by a recent Supreme Court decision). That does not include donations to PACs and 527s – the soft money, which is pretty well unlimited.

  9. @Kathryn Crosby: Yes, I really do think the message from Ben Self’s presentation was empowering the network and allowing everyone to do their own thing in terms of spreading the message.

    That “trusted source” aspect is the vital one — and of course the hard part for more traditional politicians it letting go of the central control of The Message and letting people speak in their own voice. That’s where those 1800 videos created by local campaign workers was important — reinforcing the professionally-made Message video with human touches.

    Ta for the heads-up about the $2300 limit, which I’ve corrected in the main text.

Comments are closed.