Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Online Strategy of Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential Campaign

“Without the Internet, Barack Obama would still be the junior senator from Illinois”, states Colin Delany, in his ebook Lessons for Online Communicators in 2009 and Beyond.

That may be an overstatement, but it was the web-centered approach of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign that not only contributed to his election, but also taught the world about using the web to engage and catalyze audiences. I believe that these techniques will undoubtedly have an impact on future political campaigns and beyond, including the fields of Human-Computer Interaction, Communications, and Design.

Delany reports that the Obama campaign’s approach employed “a combination of both new and proven online technologies to organize volunteers, to find new supporters and put them to work, to turn out voters on election day and (of course) to raise unprecedented amounts of money – all contributing to a crucial edge in the primary and general elections.”

Digital Strategy

In 2007, before his candidacy was announced, Obama’s staff hired experts to develop a new media strategy. Two early members were Chris Hughes, a founding member of Facebook who left the company to join the campaign and Joe Rospas, who worked for Blue Slate Digital. Their team’s goal was go beyond using the internet to communicate to an audience. They envisioned supporters connecting with each other, inspiring each other and mobilizing for a cause.

The key to their strategy was My.BarackObama.com, nicknamed MyBo. It was a site where supporters could register, learn about the campaign, contribute, find events, learn how to host events or simply buy a t-shirt.

As described by David Talbot in an article for the Boston Globe, “Newcomers to MyBo found simple intuitive ways to get involved. You could click a button to donate. You could see maps, displaying locations and details about area house parties. You could, of course, organize your own event and download the Obama message du jour. You could establish your own fund-raising efforts and watch the “thermometer” rise as your acquaintances ponied up. And after you surrendered your e-mail address, you would get messages signed by everyone from Michelle Obama to Al Gore, with new exhortations as the primary and general election campaigns progressed”.

Another social media solution guided supporters to more grassroots activities. Talbot describes how the campaign took the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) national voter database and turned “yesterday’s state-by-state spreadsheets into something as easily accessed and manipulated as an iPod song list…Tens of thousands of volunteers -- including many logging onto MyBo, others entering from the DNC site or from computers at local campaign offices -- clicked a button to download small batches of voters' names, a script for querying them about their views and voting plans, and their local polling addresses. Millions of such calls were made during the heated primary battle -- a scale unprecedented because of the previous practical barriers”.

From text messaging to online tools that steered voters to polling locations to YouTube videos, the campaign made online networking central to their methodology.


Making use of the internet as part of a political campaign’s methodology wasn’t new. Back in 1996, Republican nominee Bob Dole called out his website at the end of a national debate, encouraging viewers to visit it. Hundreds of thousands of viewers took him up on his offer and tried to go to his site at the same time, which unfortunately was only able to accommodate 10,000. The lesson learned that day was to be prepared to accommodate national traffic when inviting a national audience to a website.

Early in the 2000 election, John McCain’s campaign was very active online. They held a virtual fundraiser, ran targeted banner ads and enabled supporters to register online. George W. Bush and Al Gore also had websites and communicated via email to supporters, but the role of the internet was a less important part of their campaign strategy.

Howard Dean, presidential hopeful in 2004, took a more focused approach to using the internet during his campaign. Dean’s campaign raised $27 million in Internet donations. He used blogging and online social groups to drive supporters. Both John Kerry and Bush campaigns took note and incorporated these techniques into their strategies.

In late 2006, Facebook decided to allow candidates to create profiles – this was before celebrities and even products could have fan pages. In fact, that was the beginning of what became a career transition for Chris Hughes. Barack Obama wanted a Facebook profile and his staff worked with Hughes to set it up.

Hughes says, in an interview with Fast Company’s Ellen McGirt, “By 2007, we were finally living in a culture where people get what networks are and what technology can do to connect people.”

Still, as McGirt explains, “To understand what the campaign was up against in the early days, it's necessary to excise the memories of Obama speechifying to record-breaking crowds and raking in pots of money, and remember what he was in early 2007: a little-known senator with a scary-sounding name and a thin résumé, who had neither Hillary Clinton's inevitability nor a Rolodex of wealthy supporters.”

Another person who worked on the campaign, Jascha Franklin-Hodge (Blue Slate Digital’s chief technology officer), remembers that from the beginning, the Obama campaign “embraced what it was we were trying to do: show that technology wasn’t just a tool in the arsenal, but a transformative force. They knew that they didn’t have the kind of political machine Clinton was going to come in with. They had to build their own machine, and the way to do this was with the online tools. The campaign understood the power of Internet to get people engaged in the process on a scale never done before.”


What they achieved was impressive.

  • Obama’s campaign earned $500 million in online donations from more than 3 million people

  • People spent 14 million hours watching campaign-related Obama videos on YouTube, 50 million views in all

  • Supporters formed 35,000 groups for themselves defined by things like geographical location and shared pop-culture interests

  • Within MyBo, supporters’ own fundraising efforts earned $30 million from 70,000 individuals

  • In the final days before the election, thousands of volunteers used MyBo to make more than 3 million calls

  • Volunteers planned 200,000 real-world events and posted 400,000 blog entries

  • By the end, MyBo users had created over 2 million profiles
Impacts –Lessons learned

People around the world have been reviewing the efforts of the Obama’s campaign, lauding its adept use of social media. Politicians from all parties will be pulling out the best practices to use in future efforts.

However, I believe the lessons learned will impact fields beyond politics and social causes, and I’m not alone.

In Colin Delany’s Lessons for Online Communicators in 2009 and Beyond, he puts forth essential methods used in the campaign that are applicable as much to the corporate world as to the worlds of politics and non-profits. They speak to the fields of Human-Computer Interaction, Communications and Design too.

Here are the lessons that stood out the most for me from Delany’s summary:

  • For Obama, Online Communications was Communications, Not Technology - For starters, Obama’s new media department was NOT a part of the campaign’s tech team. Instead, it was an independent branch of the campaign, coequal with communications, field and finance, and was in fact as much a client of the technology folks as, say, the press department was. Contrast this with the arrangement at many other campaigns and advocacy groups [and companies], in which the online communications team is buried in a basement and often excluded from the communications planning process until its final stages, leaving the online element an afterthought with a stunted chance at success.

  • Online Communications was Integrated across Entire Campaign - Separate and equal, but also integrated: notwithstanding its distinct place in the campaign structure, the Obama new media team worked directly and daily with their colleagues in other departments.

  • Measure, Cut, then Measure Again - Obama’s campaign tracked the success of every e-mail, text message and Web site visit, capitalizing on the analytics that are inherent in digital communications. Each ad and e-mail was created in multiple versions (e.g., different headers, buttons vs. links, video vs. audio vs. plain text) to test what worked and what did not. The campaign developed more than 7,000 customized e-mails, tailored to individual prospects, and made real-time improvements to its outreach materials. Adjustments were made daily to improve performance and conversion. They rarely seemed to aim for immediate perfection, but instead built tools that were needed and that worked, and then incrementally improved them through testing and experience.”

Ravi Sawhney, in a post for Fast Company, described important lessons for design professionals that he took from the Obama campaign strategy. Here he describes what designers can learn from the MyBo web site: “We can learn the value of creating designs that empower and connect. Don’t let the scope and impact of MyBo intimidate you. The empowerment doesn’t have to be as world-changing as the Obama campaign. It can be as simple as a kitchen tool that empowers a parent to make a meal that connects their family around the dinner table. The real benefit to companies is how this empowerment connects consumers to brands. When you successfully create this connection, you’ve set yourself up to benefit from the grassroots campaign known as viral demand. When people love your products, they’re happy to do your PR work for you”.

There were many elements of Obama’s online campaign strategy that resonated with me professionally. My career is focused on usability research and delivering online user experiences that best meet my company’s and our customers’ needs. The same is true of any number of HCI professionals and, of course, is not limited to online efforts or even software development. As we approach our work, we would do well to keep in mind what helped make the Obama campaign successful:

  • To know our customers

  • To keep the customer integral to design

  • To understand the importance of iterative development

  • To use testing and analysis throughout the design and development process

  • To listen to and empower our customers

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