Saturday, 20 December 2008

Obama's new media team tells us how they did it

I had a pleasure to attend a meeting organised by Compass -democratic left pressure group, focussing on the Labour members, but also building a bridge to the 200,000 or so progressives who have left the Labour Party - which was a host to Joe Rospars, the Director of New Media of the Obama campaign.

Joe gave us a good overview of the principles that he thinks made the new media activity successful. Below are the bits that I found very interesting - mixed with my thoughts and interpretation of what this could mean for UK NGOs...

Overall - there was nothing surprising in what Obama campaign did - they followed all the best principles in using new media comms for campaigning. What is special is that the Obama campaign put theory into practice and gained the wealth of experience which they are now sharing with us.

New media in the centre of your campaigning strategy

Joe was part of the top team running the campaign- as Joe said it - "I was at the table with the finance guy, the campaign guy, the media guy". This means that he could bargain with them, participate in decision-making and impact on the direction of the communication strategy.

Make Poverty History new media evaluation report made this same point in 2006, making this one of the top recommendations, drawing from the conclusion that new media output of the campaign was an after-thought most of the time.

Letting go of control...

The Obama team utilised online community around My Barak Obama website and user generated content intelligently and by endorsing the rules of genuine online communities, rather than trying to twist them to reach their own ends. The team took the MY in the name of the community literally and allowed people to create their own ways of supporting Obama.

One example is the use of the phonecall system by the online community (explained in more detail further down)- anyone could join My Barack Obama community, so people were worried that Republicans will use this system to phone up people and persuade them to vote McCain. There probably were some people doing it, but the benefit of an open &easy-to-access system was that many people could use it. And majority of people were campaigning for Obama, so this didn't emerge as a problem.

Again - we knew that this is the way to manage possible rogue members in an online community. Rather than close-down the community for many in order to protect it from the difficult few. I remember Greenpeace once giving an example of a supporter who was very rude/abusive on a forum. Instead of deleting their post and closing their profile, Greenpeace left it to the community to respond. And respond they did - the abusive supporter left the forum after few exchanges with other members.

I can hear some NGO people saying that the online systems are dangerous as people would be "off message". Many people in NGOs feel that online people need to be controlled, while they are more than happy to live with the risk of volunteers promoting the organisation offline. It's a clear example of out of sight out of mind - they don't hear/see what volunteers say in a face to face contact, but can see what volunteers say online.

Also, Joe said that with 13 million emails on their list Obama has a big advocacy organisation to help him form his policies once he enters the White House. Again, this sounds like the right way of treating the community - instead of dumping them now that they helped get Obama elected, the campaign team is continuing the conversation with supporters. Obviously this is also a very clever long-term planning because there will be other elections and fights to fight when the campaign will need support of these people.


Joe told us a bit about the technology and systems they used in the backend.
The sophisticated segmentation and emailing was possible because of the powerful CRM. To illustrate - they could email people about events close to them with reminder to join in.

They also released what is usually used as a back-end function of a CRM to the online community - the phonecall system. As a user logged into My Barack Obama community, I could get the list of people in a specific area, click on a name, which then dials that person's number and pulls up the script.

This is how customer systems work in call centres when, for example, your mobile phone provider phones you up to sell you an upgrade.

For those who are familiar with UK Data Protection laws it's clear that we couldn't do this in the UK - voter register is not up for sale as it is in the US. However, the phonecall system has been used in the Ken Livingstone campaign for London mayor - where Labour members were phoning other Labour members.

Supporter journeys

The campaign was meticulous in planning user journeys. To use Joe's words - "if you have 10 people you need to put 8 of them to work".
The technology and segmentation were focussing on this result - getting people to something for the campaign.
Some stats:
- half a billion $ raised online
- 6.5 million donations of $100 or less by 3 million online donors which means that in average people were donating 2+ times.
- 13 million of email addresses
- 22,000(not sure about this figure) youtube videos totalling in 2,000 years of watching time.

Another related and important note was made - the user journey didn't finish with the victory - for example since the victory there were 4,500 meetings involving 50,000 people discussing the future.

Online to offline

Joe said that online campaign was "a window into the offline field operation".

One of the main features of My Barack Obama is the meet-up model of registering your own event and inviting people to attend.

The main focus of the online community was to do something and the strategy was formed around that.

Email segmentation was focussing on serving up information which is likely to suit a specific person. So if an event is registered which is close to where you live you receive an email.

If you are not taking up that offer than you will be asked to phone someone up from the comfort of your home. If that isn't your cup of tea you can donate, blog, create a video, etc.... There were many ways to engage..

Support and channel shift

The campaign invested in helping supporters use the online system on the phone. Joe said that they had people acquiring email addresses for the first time in their life in order to join My Barack Obama.

Also, the online phonecall system is much more convenient to use than the traditional systems. After initial training, a supporter can do it all from the comfort of their home. So once familiar with the system, supporters are more likely to use it.

Effective use of New Media by charities

This is the presentation for the New Media workshop, organised by BOND as part of the UN's We The Peoples Festival.

I focussed on sharing the examples of different ways of using new media in campaigning and its effects.

Online 2 offline

Starting off with a very old example of online to offline campaigning - WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. Although there are newer and more sophisticated examples of the use of online media for offline organising (such as MoveOn in the US and Get Up in Ausitralia) I wanted to remind people that we can go almost 10 years back to find examples of effective use of new Internet for activism. (following information is courtesy of Glen Tarman, previously of Trade Justice Movement)

In 1999, the World Trade Organization decided to hold a meeting in Seattle – a capital, home to Microsoft and Amazon.

As soon as Seattle was announced, ‘clear your diaries’ emails starting circulating. The bases were loaded. So many different groups had identified with WTO as their common enemy. Email provides a very effective way to organize, mobilize and publicize. These are all fairly standard techniques now. Websites appeared to inform and coordinate. Groups like The Ruckus Society provided training manuals on direct action and details of training camps on non-violent civil disobedience. Listservs were created for updates and information sharing.

Some of the activity was fairly mundane, practical stuff like maps on how to get to Seattle, meeting points – yet all vital for a successful protest. It has been estimated that over 1000 activists from outside the city found a place to crash with strangers through an online accommodation exchange set up by Seattle residents.

And this was the birth of - the 'multimedia peoples' newsroom'. Using information technologies in a fashion unforeseen by the corporate world, the rapidly growing number of Independent Media Centers are providing an outlet for scores of disaffected and disenfranchised groups by reporting differing versions of the news than the mainstream press.

Online only campaign

I used Greenpeace's Green My Apple campaign to give an example of online only campaign. There are main two points that I think made this campaign successful:

1) GP chose the audience to fit their campaign objectives - they wanted to target Apple and they realised that the best way to do it is by engaging Apple customers. The rest was a matter of understanding this specific audience and choosing the best communication channel - i.e. online for geeky Mac aficionados.
2) GP made a decision to utilize the power of user generated content and "to let go" - resulting in some amazingly funny and clever artwork generated by supporters and amazing buzz around the internet about the campaign (essentially word of mouth advertising)

Online Petitions

My third example was focussing on petitions - which are the most wide-spread e-campaigning tool.

The number of emails I received asking me to email my MP or some company this year is huge. And - even as a new media and campaigning activist - I am overwhelmed. And a bit bored. Fatigued even... And I know I am not alone in feeling like this.

The way third sector is trying to fight the fatigue is by making the petitions more and more creative or different. One of the best examples recently is The email your MP about the Climate Bill action by Friends of the Earth - essentially this was an interactive game where I could book my seat on a plane next to a celebrity of my choice, upload my photo and my message, generate three personalized videos and send them to my friends. Somewhere in between all this I could also send a message to my MP.

Fighting the fatigue

Avvaz emails are an interesting model to look at - most of my colleagues think that Avaaz emails are too long, too detailed and too boyish (i.e. it's obvious that they are written by blokes). However, their actions usually get tens of thousands of signatures as well donations. So what's the trick?

I heard a presentation by Ben Brandzel about how MoveOn and Avvaz develop their emails. Timing is essential - they send their emails about an issue at the peak of the media coverage of this issue. At this stage the public is already worked up and concerned and people want to do something about it - and then conveniently Avaaz email pops into their Inbox (forwarded by a friend for example).

Campaign marketing

Most of the issues we in third sector campaign about won't be in the media that often. The time our campaigning works like Avaaz’s is at the time of emergency for example.

So, most of the time we are marketing our campaigns - in order to get people to act, we need to explain what the issue is, why they should care and then why they should chose our specific organisation to act with.

I am suggesting that as e-campaigners we should learn more from marketers - as they are skilled in answering these questions. This is a great challenge for NGOs as usually the two teams are at war - campaign communications are suffocated by policy wonkery, while marketers try to simplify the campaign message to the level where it becomes banal.

And new media can help bridge the gap between these two extremes - as you can dialogue with supporters and harvest additional information about them in order to tailor communication which suits their preferences. So for those who want policy detail, you provide policy detail, but you don’t bombard others with it. For those who feel satisfied with a simple message, you find a way of enthusing them to take action. The ability to dialogue with contacts means that you can convert them into supporters over a period of time, rather than at first contact. Which means that an organisation can be cleverer and more responsive, therefore the likelihood of successful conversion/recruitment is higher.


I finished this presentation by sharing some statistics and data from the Make Poverty History new media evaluation.

(Information was taken from the evaluation paper done by Duane Raymond of Fairsay – it is an essential reading for anyone working in Digital

The evaluation was done in Jan 2006, but most of the lessons still haven’t been acted upon. But by sharing them again with the audience in this workshop I hope that this information will eventually get through…

And this is the presentation itself.