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.

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