Behind the curtain: Obama for America’s New Media Triumph


In spring 2008, one of my savvy students asked for part of our ‘open lecture’ during the Advanced Advocacy & Community Practice course (I left one week open for students to request content related to skills/themes that they had particular interest in or wanted to develop more, in preparation for practice) to be dedicated to discussing the successes of the then-Barack Obama campaign in the area of technology and grassroots organizing.

Now, with the advantage of hindsight, I thought I’d mark the one-year anniversary of President Obama’s election with some thoughts about how that campaign changed how political campaigns in the future will use social media and other emerging technologies and, more importantly, the lessons for any community organizer/aspiring activist that can be culled from an evaluation of Obama for America’s efforts.

Helpfully, some of the folks that ran the new media components of Obama for America worked with independent consultants to prepare a report that attempts to quantify and describe the return on investment of various components of that strategy and (thanks to having a former community organizer for a President?) draw conclusions for nonprofit advocacy organizations.

Even a year out, it’s still pretty amazing to reflect on what Obama for America was able to do–an email list of 13 million people? More than $500,000,000 raised online? They’re careful to offer the caveat that, of course, Barack Obama had something to do with that success (not exactly replicable by every nonprofit organization!), but there’s a lot that’s tremendously helpful here. It’s worth reading, and it includes examples of email texts, screen captures, and other archival material that illustrates their key points.

  • Email, email, email. I have to admit, I’ve bought into some of the hype that email is overrated (because it is so vulnerable to spam, and many people don’t read mass-generated emails), but it is clear that the Obama operation viewed collection and exploitation of email addresses as the central task of all of their online activity. They raised most of their money and recruited most of their volunteers through email. They deployed thousands of volunteers at mass events to collect emails, and they turned those emails into volunteers and ongoing donors. I am convinced.
  • Online organizing does not replace old-fashioned grassroots door knocking. The core campaign folks emphasized that the field program deserves much credit for the victory; those relationships and 1:1 conversations still matter very, very much. They had 4000 paid organizers on the ground, plus many volunteers, and that made a huge difference. Still, it’s worth noting that HALF A BILLION of the dollars that paid for those field organizers came from online, which is not an insignificant contribution.
  • Test, measure, adjust. They used analytics to test everything: language on emails, the color of the ‘donate’ button, whether that button actually said ‘donate’ or ‘learn more’ or ‘join us’, which picture of Obama generated the most response, whose signature was most popular, etc… and they ditched what wasn’t working as well and switched to higher-yield tactics. So smart.
  • Use video and images to tell your story. OK, so ‘our story’ isn’t necessarily quite as compelling as ‘elect Barack Obama’, but it’s still important, and how we tell it matters. They made a point of using video to highlight those in the movement, not to just push Obama as a product, and this increased views and drove people to volunteer. Their YouTube content (official campaign stuff only) generated the equivalent of $46.9 million in paid advertising exposure. For very little money.
  • Be nimble. One of the main advantages of new media is that we can use it to respond rapidly, to changing events or new information or a rumor or whatever. But we lose that advantage if everything has to be vetted through 2 Board committees and a lawyer on retainer and so on. We can scoop traditional news by producing our own content, but only if we get it out there quickly.
  • We need to be disciplined in our communication. Make sure that your writing is excellent, and stay on message. Maintain a narrative arc across appeals, be concise, be personal, embed graphics and video for impact. Only send what is of value to your audience (no, your prospective donors don’t want to know which Disney princess you’re most like…). Invite people in to a conversation. Be authentic. Stay on message (still). They found that they could send up to three emails per day if they were well-crafted; nonprofit organizations in the middle of an urgent campaign could likely increase their frequency too, if we maintain quality.
  • Online advertising works. The Obama campaign had three times the return on investment for their Google advertising. **Watch next week for a post on Google grants to see how you can get that same kind of advertising for free!** They particularly had success with interactive ads, like the ‘calculate your tax cut’ calcuator.
  • Give people something they value. People used the vote for change voter registration tool to download voter registration applications, and then Obama for America captured those email addresses and used them for GOTV.
  • There is tremendous potential in mobile text messaging to reach those who are not online, but this tactic is still undeveloped, and technology impedes full utilization (because of costs associated with receiving texts). This is an area, like Twitter and Facebook, that have evolved considerably even in the past year.

    The conclusion of the report reiterates that virtual field organizing is no substitute for ‘boots on the ground’ work, but rather a supplement that can add significant value when strategically implemented.

    And that brings me to my final point, that electioneering is no substitute for old-fashioned agitation. The saying is that we only get the government we deserve–many people worked hard to elect Barack Obama president. Now, if we want to live up to the promise, we have to keep working just as hard to ensure that we earn the victories we deserve on the many critical issues facing our country.

    Consider your rearview mirrors adjusted, and let’s move forward.

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