Obama’s online community mobilisation

ben_self1I saw a great presentation today by Ben Self from Blue State Digital who was one of the driving forces behind Obama’s online campaign. Self worked with Obama in the lead up to securing the democratic nomination and then throughout the campaign itself.

What was immediately evident was that this was a well executed but relatively straightforward campaign. The grass roots strategy reminded me a bit of direct sales film distribution stories like how the documentary  Outfoxed built an audience that eventually propelled it to cinema release. The Obama campaign built a community and a war chest by asking for small contributions of $5 or $10 from ordinary people – over 3.2 million people donated all up. The campaign rewarded the people who were most active in that community and gave them incentives to go out and field more members and contributions.

A lot of the organising was done via email to a database that reached 6 million people (apparently this has doubled in size since again since the election). Over $500 million dollars was raised online – total donations exceeded $700 million. The relationship management was crucial in growing the community, ensuring that the campaign was inclusive. The main web site featured a number of different touch points and ensured the barrier to entry was as low as possible.  The community was addressed through a dynamic and interesting email campaign and the mode of address was as personal as possible.

Obama built loyalty by sending emails and videos to the community before they were made available to the mainstream media channels. In this way he brought donors into his confidence and made sure they remained informed. The campaign itself was characterised by a very high level of face to face advocacy – apparently over 230 million people were talked to directly in this process. The community loyalty was such that people would take on the role of campaign advocates with calls to action via email and the web site. Ben Self showed a google maps mash up tool which was fed to community members showing houses in their surrounding streets marked out for them to doorknock. Membership of the community was grown through direct marketing techniques reminiscent of Amway except on a much bigger scale. And why not, these techniques are very effective, especially when leveraged by such huge numbers of people signed up. This is the wikipedia model applied directly to politics.

One of the most interesting things revealed in the presentation was that the most active online users in the campaign were women in their 50’s. There was a conscious effort to design an online campaign which didn’t just appeal to Gen C’s. Clarity of presentation, ease of use and multiple touch points meant that the online tools worked for a wide demographic. Although Obama’s huge number of Facebook friends and Twitter followers was mentioned in the presentation, the social networking tools were played down a little. Certainly the MyBarackObama social networking tool played an important role with over 200 000 people signed up and blogging on this platform throughout the campaign. But I got the distinct feeling that secret weapon was the call to action which actually got people to go and talk to their neighbours. It was this local aspect of the campaign which dealt such a killer blow to the ‘command and control’ approach of the republicans. And apparently Sarah Palin’s derogatory comments about ‘community organiser’s was one of the best calls to action to all those grass roots community organisers working for Obama. There was a huge spike in activity after her comments.

So the movement was built through regular and personalised contact with the community creating a relationship of trust which inspired and activated people to act locally. Ultimately it was also about connecting people to each other and building strength through local alliances that snowballed on a national scale. There’s no doubt that the ability of the internet to not only connect people globally but on a local level is key to the success of such a mass campaign. Certainly a few customer relationship tips there for the asking which can be equally applied to a range of businesses. You can hear Ben Self speaking on Radio National Breakfast here.

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