In 2008, the Obama campaign’s online and social media teams set a new high watermark for digital strategy and execution in politics, while also developing concepts and tools that influenced countless organizations, from non-profits looking to fundraise to companies seeking to better connect with customers.
The same architects of the groundbreaking digital effort in 2008 have returned for 2012, but the game has changed. While priorities like financing, message, and mobilization remain the same, shifts in technology and how it’s utilized are necessitating shifts in strategy and tactics that have implications for organizations of all shapes and sizes in 2012 and beyond. This panel is part of Social Media Week NYC.
Andrew Rasiej, Founder of Personal Democracy Media
Jared Hendler, EVP, Global Director of Digital & Creative for MWW
Teddy Goff, Digital Director for Obama for America, AVP of Strategy at Blue State Digital
Joe Rospars, Chief Digital Strategist for Obama for America, Founder of Blue State Digital
JARED: I was looking back to the days of MySpace, it was all about massing numbers, friends. Our next speakers, when you think about you actually quantify success, the Obama Team raised a ton of money with online donations. It’s an amazing transformation, and the Obama Team was one of the first.
JOE: Obama wanted people to understand not how to follow him as a leader, but how they can follow themselves. How they can use technology to come together to affect change. This is something core to how he wanted to run the 2008 campaign, and the same way we’re running it this time around.
Michele had said that she wanted us to do this the right way, to enhance the community aspect of this. They wanted to leave the political process better than the way they found it. This drove a lot of how we worked the campaign.
This strategic imperative and emotional and civic approach has been how we’ve driven the campaign from the start.
This wasn’t easy. We all had problems on previous campaigns trying to turn social media and digital into real results. The first main problem was that digital strategy is often a “nice to have,” something extra, but it’s not central to the campaign. If it’s not something that actually affects the business outcomes of your organization, it’s probably not worth it.
The other problem was trying to build technology and then get it out of the way.
The signal was very clear to our supporters that the Obama solution wasn’t just that we were bleeding edge, but was also focused on ordinary people, that they were well-educated on how to use tool and that they could affect the outcome.
TEDDY: I want to talk a little bit about how our team works, and the principles and strategic vision that we work under.
We think of ourselves this time around as a digital agency on the road with the Campaign team.
We ask ourselves how we’re going to give our people the single best experience they can have in this election.
Our principles are authenticity, give people access to the main people of the campaign – the President, the First Lady, the staffers, Joe Biden.
We try to be transparent as we go and understand how we can not always be talking at people, but engage with them.
Lastly, storytelling is really important for us. We use regular people, volunteers on our blog.
What do we try to achieve? Three and only three things.
First is that we’re trying to communicate with people. “We will not be lame.” There’s a lot more power in the hands of ordinary people, and it’s important that we’re striking the right chords. We try to speak in the language of the people we want to reach.
Secondly, one message, many formats. We need to understand we have many different audience members. We need to communicate the core ideas that we find important, but connect with different types of people.
Lastly, we try to create interactive experiences that try to persuade people – “Persuasion through interaction.” Sharing is an important component of this.
“Bringing some art to fundraising” – Having dinner with people who contribute far less reflects the commitment to transparency and openness.
We try to lower the barrier to entry at every level, and once they’re in, walk them down a path that gets them involved. Our website is “fully responsive” which means you can open it on anything, and it helps us get a lot of business done.
As soon as people are in, we try to express to them why we think volunteering is so important. We don’t want to waste their time, we want it to be meaningful, real work.
ANDREW: My job here is to tease out of our panelists who just presented these wonderful propaganda pieces some of the real crux of what they’re doing.
How has this evolved and changed from Howard Dean, to Obama’s 2008 campaign to now? How does being a “digital agency” integrate with the campaign?
JOE: In 2008 was the first time we were trying to integrate the online campaign into the offline campaign. This time around it’s not two different campaigns, it’s all one campaign. The notion that somebody can organize people, and not be able to do it on the candidates website, and have some sort of campaign support. We never want to see energy out there that isn’t leveraged and has runoff. We take that very seriously.
ANDREW: The last campaign had something like 13m supporters. I imagine it’s much larger now and on so many platforms. How do you manage all of this? How do you segment it?
JOE: Technically, we have a lot of internal tools we’ve built. But the big answer is that we manage it like humans. If someone is interested in hosting an event, we’re going to know that, and we’re going to interact with them in a human-type way. We try and manage everything in a way that’s human and obvious and relevant to the stage at which a person is in the campaign.
ANDREW: That’s your description of your relationship with the external community. What about the internal? Is there some special systems admin function? Who’s responsible for it? What’s the integration between that and what the public sees? Do you share data between the two?
TEDDY: There’s a separate department for that. We don’t want to be in charge of Blackberry’s (and you don’t want us to be). The goal is a tool that will not only provide someone who’s sitting at home the same type of tool that a field office volunteer would have, but it’s actually the same tool.
ANDREW: There was one moment in the 2008 campaign when Obama voted against a telecom legislation, and there was an insurgency on BarackObama.com, and it forced the President to acknowledge them, go online, and respond. How is this handled now?
TEDDY: Yes, the campaign is still interested in taking feedback. We’re in the process of a one-on-one program, where everyone that donated to the campaign can actually interact with someone to give their opinions. People understand that our job is to get Obama elected, and we’re not in the business of telling people what they can and cannot talk about.
ANDREW: Now, super pacs are all using social media. It’s Obama against a multitude of forces. It’s a level playing field.
JOE: We’re going to stay focused. Some candidates seem disproportionally focused on the day-to-day and on the other candidates. We’re trying to keep focused on everyone, on the issues, and highlight that we’re not focused on the insiders.
That being said, some of these groups are spending money to just drop an avalanche of sophisticated marketing on the President. That can be paralyzing if you think about it.
ANDREW: Is there a war room you’re paying attention to? How sophisticated is your process to respond?
JOE: We’re ready for it. The question is how big is the army, and how big is their role in this. We may need more support, we may need to arm more people. Our team needs to take responsibility to learn how to use the tools most efficiently.
ANDREW: We all know undecided voters are going to be key to this. You’ve used the term microlistening. Can we talk about that?
JOE: We’re trying to know what’s going on out there. We try to make sure we’re as on top of it as possible. We make sure we’re participating in a human way in each connection.
ANDREW: Any Facebook integration? New tool? What can you tell us?
JOE: We would love it if NYT were to put our quick-donate application on the front page.
TEDDY: The stuff that’s innovative and the stuff that’s flashy gets covered. But what remains true for us is that relationship-building is the most important for us, but we’re much more focused on refining the content and making sure those relationships are solid.
ANDREW: I thought one of the most brilliant pieces of the 2008 campaign was embedding the word “we” into the campaign. How are you introducing that again? We all want the “we” back.
TEDDY: In a lot of ways that’s our central challenge. We’re trying to give people the tools to go out and say how this has influenced their lives. All around the country there are stories about how legislation has actually affected people, and we try to capture that. That really moves boats. We’re in a bad place if everyone hears everything from us or the President.
ANDREW: Curveball. What’s going to happen with all this data?
JOE: What you’ll see happening after the campaign will look a lot like the efforts you saw in 2008 and it’s to use that data to actually get things done, retention. We still want to keep those relationships alive. It’s not just a big database, it’s relationships. We want people to feel that notion of civic possibility that extends beyond the campaign.
ANDREW: That would be great, I think a lot of people didn’t see that after the last campaign and want to see it.
Audience question: About content creation, the official White House channels on social media, I feel a lot of the content there is campaign content and propaganda. What are your thoughts on the content on the White House channels and the campaign channels?
JOE: There are a lot of rules around this. I wouldn’t characterize the White House content as being propaganda. I think they make a real effort at being human, they have limited resources (not as many as we are), and they have a lot of challenges. I think they’re doing a solid job, and a lot of it is exactly what they should be doing.
Audience question: What are some of the tactics do you use to create believable authenticity etc?
TEDDY: We have a lot of really great writers. If it sounds like writing, scratch it. We care that it sounds very human. It also depends on the platform.