Lessons from Obama Article icon


Lessons from Obama

As they raced their cars and motorcycles around the course towards the Waterfront Plaza, fans of Electronic Arts' game Burnout Paradise blinked with disbelief last October. There, on the virtual billboards that surround the tracks, was the face of American presidential candidate Barack Obama urging people to Vote for Change.

The billboard advertising, which ran from October 6 until election day, appeared in a version of the popular game in ten hotly contested states. Similar virtual advertisements, targeting men aged between 18 and 34, ran in football, basketball, hockey and skateboarding games.

It was the first time a presidential candidate had campaigned in a virtual world, and, according to Gareth Davies, head of digital media at consultants MS&L, it demonstrated the strength of Obama's offering.

'He understood that not all Americans get their information from the Huffington Post or CNN.com,' explains Davies. 'This was a genius approach with a high impact. It was cost effective and got the slogan into the minds of younger people. But they also got the message that This guy really understands me. He knows who I am and where I interact.

'Everyone considered the digital landscape, but what Obama did really well was that he understood where his audience was. He recognised that he needed to get younger people on board, and the way to do so was through digital channels.'

It is impossible to quantify how many votes those seven weeks of virtual advertisements gained, but last November Obama swept to victory becoming the 44th President of the United States after a campaign that observers claim has revolutionised politics. 

Even his inauguration proved a digital first, with twice as many American people estimated to have watched it online than on the television. Obama ran a campaign for the 21st century, embracing technologies that were not even available when George W Bush campaigned for re-election just four years earlier.

These tools were not exclusively available to Obama, although it probably helped that Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook, joined his team, but experts claim that he recognised better than his opponents the power they possessed. 


As Mat Morrison, global head of digital at Porter Novelli, says: 'Obama employed ten times more people than his opposition on the digital side, so he won the online war. He invested more and so got more results. But he also asked supporters not just to give money but to give time, and that was where he was different.'

David Almacy, Washington-based vice president for digital strategies at Waggener Edstrom, agrees: 'Certainly, the Obama campaign understood the power of building online community. They used the Internet as an effective communications tool and, of course, to raise money. They also put the proper resources behind it with 95 web staffers and almost $12m (£8.5m) spent in two years for online efforts alone. That's huge! Leveraging social media sites like Facebook and Twitter helped connect his supporters but ultimately his election, in my opinion, was more a reflection of the promise of his candidacy rather than just his web presence.'

At the centre of Obama's digital campaign was the MyBarackObama.com (MyBO) website, which served as a hub for all other activities. Everything that Obama's team did drove the conversation back to MyBO.

Marshall Manson, director of digital strategy at Edelman, adds: 'The underlying point is that Obama did something better than anyone else. He recognised that there was an audience for the kind of things that he wanted to talk about but on their terms and at places where they gathered.'

'The whole MyBO aspect came from something his supporters were already doing,' adds Morrison. 'Obama didn't initially set up MySpace and Facebook pages, but he saw that his supporters were setting up pages with tens of thousands of followers. His grassroots support was strong, but Obama used social media to engage with it.'

About 60 per cent of American adults belong to a social network but Obama recognised that most belong to just one. He had profiles on more than 15 social networks, including Facebook, MySpace and BlackPlanet.com. 'It is important to note that Obama selected the most significant and important platforms with which to participate,' adds Manson. 'He leveraged these platforms to direct people to the MyBO website where the campaign had a greater ability to channel people to the specific activities and causes that were deemed the most important to fulfilling the campaign's electoral strategy.'


There have been some suggestions that Obama mobilised the young vote but neglected the older one. 'At the end of the day, demographics do not matter,' says Manson. 'He found people who were online and he engaged them to become his advocates.'

Recent research demonstrates that today's consumer is more likely to be influenced by a friend or colleague, than an official source of information, which highlights the importance of Obama's advocates.

For example, while Obama had more than three million Facebook friends, his supporters found creative ways to support his candidacy. More than 900,000 people joined the 'One Million Strong for Obama' group on Facebook, despite its extensive set of rules which restrict swear words, excessive use of capital letters and insists that 'threads must contain some form of information, argument or substance'. 

'The campaign leveraged participation on these existing networks to reinforce messages across platforms and create as many touch points as possible,' adds Manson. 

Among the Obama initiatives that most impressed Manson was the virtual phone centre. 'Supporters signed up and volunteered to call people to ask how they intended to vote. In the past, supporters used to come and sit in vast halls to make calls but somebody had to list them and keep the data in order,' he says. 'Now people can make calls in their own time, on their own phones, and process that data onto the website, making it easier to track who has been called.' Indeed, users could log in from home to get lists of swing-state voters to telephone.

Similarly, Obama's team capitalised on the power of text messaging. Last February, it ran a Super Bowl advertisement asking supporters to send 'Hope' to 62262 (OBAMA on a keypad), and then used these phone numbers to announce speeches, local volunteering opportunities and, ultimately, voting.  

A study by the New Voters Project found that text message reminders helped increase turnout by four per cent at a cost of only $1.56 per vote, which was significantly cheaper than the cost of door-to-door canvassing or phone banking which is between $20 and $30 per vote.

The campaign also made supporters feel important and valued by announcing Joe Biden as Obama's running mate in a text message. 'It's so personal because it's going to your hip. It's going to your pocket,' says Jack Philbin, co-founder and president of mobile marketing firm Vibes Media. Zaw Thet, chief executive of 4INFO, a text-message advertising and content provider, describes a mobile phone number 'as like a Social Security number and worth more than its weight in gold'.


Most experts agree that Obama's team worked to constantly reinforce his brand, using new tools such as Twitter that allows updates of up to 140 letters. 'The power of Twitter is that like-minded fellows interested in you can get on board,' explains MS&L's Davies. 'And every Tweet is searchable on the web. Obama's Twitters were not just about the latest news but about what was happening and what the latest coverage means.'

The searchable element of Tweets was appealing to Obama's campaign, which recognised that it is no good posting content if nobody can find it. They created URLs of popular search terms to ensure that their websites all appeared on the first page of each search engine. Research by Edelman also revealed that, cleverly, Obama's campaign team released videos to counter critical videos created by the opposition that used the same tags, so that those searching for the original video would easily find Obama's positive response. 

Davies adds: 'Obama's team recognised the social demographics. They understood the What? Why? Where? that their supporters really cared about. They mapped out the audience.' The campaign also constantly evaluated the success of its messages. Adverts and emails were produced in different versions to test what worked, enabling the messages to be adjusted in real time to improve conversion rates.


Obama enthused voters. On election day, many felt compelled to record their experience (which historically has been viewed as a private activity) on phone cameras and other multi media devices, and upload them to sites such as Flickr and YouTube, which hosted a special site Video your vote. Facebook aficionados ticked a specially constructed box on the site to declare that they had voted; the tally almost reached five million. Similarly, they could send virtual Obama or McCain buttons to friends and pledge support on their wall posts. 'That peer-to-peer contact is a core part of actually driving voter turnout and behaviour,' according to Chris Kelly, privacy officer at Facebook. 

Less than two weeks after his landslide victory, Obama created another historical moment when he became the first president-elect to release his weekly radio address on YouTube.  This address has now been watched by almost one million people, significantly higher numbers than those that typically tune into the radio.

Similarly, more than two million people visited Change.gov, a website created for the transition from election to inauguration within the first month of launch. In an effort to maintain momentum, Obama invited supporters to comment on a video featuring former Health & Human Services Secretary-designate Tom Daschle, asking for ideas about health care reform. Most experts believe such initiatives are crowd-pleasing exercises, rather than a serious attempt to influence policy. Porter Novelli's Morrison adds: 'The key thing about the campaign is that all Barack Obama's supporters feel that they made a difference.' 


At 12.01pm on Inauguration Day, Macon Phillips, director of new media for the White House, welcomed visitors to WhiteHouse.gov and announced that the new website 'will serve as a place for the President and his administration to connect with the rest of the nation and the world'.

He announced that 'initial new media' efforts would centre around three priorities: communication, transparency and participation. He promised the publication of the President's executive orders and proclamations was 'just the beginning of our efforts to provide a window for all Americans into the business of the government' while all non-emergency legislation will be published on the website for five days to 'allow the public to review and comment before the President signs it'.

But while supporters of Obama may  expect the new President to continue using his online tools, experts believe the reality could be somewhat different. Almacy, who previously served as White House Internet director in the Bush administration, says: 'There are security issues which limit what the President or his staff can say on digital media. The Secret Service will not let people say things like I am standing next to the President in their Facebook alerts, for example. There are security precautions in place.'

And while Obama's communication priorities are noble, there is a difference between aspiration and reality when it comes to the American President as Josiah Bartlet, the fictional president in West Wing, discovered after insisting on personally signing all Christmas cards sent from his office. 

'I'm going to sign them all by hand,' Bartlet tells his assistant Charlie. 'I'm not sure that's practical,' comes the retort. 'I don't like the whole idea of the auto pen,' says Bartlet. 'Let's go by hand. How many can there be?' The answer - 1,110,000 - changes his view. 


Obama must retain the personal connection that supporters felt that they had with him as a candidate, but it will not be easy. He has the email addresses of 13 million supporters, but his campaign team spent millions of dollars on the requisite hardware and software to communicate with these numbers. It is not clear that the existing White House website can cope on this scale. Similarly, there are implications regarding the President Records Act, which requires all written communications to be preserved for the National Archives. Once a page goes up on White House website, it cannot be altered but it must be archived and then replaced. 

There are also restrictions regarding links to other sites, while the issue of cookies (devices sent by a server to a browser, which track each time the site is accessed by specific users) has yet to be resolved. 

Almacy recalls that, following Hurricane Katrina, he posted a transcript of a speech President Bush had made on the White House site. Bush had directed people in his speech to Redcross.org and, in an effort, to be helpful Almacy inserted a hyperlink. 'Within a few hours, I got a call from the White House general counsel's office saying I needed to take out the link.' Some federal government web pages are barred from linking to non-governmental sites in order to appear neutral. 

Similarly, Almacy adds that there are rules restricting what Obama can do as President and what he could do as a campaigning politician. He is now President of the United States of America, including almost 60 million who voted for his opponent. 

But there may also be issues regarding the use of blogs and other media, such as Twitter, for a sitting president. While supporters may accept that staffers write the blogs or update the Twitter status during a campaign, they may not be quite so understanding if, for example, a blog ostensibly written by the president is actually produced by somebody else. The tone will be important in order not to mislead or disappoint supporters. Similarly, there may be restrictions on what responses can be posted, which is at odds with the two-way connection enjoyed by supporters during Obama's campaign. His first YouTube as President-Elect disabled the comment function, preventing response videos appearing alongside.

Many experts, however, perceive these issues as mere irritations that need to be dealt with rather than major flaws in Obama's strategy. Edelman's Manson says: 'Obama and his team turned up at the White House to discover that the technological systems have not been upgraded for ten years.' He also discovered that, as a serving President, he was unable to retain his treasured Blackberry. 'And do you know what he said?' says Manson. 'Sort it out guys, and they did although it is a General Dynamics model rather than a Blackberry. I think we should give him the benefit of the doubt for the moment, but if in three months time then it has not been sorted then that's a different matter.'