The value of data

When Barack Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States in 2008, his decisive win was attributed by many to the way in which he had both embraced and understood the power of social media.

At the centre of his campaign was the MyBarackObama.com website, which attracted 8.5 million visitors a month at its peak, while Obama had profiles on more than 15 social networks, including Facebook (where he had three million followers), MySpace and BlackPlanet.com. More than 13 million people provided their email addresses, receiving more than two billion emails which raised almost $500 million. And Obama even campaigned in the virtual world, targeting men aged between 18 and 34, with advertising integrated into online games, saying Vote for Change.
 
Yet in 2008 the world of social media was still in its infancy. Just 100 million people were on Facebook, while the all important 'Like' button was not launched until one year later. Twitter was a year away from achieving one billion tweets. And Instagram, Foursquare and Pinterest were yet to be invented while Tumblr was a one year old toddler. And the first iPad was a twinkle in Steve Jobs' eye - and still two years away.
 
Fast forward four years, and the world is very different. The MyBarackObama website now works on both desktop, tablets and mobiles. More than one billion people are on Facebook while one billion tweets are sent every two days. When Barack Obama was inaugurated as President in January, his @BarackObama Twitter handle had more than 27 million followers, he had more than 35 million 'Likes' on his Facebook account - three times greater than his former rival Mitt Romney - and almost 260,000 subscribers to his YouTube page, totalling more than 260 million views of his videos.
 
But while the numbers are impressive, mirroring the inexorable growth in social media, the biggest difference for 2012 was that the campaign was data centric, according to Rob Blackie, managing director of Blue State Digital in London. Many officials on the 2008 campaign argued that there were too many databases that had no ability to share information and much overlap. This time around, the teams spent 18 months creating a massive single system that could capture all the information available on supporters and potential voters, particularly in swing states. Consequently, an understanding of the numbers underpinned every decision in the electoral race. Indeed, it has been reported that the campaign put together a team of more than 100 statisticians, predictive modellers, data mining experts, mathematicians, software engineers and online advertising experts at its headquarters in Chicago.
 
'The campaign was incredibly data centric,' explains Blackie. 'It was totally in touch with its audience, and had data on absolutely everything.' Nothing was left to chance. Everything was backed by numbers. When the number crunchers found that West Coast females aged between 40 and 49 - a key target audience - were swayed by George Clooney, they launched a $5 a ticket sweepstake to win the chance to dine with the Hollywood actor and Obama. The dinner raised a record amount of nearly $15 million; just $6 million came from the wealthy donors who paid $40,000 apiece for the opportunity. (The sweepstake winners, a science teacher from New Jersey and a mum from Florida, were flown, with their husbands, to Clooney's Los Angeles home.)
 
To repeat the fundraising experience, the digital experts mined the data and found that Sarah Jessica Parker also resonated with the target audience. Billed as A night with the President, First Lady and Sarah Jessica Parker, supporters were asked to donate $3 for dinner at the Sex in the City star's New York home. The campaign then invited supporters to pick the next guest host.
 
'The campaign worked with demographics,' adds Blackie. 'Once data is used properly in a campaign, it becomes hugely valuable.'
 
Blackie is in a position to know. Joe Rospars, founding partner of Blue State Digital, was Obama's chief digital strategist, reporting directly to his campaign manager Jim Messina, and other agency staff, including the video director and social media director, were seconded across.
 
From their experience, they have highlighted several key areas that set this campaign apart from Obama's groundbreaking use of social media four years earlier. They also believe there are lessons that are applicable in the business world. 'Most corporate are terrible with data,' says Blackie. 'They are often good in an operational way, but they could discover more about their customers if they chose to.' How many retailers, for example, know which politicians are regular shoppers - and thereby potential advocates?
 
Word of mouth
 
Since 2008, digital media has proved to be a powerful tool in extending the reach of brands. But the key to success is engagement. While Obama's campaign again embraced social media platforms, such as media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and engaged with loyal followers that way, it needed to target potential followers in key swing states, such as New Hampshire and Ohio, where no one candidate has overwhelming support and where the battle for President would be won. (In the event, 18 million people voted for Obama in swing states, securing him the majority of all important Electoral Colleges.) 
 
Obama's campaign mobilised supporters with friends and associates in swing states, identifying those who might be 'persuadable', encouraging them to engage and explain just what they admired and respected about the President. Ahead of Obama's keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, his campaign launched a Facebook app that, once downloaded and authenticated by a supporter, shared related videos and information with their friends. More than one million supporters downloaded the app. In the final weeks of the campaign, they were asked to engage with friends who were targeted voters in swing states and encouraged to forward messages and images. More than 600,000 supporters participated in this initiative, sharing information with an estimated five million people and encouraging them to vote. On Election Day, traffic was so high on the system that logs of voter activity were allegedly taken offline to free up server space. It has been estimated that one in five people contacted by a Facebook friend acted on the request because it came from somebody they knew.
 
Nowhere is the power of a 24/7 news cycle more apparent than in an election campaign. Just 12 per cent of all new handset sales in 2008 were smartphones, according to Pyramid Research, but by 2012 Pew Research estimated that almost half (46 per cent) of all Americans owned a smartphone. This dramatic change has transformed the way in which people consume news. In many cases, they are less concerned about the source of the story than the speed at which it is received. Just tweeting a link to a news story, for example, can prove just as powerful to followers as sourcing and writing the piece. The first person to move on a news story can gain a significant audience. But many brands are 'programmed' to release news at certain times of the day, avoiding weekends and evenings. 'The peak usage time for London 2012's mobile website was 11pm,' explains Blackie. 'That's because people were checking league tables and news on their mobile phones [before going to bed]. The pattern of Internet usage has spread throughout the day.'
 
Recognising this, Obama's campaign eschewed the traditional 'one message a day' model. Every supporter who signed up for the campaign was asked for their first name, surname, email address and 'zip' code. This information was cross referenced to a customer relationship management system (CRM). This pooling of data allowed localised messaging and the creation of 'spin off' Facebook pages and Twitter accounts for swing states, for example. Supporters were sent regular information and invitations to local events, and on Election Day, they were informed both of opening times and the size of queues at voting stations. (As long as they were in the queues before the voting stations closed, their vote counted.)
 
Power of mobile
 
Calls to action on desktops are, historically, more successful than those on smartphones because, as Blackie explains, it can be time confusing and frustrating to input information onto a small handset. The key to success is to create a mobile call to action that can be used at even the most challenging of times, for example when the phone owner is inebriated. A great example is the Get me home button on the National Rail app. After initially filling in personal details, all that is needed is one press and all the information to get home (from whatever location) is there. A similar button was used by the Obama campaign online to encourage donations. An email campaign included 'Quick Donate' buttons for amounts as small as $10. When a supporter, who had previously filled in personal information, clicked the link, their credit card was charged immediately. A similar text message based campaign was also successful. Moreover, it became apparent that supporters who signed up to the 'Quick Donate' buttons were more likely to donate several times once prompted. Blackie adds: 'It essentially doubled the donation rate of people who took part.' Blue State Digital estimates that between 15 per cent and 20 per cent of potential donations would have been lost had it not been for initiatives, or buttons, that made it easy for supporters to participate.
 
The importance of content
 
Messages do not have to be complex. The team behind Obama's campaign found that the most popular pieces of content were not necessarily complicated. 'There is a skill in dumbing down stories to a very basic level,' says Blackie. 'The media did not always want in-depth stories.' And nor did the supporters. When Obama paid an impromptu visit to a Christian school in Florida last October and posed with the class, a boy in the back row stole the scene by grabbing his neighbour and giving her a kiss on the cheek. The image was posted on the President's Twitter feed with the caption Photo of the day, and subsequently retweeted thousands of times.
 
'The campaign observed that short emails or text messages with simplified content were popular,' says Blackie. Including GIFs or animated images in the messages also encouraged supporters to share the news. 'You can articulate relatively complex issues, such as job losses and gains under Obama and [his predecessor] George W Bush, to mass audiences through infographics,' adds Blackie. 'Supporters can print out infographics and take them canvassing or share them with friends.'
 
Different messages were devised to suit different social media platforms. Tumblr allowed supporters to share jokes, their experiences campaigning and fun photographers while the President's unannounced Ask Me Anything session on Reddit, a platform seen as 'cooler' than Facebook or Google+ hangouts, set a new record for the site. (He returned on Election Day to ask supporters to go out and vote.)
 
When Clint Eastwood delivered his 'Invisible Obama' speech to an empty chair at the Republican National Convention, the Democratic campaign tweeted a picture of the President taken from the back of a chair with the phrase This seat's taken. Within hours, it had been retweeted more than 24,000 times.
 
On the Friday before the election, Messina sent a video to supporters laying out the campaign's plans for election day, with the strapline The President will win re-election if we do what... 'He explained about voter registration, early voting advantage and what supporters needed to do to boost the vote in swing states,' explained Blackie. 'It was the campaign's internal communications plan. It was articulate and aimed at supporters.' Viewed more than 100,000 times, the video demonstrated, according to Blackie, the importance to talking to people 'again and again'. 
 
And when Obama's victory was assured, the campaign returned to basics. A simple image of him embracing his wife Michelle was posted on the President's Facebook and Twitter accounts, with the tagline Four more years. Within hours it had become the most 'Liked' image in Facebook history andachieved the record of the most retweeted image.