Digital A-List 2009

Social Media Paves Obama's Way to White House

Presidential Run Raised the Bar for Campaigns, Offered Plenty of Lessons for Consumer Brands

By Published on .

Illustration: Pete McDonnell

NEW YORK ( -- "The point isn't for people to come to your site and do cool stuff, it's to help you accomplish your core goals," said Joe Rospars, who served as new-media director for Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

In a world of me-too web campaigns and get-me-one-of-those gimmicks, marketers could do well to follow the advice of Joe Rospars, who helped Barack Obama tap Facebook, Twitter and Meetup in his bid to win the presidency. While there may be no greater sales story for social media than that of Mr. Obama, the campaign never used the tools just to show it could; it used them for the real, often unsexy, heavy lifting they provided.

To recap: $500 million raised online from 3 million donors, most in increments of less than $100; 35,000 groups organized through the website My Barack Obama; 1,800 videos posted to YouTube, garnering 50 million views; and Facebook's most popular page, with gagillions of friends.

Mr. Obama's team had respect for the technology and knew how to use it. Rather than cloister the web staff in a room stocked with Mountain Dew and Twizzlers, Mr. Obama's various web "gurus" had real power in the organization, and the internet was used in every aspect of the campaign: PR, advertising, advance work, fundraising and setting up organizations in all 50 states. Indeed, the web allowed Obama to mount the first true 50-state campaign in years, rather than just rally the base and focus on a few battleground states, or even counties.

"They made online the central nervous system for their organization; smart brands are going to start doing this," said Pete Snyder, co-founder and CEO of New Media Strategies. "The ripple effect of this will be felt for years to come."

Digital from the start
Digital tools allowed the campaign to communicate directly with voters on an unprecedented scale, bypassing the forms and filters of traditional media. And because digital had been an integral part of the plan from the start, the Obama team made it look easy -- and that became quickly apparent when his challengers rushed out me-too efforts that looked amateurish by comparison.

The campaign was uniquely adept at using the right tool for the right purpose. For example: Much was made of the Obama campaign's use of Facebook, Meetup, YouTube and Twitter, but the most powerful tool in Obama's digital arsenal was probably his 13.5 million-strong e-mail list.

Blue State Digital had My Barack Obama up and running the day Obama declared his candidacy. About 1,000 groups organized in the next few hours; among them were the groups that became the biggest and most powerful as the bruising primary battle with Hillary Clinton wore on.

"Our guiding philosophy was to build online tools to help people self-organize and then get out of their way," said Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, who joined the campaign to help it use the tool to organize younger voters. "The technology was more a means of empowering people to do what they were interested in doing in the first place."

Obama iPhone app

Blue State Digital built applications such as this one for the iPhone, which helped people get out the vote.

Tens of thousands of young people downloaded voter-registration forms on Facebook; when a supporter used Obama's phone-bank tool to call undecided voters, it appeared in her friend feed.

Sure, it didn't hurt that Mr. Obama also had a consistent message, an intuitive read on the country's outlook and an ability to see beyond his base. And he and his target audience were in sync with social media. His supporters, like social-media proselytizers, seemed given to an optimism not typically seen in the political world, talking up the candidate's strong points and overlooking the weaknesses. "Transparency," for example, was a buzzword for both crowds. It remains to be seen how much real transparency will help marketers, but Mr. Obama took no chances. Despite a fondness for the word, his core campaign messaging was as tightly controlled as previous efforts by George W. Bush.

After victory
When the campaign ended, Mr. Rospars returned to Blue State Digital, where he and co-founder Thomas Gesemer are looking to apply the lessons of the campaign for nonprofit organizations and for brands -- but perhaps not all causes or brands.

"We are progressive in nature and interested in staying on the non-evil side of the business," Mr. Rospars said.

The digital organization built for the campaign has been turned over to the Democratic National Committee in the form of a new group, Organizing for America, and tasked with continuing to cultivate the grass-roots movement that swept Mr. Obama into office. Naturally, the group will be powered by tools developed by Blue State Digital.

Mr. Hughes, the Facebook co-founder, took a job with Mr. Obama's ad agency, GMMB, as a strategic adviser.

When it comes to applying the lessons of the campaign to brand marketing, there are plenty of opportunities, but as brands such as Skittles and Motrin have shown, not every tool is appropriate for every marketer, and a two-way conversation with the public can get, well, complicated.

"A lot of what we learned is applicable, but not all," said GMMB partner Greg Pinelo. "Barack Obama is not a shoe. He is the first great political leader of the 21st century. I do think the lessons of social engagement and two-way conversation apply to a broad range of entities."


Joe Rospars
Digital can be sexy, but it's also hardworking. Don't lose sight of your objective.

"There are lots of organizations and campaigns that say, 'We're going to have a whiz-bang digital presence,'" said Joe Rospars, founding partner of Blue State Digital and former new-media director of Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. "But the point isn't for people to come to your site and do cool stuff; it's to help you accomplish your core goals."

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