Obama’s Online Strategist Clues Us In
by Nancy Rathbun Scott

Ben Self, founder of Blue State Digital, designed and managed Barack Obama’s online activities in the 2008 election. Self came at the job from similar activities he had managed on behalf of Howard Dean and the Democratic National Committee, but took the results to a new level. Using revolutionary messaging, opinion shaping, community organizing, and fundraising tools, Self and the 65 employees of Blue State Digital raised $770 million and—many would argue—won a presidential campaign.

On April 15, Self lured direct marketers away from filing tax returns to hear strategies evoked and lesson learned in the best-of-all “relationship building” adventures.
Self told attendees that the campaign’s success boiled down to three ingredients: money, message, and mobilization, all perfectly seasoned with transparency and integrity.

A few large statistics for marketers to masticate:

• 1,800 videos were created for voters
• the videos were viewed 15 milliion times for 14 million hours of viewing
• the campaign “talked to” 68 million voters and was in contact with 220 million
• $770 million was raised for the campaign; 65 percent of that was donated online
• $500 million was raised through small donations
• 13 milliion people visited the MyBarack website
• 20,000 volunteer groups formed and they hosted 200,000 offline events
• the campaign website was developed in 10 days, thought it evolved over time

Getting the Dollars In
The fundamental strategy was to provide interested parties many and varied ways to get involved: donating, hosting community get-togethers, canvassing neighbors, blogging, signing petitions, etc.

Self notes that email campaigns drive fundraising. The Obama campaign began modestly, asking donors for $5. As involvement grew, the “ask” was ramped up. The campaign eschewed traditional “match mailing” tactics, where prospective donors are told a benefactor will match their gifts. Instead, the campaign asked donor activists to pledge $10 first, in an effort to bring in new, non-activist donors. When the new donor came in, the campaign put the two people in touch with one another. “We raised over $1 million in 24 hours,” he says.

Essential Messaging Strategies
Beyond raising money, much of the campaign’s effort centered on shaping public opinion.
For example, The Fight the Smears website was set up to quickly respond to negative publicity, providing a landing spot for voters looking for information. Meanwhile, extensive keyword research pinpointed what information voters were focused on at any given time. For example, the words “Barack” and “Muslim” were hot search terms at one point, so the campaign sponsored ads that would pop up during the search. The ads—titled “Is Obama Really A Muslim?”—were designed to answer the queries first.

Google ads played a significant role throughout the campaign, with campaign-sponsored ads appearing extensively on the Internet. Even individual Gmail messages were searched for important keywords and then treated to a campaign-related link.

For the first time, video was a significant strategy. YouTube generated 1 billion minutes of watched video content. Despite being a lengthy 45 minutes, more people watched Obama’s famous “Race Speech” on YouTube than watched the speech on all three networks combined.

Mobilization Efforts
The campaign provided a place for passionate people to come together and turn energy into action. For example, each registered supporter was asked for his/her address, which was then matched to the addresses of registered Democrats nearby. A Google map of these non-active or yet-to-be active Democrats was generated and emailed to the active supporter, with a request to visit the neighbor and get responses to five questions. That information was then shared with the campaign.

Lessons from An Online World
“The Obama campaign had no ‘secret plan.’ “Our success involved doing the fundamental things well,” Self notes. “People are expecting to interact differently with organizations online … and we applied standard testing, measuring, and adaptation techniques.” Self adds that the same strategies used by the campaign can be applied to any relationship building effort. “It’s not about finding huge numbers of new donors, supporters, or members. It’s about improving 10 to 20 percent.”

Such new media as Facebook can give supporters an equal voice. Within hours of posting the Obama Facebook page, 1,600 active members had signed on. Ultimately, 3 million Facebook friends came on board.

Campaign email embodied careful thought and structure. “People who get email look at three things: Who sent it? What’s in the subject line? What previous interaction have I had with this sender?”

Self says the best online strategies organize supporters and then communicate with them appropriately. “How do you talk effectively to people on an email list? Seven ways,” he says.
• Talk to them regularly.
• Be relevant. Adapt quickly to changing events and be ready to act immediately.