In the immediate aftermath of the 2012 presidential campaign – like any campaign – two things happened: the winners went to bragging and the losers started pointing fingers. One thing became clear. Obama for America’s digital, technology, and analytics teams were indispensable in securing the president’s reelection.
The Cave is what OFA called the windowless room that housed their analytics team. Like digital in 2008, analytics came of age in the 2012 campaign. OFA’s analytics team had 50 staffers. By comparison, the Romney-Ryan campaign had a data team of 4 people.
Veterans of OFA have been surprisingly forthcoming in providing details on how they leveraged the latest in technology and digital strategy to make their campaign as effective and efficient as possible.
In 2016, Republicans can’t afford to fight the battles of 2012. We have to look forward to the future and start preparing now.
Despite the comedic twist, the lesson is a valuable one. When creating content for a Facebook page and inviting fans to like that page, one must consider how “likable” the page really is. Will your content connect with your audience on a personal level? Will your audience be inclined to engage with the content, leaving comments and sharing posts with their friends? How entertaining is your content? If you have to beg people to give you a ‘thumbs up’ it’s not very likely they’re going to give you the engagement you’re looking for.
The Oatmeal presents a simple solution:
As a Client Strategist for Engage, social media strategy is a big piece of the pie that is my job. My goal is to present my clients with a digital strategy that will give their content the largest possible reach and exposure. Making things that are “likeable” can’t be an afterthought, it has to be the inspiration and the goal.
Creating likeable content is an attainable milestone no matter what the topic. It’s simply a matter of finding a creative way to present that content.
Okay, I’m being facetious. The other explanation that I’m self-hating, as a blogger going on seven years and an avid Twitter user with a network of 2,451.
There is a serious point to this, and one that should be dramatized for the candidates running for RNC Chairman: the Internet is not just blogs and Twitter. New media is a big world — from websites, to e-mail lists, to fundraising, to online advertising, to search engine optimization, to GOTV applications, to internal databases, to APIs, to YouTube, to mobile, to emerging platforms like iPhone/Android, and yes, to social media. Done wrong*, creating a Twitter account and holding a few blogger conference calls is the lowest cost form of engagement and can be a fig leaf for continuing business as usual in other parts of the organization. The hard part is integrating new media in everything the organization does, using it to transform volunteer recruitment, or open a new eight and nine figure revenue stream. Those are the big challenges the next RNC Chairman needs to be worrying about.
The mainstream things people do online are 1) e-mail, 2) connect on Facebook and MySpace, and 3) watch video on YouTube. Video is not on here because I don’t have a hard count of how many unique people watched Obama videos, but the advertising value of all Obama videos watched on YouTube was huge: over $46 million and bigger than the media budget for most primary and general election campaigns.
The difference between the Obama campaign and every other campaign is that they treated the online space as a mass medium, and not just a niche medium for the very interested. They announced online. They did their VP via text message. And they built up an e-mail list that was equal to almost 20% of their voters. They were maniacally focused on building up their e-mail list at every opportunity, requiring e-mail to attend events — and even setting up dummy registration pages late in the campaign for events where an RSVP wasn’t even required.
So, what’s my “beef” with Twitter? As you can see, it’s at the very end of the spectrum, at 140,000 Obama followers. That’s good enough to make Obama the #1 user on Twitter — though they’ve since abandoned the account — but it’s just over 1% of his most popular program — e-mail. Nor is this to disparage social media: Obama had over 3 million supporters on Facebook and over 5 million friends on all social media properties combined, so we can’t say social media hasn’t arrived as a political force. Twitter is just nichier than most. And though I sung Twitter’s praises as a political tool very early on, and still do, we need to put these numbers in perspective.
Twitter boosters would be right to suggest there is a tradeoff inherent in these numbers. As you move down the chart, the people in these groups get more and more active. Just under a third of the people on Obama’s e-mail list provided 100% of his money. The two million people on MyBO supplied the bulk of the campaign’s volunteer activity. And though I think the media get it wrong when they suggest Obama’s online success is primarily due to social networking, there’s no doubt that the care the campaign took to communicate on social networks — a medium that eclipses television among 18-29 year olds — had an effect. Not to mention the peer pressure inherent in seeing Facebook news feed items about 9,000 of your friends signing up as supporters of Barack Obama. This probably played a role in consolidating Obama’s 2-to-1 youth victory, and shifting the national Congressional generic ballot 3 points to the Democrats.
But Twitter, which is the successor to the blogopshere in many ways, is a different animal. Twitter is the medium of choice for opinion leaders — be they software engineers, political journalists, or bloggers. If you want to effect the influentials, Twitter, more so than blogs, is usually the way to do it — I’ve had random tweets of mine show up in outlets like the Huffington Post. Thanks to the work of trailblazers like Rep. John Culberson (who kicked off the #dontgo movement on Twitter) and Michael Patrick Leahy’s TopConservativesonTwitter.org, it’s very doubtful that the media can write the story about the left leading online on Twitter. Though Twitter users went about 86% for Obama — this is an accurate measure of tech industry and non-political Twitter users — political Twitter users probably lean right thanks to #TCOT.
That the right is seizing the Twitter moment is awesome, but I hope that we don’t lose sight of the more mainstream technologies (email and video) that give us the power — finally — to communicate directly to the general public and bypass old and new media gatekeepers entirely.
I’ve been on numerous campaigns, some more open than others when it comes to technology. But even those campaigns that were more skeptical — and whose bunker mentality caused them to lose — always latched on to blogger relations. Blogger outreach is always the easiest thing to sell to a campaign because it’s like the thing that traditional communications people most understand — namely, pitching to reporters.
And the hardest thing to sell? Invariably it’s anything that forces people to rethink their gameplan, and requires doing something differently instead of a quick win layered on top — like announcing online instead of on TV, or loosening up control on your own website in exchange for more volunteer activity. Reaching out to bloggers is important and necessary, but it doesn’t solve the problem of campaigns that are fearful of their own grassroots. Bloggers may often be political outsiders, but the ones campaigns usually deal with are an elite with thousands of readers — the chattering class of the Internet.
While new media is replacing old media, the model is still the same: campaigns passing along information to influential reporters/bloggers/Twitterati, and counting on them to spread the word to the general public. The Obama campaign showed that this model could be superseded. Through its 13 million strong list, the millions of people who would consume content all-digitally on YouTube, and the 2 million tied to the campaign umbilically through MyBO, the campaign built its own in-house messaging engine and didn’t need the netroots, either in the primary or the general. Of the dozens of moving parts to Obama’s online campaign, blogger outreach was probably the only one that got short shrift.
On the Republican side it was the opposite. Though the McCain camp’s blogger outreach was superb, they had 50% fewer people working on the core web product than Bush did in 2004. That’s because elite online media like blogs are probably inside the safety zone moreso than creating mass-based tools and communities that will serve the fundraising and political objectives of the campaign. If you explained the concept of MyBO to a campaign manager, they’d probably still freak out at the prospect of two million people hanging out on their proverbial lawn — ignoring the potential for 200,000 volunteer events, $30 million raised, and 3 million volunteer phone calls in the final days. That was the real magic of the Obama campaign, much moreso than Twitter or anything the campaign did with blogs (which wasn’t much, by design).
Newly minted RNC candidate Chip Saltsman hits on this very discussion in his platform:
I also believe in building online Republican communities – not lists. Instead of focusing on amassing email lists of the marginally interested, we must make a concerted effort to transform our websites into hubs worthy of the fervent political dedication of our online supporters. To achieve this goal, we must link Internet users to social networks and blogs of all sizes, and we must be willing to value openness and innovation as much as message control.
This is spot on in the context of the current (aging) RNC list, but ultimately, you need both communities and lists. Obama had a list of 13 million people and a smaller, more active community of 2 million people on MyBO. The latter group supplied the bulk of the money and volunteer energy, but without a list (built ethically and according to best practices) it’s hard to herd the most interested 20% into a community. The “communities not lists” model — was the hallmark of the Ron Paul and Huckabee campaigns and they only went so far.
Ultimately, only one person used the Internet to win the election in 2008. And he did basically everything — maybe with less of an emphasis on blogs. As one of the major parties in the world’s most advanced democracy, we should be able to do nothing less. That means a focus on recruting 5 million people — bloggers and non-bloggers alike, moving our fundraising online, and giving people the tools to self-organize in their own communities.
* I say “done wrong” because when done right, Twitter can be a beautiful thing — especially when the principal himself is the one doing it. (Just look at @JohnCulberson.) Without first person participation and hampered by tight message control, official Twitter accounts are just as worthless as official press releases “blogs.”
The common wisdom is that BarackObama.com is not only better at wrangling donations from the faithful, but is categorically better than JohnMcCain.com because it embraces an interactive as opposed to a broadcast model. Time‘s Michael Scherer put it this way last April:
Even today, if you go to McCain’s website, you are more likely than not to find a page that just asks for money and broadcasts the campaign’s message, with issue papers, press releases and videos.
By contrast, Obama’s website is engineered for engagement: prompts invite people to volunteer, make phone calls and find nearby events. “Don’t just fill out this volunteer form and wait,” it reads. “Get started on your own.” The blog is maintained by a former journalist; the social-networking function is managed by a founder of Facebook.
I don’t disagree as far as BarackObama.com’s depth of content goes. But let’s not kid ourselves. At its core, BarackObama.com is not truly interactive. It is transactional.
The first time you hit the Obama website, you’ll get a splash page prompting you to sign up for the email list. This is good practice, as the sign up form can get lost in the message-of-the-day clutter of the homepage. This way, you can change the homepage at will while still focusing on the most important thing: getting new people to sign up.
But the difference on BarackObama.com is this: the homepage above the fold hardly ever changes.
The main graphic on BarackObama.com has been the same for the last three weeks: Join Barack at the “Open Convention,” leading to a donation form. This is what they’ve had up ever since they announced Obama would be delivering his acceptance speech from Invesco Field in Denver.
And what about Obama’s much-touted Berlin speech? The story about Obama’s European trip is the second item in the homepage feature, and video of Obama’s speech is three deep.
This is no different than what they did in the primary. The majority of the time — from January through June — the main homepage graphic was a toteboard of all the states leading to a contribution page. This should look awfully familiar to everyone by now:
Conventional wisdom holds that major websites should change daily. But Obama flouts this conventional wisdom by hitting every user 1) once with a signup splash page, and 2) with a constant ask for money as the prime feature on the homepage, even if there are more current or important stories to tell.
This is neither good nor bad, but suggestive of the fact that the Obama homepage is compulsively metrics-driven. The campaign would not use this graphic if it did not produce more money than the alternative — even if the alternative was newer and made more sense intuitively.
As the frontrunners online, the best of the Democratic campaigns tend to be more boring and less innovative than their Republican counterparts. The transactional imperatives evident in the Obama homepage and email program suggest a well-honed machine run like IBM at its peak, not a hungry, innovative startup. We know that splash pages and static asks for money work. So why change?
The Kerry 2004 email list was all asks for money. The Obama list is mostly asks for money, albeit often creatively disguised, mixed in with some grassroots riffing off the BC’04 model. In both 2004 and 2008, Republican emails have tended to feature a broader range of action items drawing off the three M’s — message, money, and mobilization. Democratic emails are mostly about money.
The last McCain email I received wasn’t about money, but the August 14th McCain Nation house parties. The RNC has been one innovation after the other: the Platform website, the GOP Toolbar, Can We Ask? The Obama camp or the DNC never tell me what’s new without hitting me over the head for money, and hardly ever prominently launch a new feature without some ulterior motive (signups or money).
It’s not that Obama doesn’t do anything innovative beyond money. It’s that they hide it. The Obama campaign has launched a cool Neighbor-to-Neighbor tool letting you go door to door to talk to voters, but it’s buried in My.BarackObama.com, and hasn’t been advertised in email (which would get a bigger response than a simple announcement in the MyBO dashboard). I didn’t even get a targeted email promoting it as a resident of swing state Virginia or as a MyBO registered user.
The Democrats are locked into an email fundraising model because it’s a massive cash cow — in the same way Microsoft was locked into the Windows franchise or IBM was into the original PC. This works — for a while. Until someone else, like Google or Apple, discover a new model.
In my experience, Republican campaigns tend to be hungrier because they aren’t as wedded to the email cash cow. Most of the campaigns I see experimenting with user-generated policy, with next-generation campaign websites, with Twitter, or with money bombs are Republican. The current responsiveness of the Democratic base makes everyone on their side look like a genius, but in reality, it’s easy to get lazy and complacent while forgetting what made stuff work in the first place. Online, Democrats may be the safe insiders and Republicans could be the outsiders poised to upset the apple cart.
Republicans online have had to work harder to find a unique angle that works. That discipline will serve them well once their base comes around to decent levels of responsiveness.
What is online strategy? That’s the question many veteran political consultants, candidates, organizations, and my grandmother ask when I say that’s what we do.
The simple answer is that online strategy equals political strategy today. In a culture where everything — from planning your wedding to petitioning your government — happens online, the distinction between routine activity and “online” activity is practically unnecessary.
What do I mean? The political environment right now demands a candidate who offers a different kind of politicking, the kind where regular Joes (and Janes) feel like they are as important to the campaign as the candidate.
Barack Obama has received credit for understanding this and reflecting his understanding in his political tactics. For example, when Obama supported the House’s FISA (federal surveillance) compromise, despite previously taking a more liberal approach on the issue, many of his supporters reacted strongly. Encouraged throughout to engage in the campaign, Obama’s supporters used his website’s social networking platform to protest his position.
Certainly his supporters also used mail, the phone, and email to protest the position; however, through the social networking platform, the opposition to the candidate’s position was transparent, demanding a reaction from the campaign. Obama and his campaign had four options: 1) disband the unruly group of supporters using his site to criticize him, 2) ignore the protest, 3) change his position to appease the angry supporters, and 4) address the issue and those opposing it in the same medium for which the supporters’ opposition was so public.
Obama chose the last option, earning mad props from those looking for a more honest, courageous government. And let’s be frank, who isn’t? Obama’s approach falls under the definition of online strategy. There was nothing particularly technical or web-savvy about addressing supporters’ concerns directly and publicly to quell an uprising. It was, however, democratic (note the small “d”) and smart political strategy.
Now I’m not on the Obama love train. I just use the Obama example because as a presidential candidate, his political maneuvers receive the most attention. What’s more encouraging for us is a glimpse of activity by superstar Republican candidates and officials showing that they have equal, perhaps superior, understanding of online strategy.
They recognize that the Web is not the wild frontier that so many political warriors fear. The Web allows for faster, wider participation in politics, but the timeless fundamentals of participatory democracy have not changed.
When the Louisiana legislature voted to double their pay, bloggers and talk radio hosts were outraged. The voters followed. Their displeasure hit the boiling point when Governor Bobby Jindal initially said he would not veto the bill, and they flooded the Governor’s office with calls and emails against the pay raise. Bloggers and talk radio hosts made opposing the pay raise their primary government grievance, eliciting comments from angry citizens.
Jindal, faced with the same four options that Obama faced with FISA, chose the option of reversing his position, just in time. He chose the voters’ interests over the legislature, vetoing the bill. And he made sure voters knew that their input made the difference, humbly writing to them via email:
…I want to thank you, and all the citizens of Louisiana, who have become so vocal on this and so involved in the process, and ask you to stay involved. There is a lot more to do. Don’t tune out or stop paying attention to the political process now. This government belongs to you; it is your business. I’m going to need your help. …
In Washington State, Republican gubernatorial challenger Dino Rossi (who lost in 2004 by a couple hundred votes that many still question) also recognizes that voters demand more from their candidates today. On his website, Rossi has a section titled Tell Dino, that encourages Washington State voters to provide input for improving their state. In explaining Tell Dino, Rossi offers a Jindal-like approach to governance:
When I am your Governor, this website will remain active. And it will be as important to me then as it is to me now.
For Jindal and Rossi, like Obama, online strategy is not technical, it’s political … and smart.
By understanding and implementing online/political strategy, we at Engage propose that a more honest, responsive and democratic government will follow. We encourage all current and future candidates and organizations we advise to storm into the online frontier like the fate of the nation depends on it.