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How social media won Obama the US Election

Social & Digital Technology & Data

How social media won Obama the US Election


There is only one tool, one platform, one medium that allows the
American people to take their government back, and thats the internet…”

It’s one of the more famous lines in recent American political campaign
history, and it’s bang on the money. Literally, the internet has
changed the way candidates communicate with their electorate, but more
than anything, it’s changed the way they raise dough. Interestingly,
that quote came not from a candidate, but from a campaign manager. His
name was Joe Trippi. You’ve probably never heard of him. He worked for
a man called Howard Dean. You may vaguely remember him – in 2004 he was
widely tipped to win the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination
thanks to his revolutionary embracing of the internet. He read blogs,
organised rallies through meetup.com and emailed people to organise
events. Trawl through news archives from 2004 and you’ll find thousands of articles on how amazing his use of the internet was. Then he went and screwed it all up by screaming. John Kerry beat him to the post, and America voted for George W. Bush anyway. Game over.

So if Howard Dean had such a revolutionary internet strategy back in
2004 and managed to raise enough money to become his party’s prime
candidate, why does no-one remember him, and what was different about
the 2008 race?

Two things. In fact they’re the two handiest things to have in any modern marketing campaign.

  1. Remarkable
  2. Social Media

Obama was a remarkable candidate. No one can argue
against that. He is a gifted orator, a Harvard Law School graduate, an
inspirational politician, a catalyst for change, loved by the most
powerful celebrities in America and, of course, black. Democrats and
Republicans both agree that is the most remarkable politician since JFK
(not counting the effect Watergate and Monica Lewinsky had on buzz for
Nixon and Clinton).

Howard Dean, on the other hand, was a bit of a toolbox. And, while
Joe Trippi ran a great online campaign for him, they weren’t operating
in a world with 100 million American Facebook and MySpace users.

Fast forward to 2008 and the landscape has changed dramatically. In
four years social media takeup, and internet usage in general has
skyrocketed. In 2004 it was a teenage novelty, four years later it has
become the main way friends and family communicate online. Barack
Obama’s campaign team used social media better than anyone else and it
gave them a huge advantage. Here’s how…

Facebook – treat friends as friends and they’ll like you

  • Number of Obama Supporters on Facebook on election day: 3,000,000
  • Number of McCain supporters on Facebook on election day: 600,000

Yep, for every Facebook supporter McCain had, Obama had five. In the
online popularity stakes, there was no contest. However, that in itself
wasn’t so much of a big deal. When Hilary Clinton was up against Obama
she only had 20% of the friends he did, but the nomination contest went
down to the wire. Obama’s real competitive advantage was a man named
Chris Hughes. Before he was brought on board the campaign team he’d
been busy running Facebook with co-founder, and college room-mate Mark
. With the co-founder of the most popular social networking
site in the world on your campaign team, it was going to be hard to
lose the popularity contest. Obama ‘got’ Facebook, while his opponent
pretended not to care. As McCain’s deputy e-campaign manager put it,
“Facebook users arent McCain voters anyway.” Which is a load of
bollocks really, given that there are 36 million Facebook users in

McCain had a Facebook account
of course, but in the same way John Howard had a YouTube channel in the
2007 Australian federal election, it was there because he would have
looked out-of-touch without one, not because he’s the kind of guy who
would have had one. McCain’s team spoke about him on his own profile in
the third-person and his updates were lifeless.
In fact, he didn’t even bother thanking his Facebook friends for
support when he lost. Obama, on the other hand, came across just like
one of your other friends would. Messages
were signed-off with his first name and before he went and gave his
victory speech in public, he sent this personalized note to Facebook

“I want to thank all of you who gave
your time, talent, and passion to this campaign. We have a lot of work
to do to get our country back on track, and Ill be in touch soon about
what comes next. But I want to be very clear about one thing… All of
this happened because of you.”

When Dale Carnegie wrote the world’s best-selling self-help book,
How to Win Friends and Influence People, in 1936 (the same year John
McCain was born), his number one rule was to ‘become genuinely
interested in other people’. You don’t need to be a self-help guru to
figure out why Obama had five times as many Facebook friends as McCain.
And you don’t need a degree in political science to understand that
friends = votes.

My.BarackObama.Com – a virtual army and fundraising juggernaught

Facebook was the most public social media component of Obama’s
campaign, but in terms of overall effectiveness, it will be a small
footnote in history. The crux of Obama’s social media marketing
strategy, and the main reason he raised so much money, was the custom
social network created for the campaign, My.BarackObama.com.

A couple of months ago I wrote a piece for Marketing Mag called ‘Does your Company Need a Facebook Page‘. It proved quite popular and I can sum up the gist of it with with this quote:

Social networks exist to facilitate
dialogue between passionate people. Their passion might be for a
particular product, a cause, a celebrity or a football team, but
theyre all in it together and they want to find other like-minded
people to share their feelings with. If your business isnt the kind of
organisation that people are passionate (or at least mildy enthused)
about, creating a social network around yourself will only serve to
highlight that fact. At best, youll get a few staff members and
cousins join, at worst, youll quickly find out no-one actually cares,
which can end up looking rather embarrasing. If you honestly cant
envisage your clients or customers starting a Facebook group for your
brand all by themselves, you probably shouldnt have one.

Applied to your average business, it makes sense. You can’t build a
social network around something that people don’t care about because
no-one will have anything to say. On the flip side, Obama isn’t your
average business. Bush is the least popular president
in generations and people were hankering for change. Obama was the most
remarkable candidate since Kennedy and, suffice to say, he had a lot of
fans. There was no way a custom social network dedicated to Obama was not going to work and hiring the co-founder of Facebook to run it was a stroke of genius.

My.BarackObama.com ended up with more than 1,000,000 members, which
makes it (as far as I know) the biggest private social network in the
world. McCain had nothing like it and Hilary couldn’t come close.
Members were passionate and campaign management empowered them to enact
the change they wanted to see. My.BarackObama.com was, in no uncertain
terms, an army.

Instead of relying on an external tool, like Facebook or MySpace,
which was beyond their control, campaign managers used
My.BarackObama.com to maintain complete control the dialogue and craft
their messages precisely how they wanted them. They used it as a
rallying tool to get supporters excited, a messaging centre to
communicate with supporters and allow them to directly contact
interested voters on behalf of Obama, a revenue raiser and a planning
tool to put local supporters in touch with each other and allow them to
set up meetings and arrange events.

Watch this video overview of My.BarackObama.com and you’ll see
exactly why it worked so well. It’s probably the best example of a
corporate social network the world has ever seen.

Pay particular attention to the fundraising section at 3:22. By
getting a million supporters to hassle everyone they know for small
amounts of money, they were far more effective in raising huge piles of
cash than they would have been if they’d asked a hundred thousand
people to donate large amounts. Anyone who’s a fan of Chris Anderson’s
long tail theory (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Long_Tail) will know exactly why this is such an effective strategy in the social media age.

At one stage in the nomination race Hilary was forced to loan to her
own campaign $5 million to try and keep up with Obama’s fundraising. By
June 2008 Obama had raised more than three times as much money as John McCain. My.BarackObama.com was, in Barack’s own words “the largest grassroots campaign in history”.

YouTube – you don’t need broadcast media when you’re this popular online

Obama’s use of YouTube was staggeringly successful. Every modern
politician has a YouTube Channel (even our very own John Howard had
one), but the world had never seen anything like http://au.youtube.com/user/BarackObamadotcom. Look at the stats:

  • Subscribers: 141,678
  • Channel Views: 19,865,534
  • Videos Uploaded: 1,823

Those figures sound impressive enough out of context, but compare
them to the next most popular celebrities and you’ll see just how
popular Obama’s YouTube site was:


  • Subscribers: 46,352
  • Channel Views: 1,790,402
  • Videos Uploaded: 76


  • Subscribers: 28,302
  • Channel Views: 1,180,100
  • Videos Uploaded: 20

While YouTube views aren’t a measure of voter support, they are
definitely a measure of popularity. If the American Presidential race
is the world’s biggest popularity contest, Obama was definitely the
prom queen.

Flickr – bypass the press 

As Stefano Boscutti from Australia’s own SBS put it on his New New Media blog:

“So which news organisation landed one
of the biggest photo stories of the year, exclusive behind-the-scenes
pictures with the Obama family on election night? None of them. Obamas
personal photographer snapped the photos and uploaded them to Flickr
under a Creative Commons license, skipping the media altogether. The
popularity of the photos subsequently crashed the site. This is what
happens when you get the first post-boomer president who actually gets
the net. The future just got brighter.”


Check out Obama’s Flickr stream at http://flickr.com/photos/barackobamadotcom/
and you’ll see literally hundreds of examples of the Obama team using
the world’s most popular photo-sharing site in exactly the way it was
designed – for giving your friends an insight into your life. By
providing that ‘behind the scenes’ footage, it served to humanise
Obama, which in turn won friends and influenced people.

Twitter – you don’t have to talk back

Obama’s Twitter account
was a great example of how politicians can use this micro-blogging
service as a one-way communication channel. Rather than trying to
message back the 133,000+ people who follow him, which would have been
logistically impossible and ended up hugely impersonal (the antithesis
of social media dialogue), Obama’s campaign team used it as a broadcast

The danger of using social media in a campaign is that once you
start engaging with one person, everyone else will expect you to be
their friend. By being up-front and not engaging anyone in this
particular medium, there was no expectation amongst followers that they
were going to get any attention. Australian politicians Kevin Rudd (http://twitter.com/KevinRuddPM) and Malcolm Turnbull (http://twitter.com/turnbullmalcolm)
might do well to follow Obama’s lead sooner or later, or they’re going
to end up with lots of angry followers wondering why no-one writes back
to them.

Furthermore, in a sign that Obama took Twitter seriously during the
campaign, but doesn’t see it as part of a viable long-term
communication strategy for a world leader, Obama stopped tweeting once
the election was over. Fittingly, it was with a message to his
supporters that neatly sums up why engaging social media (and the
people who use it) won him the election:

“We just made history. All of this
happened because you gave your time, talent and passion. All of this
happened because of you. Thanks 5:34 AM Nov 6th

Truer words were never spoken.


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