Inside the Obama Campaign: Lessons Learned

December 8, 2008

Notes from an insightful presentation by Rahaf Harfoush, New Media Strategist and staffer on the Barack Obama campaign.  November 27, 2008 in Toronto, Canada.

How do we transform a crowd into an audience, and that audience into a partner? Using what Harfoush called the FLIRT model of crowdsourcing (Focus, Language, Incentives, Rules, Tools), the Obama team embraced 3 main differences from a standard campaign:

  1. Employ a 50-state strategy:  following Howard Dean’s original goal to approach everybody in every state, the Obama team established field operations everywhere.  McCain, in comparison, focused only on the states he felt he needed.
  2. Target the disaffected center:  why focus left or right?  The Obama camp believed that many Republicans, unhappy with the last 8 years, represented possible votes.
  3. Focus on small donations:  millions of small donors can exceed a handful of large ones.

Results vary according to report, but Harfoush estimated they raised $639M to John McCain’s $360M.  The Globe and Mail reported Obama actually raised $750M – more than double his rival.  Of the $150M raised in September, 67% of it came from online donations.

How was this achieved?  Through benchmark successes in:

  • Social Networking:   Obama had 3.2M Facebook friends to McCain’s 620,000.  He had 1.1M MySpace friends to McCain’s 221,800.  Obama videos on YouTube amassed 20M views to McCain’s 2,200.
  • E-Mail:  they sent over 1 billion emails to over 13M email addresses throughout the campaign, hyper-segmented by state, issues, and donation history.  Current donors never received emails themed toward new donors, and those concerned primarily with health care were sure to receive emails focused on health care.
  • Mobile Text Messaging:  Over 1M subscribers had first notice, through a mobile text message, of Obama’s selection of Senator Joe Biden as his VP nominee.  Throughout the campaign they received 20 messages each per month.
  • iPhone Application:  by autosorting address books into local lists, the app turned iPhones into mobile campaign offices.  After every call a window would pop up asking how that person felt about certain events; it could then be forwarded to the campaign organizer in that area.   It also gave talking points on each event to keep all volunteers accurately on-message.
  • MyBarackObama.com:  the king of all targeted social networks, this custom beauty housed over 2M profiles and 400,000 blog posts.  35,000 volunteer groups organized over 200,000 offline events.  Each member was measured on an activity index including events hosted, events attended, calls made, doors knocked, amount raised, and groups joined.  The higher the activity index, the more access that member was given to training tools and key campaign staff.  Personal fundraising pages told others where each member stood and why they should be supported.

Harfoush wrapped the talk up with a few key lessons learned:

  1. Give new media a seat at the table.  This required a substantial capital investment up front and ongoing time investments throughout the campaign.
  2. Tools are useless without a blueprint.  Half of all new media campaigns fail yet 75% of Fortune 1000 companies will embark on them.  I would argue both of these numbers are much higher.
  3. Hold to a clear message and vision.  McCain was criticized for changing his message.  Obama stuck to his 3 key words and elevated his vision to a lifestyle:  Hope.  Change.  Action.
  4. Know the lay of the land.  Map out your digital landscape.  Know the top bloggers, the top social networks, and the central communication hubs.  Be clear on why you’re entering the space, how it will improve your brand, what value you’re adding, and if it’s a good fit.
  5. Build relationships.  Listen, be authentic, and ask questions.  Don’t rush into unfamiliar territory without first observing and learning the etiquette.
  6. Have a clear call to action:  What do you want people to do?  Every action in the Obama campaign was geared toward getting people to vote.  The sole purpose of online activity was to create offline activity.  In the weekend before the election over 1M doors were knocked on in Pennsylvania alone.
  7. Give up control.  Empower brand ambassadors.  Embrace co-creation.  Let the brand evolve.

By building communities and relationships, Harfoush and the rest of the campaign team enabled Obama to win an overwhelming majority in what was initially regarded as a tight race.  What’s next?  Government 2.0 has just begun.

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One Response to “Inside the Obama Campaign: Lessons Learned”


  1. [...] 9, 2008 On the heels of his impressive web marketing campaign and following a much-deserved 4-week quiet period, Barack Obama has released his presidential [...]


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