Karin J Robinson, Democrats Abroad UK: The online President is back

Can Barack Obama embrace innovation the way he did in 2008 as an upstart junior senator?

On 3 November 2008, Barack Obama took the stage in Grant Park, Chicago and addressed a crowd more than 200,000 strong. Broadcasting to billions, he had become the world's most famous and powerful man after the most digitally driven election campaign of all time. Success has a thousand fathers, but many believe the 2008 victory began years before, in Silicon Valley, California.

When junior senator Barack Obama began exploring a long-shot attempt at the Democratic presidential nomination, the party's Washington insider staffers and fundraisers were already committed to support senator Hillary Clinton. So Obama's fledgling campaign looked to the upstart technology firms of southern California for early support - working alongside leaders in that field, including a founder of Facebook, to develop campaign plans to squeeze every ounce of support for maximum benefit.

The starting point was then the most sophisticated campaign website of all time. MyBarackObama.com wasn't a message delivery site but a social network-style one-stop shop designed to pull in supporters with an easy sign-up and then drive them towards impactful actions to fulfil the campaign's requirements.

Supporters were encouraged to set personal goals for offline activities, and won points for attending or organising events, making phone calls, knocking on doors and fundraising.

The site captured rich data about activists' efforts, and gave the leadership in Chicago a real-time picture of performance on the ground.

Meanwhile, the vast contact database developed by the campaign - more than 13 million email addresses - allowed information to be shared with incredible speed. It was extremely powerful on the night the Republicans' new vice-presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, gave a barnstorming speech mocking Obama's experience as a community organiser. Within two hours, the Obama campaign had emailed its list, capitalising on supporters' outrage. It was the biggest fundraising day of the campaign.

What made the marriage of Silicon Valley entrepreneurship and political organising so effective was that the digital team understood the function of our online efforts as tools to deliver traditional campaign activity, not ends in themselves. No matter how clever a tool was, it had to deliver votes. For instance, the campaign made a splash by being among the first brands to purchase in-game advertising in online video games - they knew that young, game-playing males were likely to be Obama supporters, but unlikely to vote. Video games were an effective way of finding them.

Three years on and Barack Obama is no longer a thrusting start-up brand - he's the political equivalent of Coca-Cola, the world's biggest brand. And the brand's most valuable asset is the behemoth database of US voters and supporters it has kept and grown.

So, what does the 2012 campaign look like? There are some early hints. In 2008, the single most effective online comms channel was email. Undoubtedly, email will still be essential, but many people have grown accustomed to communicating directly on Facebook. So the campaign kicked off with a Facebook app asking supporters to sign up stating 'I'm in', and post this statement to their friends' walls.

Is this innovative? Not especially. But it's effective.

Which suggests Obama 2012 will adopt the pragmatic 'whatever works' approach that underpinned efforts in 2008. Bring on November 2012.


What are the essential elements of content that is 'liked' on Facebook?

Be positive. People are reluctant to say they 'like' something that's sad or hopeless. So 'Save Darfur' is going to perform better than 'Genocide in Darfur'. Also, be personal. People are more likely to trust a person than a brand.

What is the most memorable digital PR activity in the past six months?

The It Gets Better Project. Appalled by suicides among LGBT teens, activist and columnist Dan Savage made a short video telling young people that life will get better after high school. Tens of thousands of other people were inspired to make their own videos - as did David Cameron and Barack Obama.

Karin J Robinson was a regional field director for the Democratic National Committee during the 2008 campaign and is vice-chair of Democrats Abroad UK

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