Social Media Paves Obama's Way to
Presidential Run Raised the Bar for Campaigns, Offered Plenty of
Lessons for Consumer Brands
By Michael Learmonth
Published: March 30, 2009
Illustration: Pete McDonell
NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- "The point isn't for people to come to your
site and do cool stuff, it's to help you accomplish your core goals," said
Joe Rospars, who served as new-media director for Barack Obama's
In a world of me-too web campaigns and get-me-one-of-those gimmicks,
marketers could do well to follow the advice of Joe Rospars, who helped
Barack Obama tap Facebook, Twitter and Meetup in his bid to win the
presidency. While there may be no greater sales story for social media
than that of Mr. Obama, the campaign never used the tools just to show
it could; it used them for the real, often unsexy, heavy lifting they
To recap: $500 million raised online from 3 million donors, most in
increments of less than $100; 35,000 groups organized through the
website My Barack Obama; 1,800 videos posted to YouTube, garnering 50
million views; and Facebook's most popular page, with gagillions of
Mr. Obama's team had respect for the technology and knew how to use it.
Rather than cloister the web staff in a room stocked with Mountain Dew
and Twizzlers, Mr. Obama's various web "gurus" had real power in the
organization, and the internet was used in every aspect of the campaign:
PR, advertising, advance work, fundraising and setting up organizations in
all 50 states. Indeed, the web allowed Obama to mount the first true 50-
state campaign in years, rather than just rally the base and focus on a
few battleground states, or even counties.
"They made online the central nervous system for their organization;
smart brands are going to start doing this," said Pete Snyder, co-founder
and CEO of New Media Strategies. "The ripple effect of this will be felt for
years to come."
Digital from the start
Digital tools allowed the campaign to communicate directly with voters on
an unprecedented scale, bypassing the forms and filters of traditional
media. And because digital had been an integral part of the plan from the
start, the Obama team made it look easy -- and that became quickly
apparent when his challengers rushed out me-too efforts that looked
amateurish by comparison.
The campaign was uniquely adept at using the right tool for the right
purpose. For example: Much was made of the Obama campaign's use of
Facebook, Meetup, YouTube and Twitter, but the most powerful tool in
Obama's digital arsenal was probably his 13.5 million-strong e-mail list.
Blue State Digital had My Barack Obama up and running the day Obama
declared his candidacy. About 1,000 groups organized in the next few
hours; among them were the groups that became the biggest and most
powerful as the bruising primary battle with Hillary Clinton wore on.
"Our guiding philosophy was to build online tools to help people self-
organize and then get out of their way," said Facebook co-founder Chris
Hughes, who joined the campaign to help it use the tool to organize
younger voters. "The technology was more a means of empowering
people to do what they were interested in doing in the first place."
Blue State Digital built applications
such as this one for the iPhone,
which helped people get out the
Tens of thousands of young people downloaded voter-registration forms
on Facebook; when a supporter used Obama's phone-bank tool to call
undecided voters, it appeared in her friend feed.
Sure, it didn't hurt that Mr. Obama also had a consistent message, an
intuitive read on the country's outlook and an ability to see beyond his
base. And he and his target audience were in sync with social media. His
supporters, like social-media proselytizers, seemed given to an optimism
not typically seen in the political world, talking up the candidate's strong
points and overlooking the weaknesses. "Transparency," for example, was
a buzzword for both crowds. It remains to be seen how much real
transparency will help marketers, but Mr. Obama took no chances.
Despite a fondness for the word, his core campaign messaging was as
tightly controlled as previous efforts by George W. Bush.
When the campaign ended, Mr. Rospars returned to Blue State Digital,
where he and co-founder Thomas Gesemer are looking to apply the
lessons of the campaign for nonprofit organizations and for brands -- but
perhaps not all causes or brands.
"We are progressive in nature and interested in staying on the non-evil
side of the business," Mr. Rospars said.
The digital organization built for the campaign has been turned over to
the Democratic National Committee in the form of a new group,
Organizing for America, and tasked with continuing to cultivate the grass-
roots movement that swept Mr. Obama into office. Naturally, the group
will be powered by tools developed by Blue State Digital.
Mr. Hughes, the Facebook co-founder, took a job with Mr. Obama's ad
agency, GMMB, as a strategic adviser.
When it comes to applying the lessons of the campaign to brand
marketing, there are plenty of opportunities, but as brands such as
Skittles and Motrin have shown, not every tool is appropriate for every
marketer, and a two-way conversation with the public can get, well,
"A lot of what we learned is applicable, but not all," said GMMB partner
Greg Pinelo. "Barack Obama is not a shoe. He is the first great political
leader of the 21st century. I do think the lessons of social engagement
and two-way conversation apply to a broad range of entities."
MOST IMPORTANT DIGITAL LESSON I'VE LEARNED
Digital can be sexy, but it's also hardworking. Don't lose sight of your
"There are lots of organizations and campaigns that say, 'We're going to
have a whiz-bang digital presence,'" said Joe Rospars, founding partner of
Blue State Digital and former new-media director of Barack Obama's 2008
presidential campaign. "But the point isn't for people to come to your site
and do cool stuff; it's to help you accomplish your core goals."
By stephenchukumba | Montclair, NJ March 30, 2009 09:50:00 am:
I believe that brands can definitely learn a lot from the Obama camp's
comprehensive use of mobile, social media and onlin strategies. The
primary lesson is that there was a strategy. It was not a fly-by-night
effort. There were lots of moving parts and lots of orchestration.
The effort was also organic, in that, once the pieces were in place, the
people responded naturally and intuitively. The cult or tribe of Obama,
took the tools and made them their own. Because the Obama camp didn't
try to push new tools or methodologies on the masses, everyone got in
where they fit in, and the movement took on a life of its own.
Brands and marketers need to understand that their biggest challenge is
developing the initial strategy, taking into account the existing behavior
of their audience, and determining the best way to interact with them, in
ways that are both organic and impactful