Obama graffiti: A product of open branding - Photo by Seetwist

Obama graffiti: A product of open branding
Photo by Seetwist

Last Thursday, I went to the Rotman School of Business to learn about Obama’s social media campaign strategy from a member of the team that planned this grassroots, state-by-state online takeover. She’s passionate, intelligent, poised. She’s a new media strategist. She is also Canadian. Perhaps the most impressive, Rahaf Harfoush is a mere 24 years old. Her story was both inspired and inspiring.

The applications used in the campaign (such as Facebook and SMS), were not new (Greenpeace is a 2.0 vet). But the fact that they were employed by a political campaign is the innovative part, some would say, the risky part. The risk obviously paid off, since the numbers speak for themselves:

More than one billion emails were sent out and “hyper segmented” or customized according to three different factors: geography, key issue concerns and personal donating history. Each email was personalized and included links to action taking place in that location. The email list of unique addresses totaled over 13 million, compared to three million for John Kerry’s campaign in 2004.

More than one million SMS subscribers received text message updates before the traditional news media broke the stories. The highest users, the “Battleground subscribers,” would get the most frequent updates, sometimes three to four times a day.

The strategy team created an iPhone application, an “O” icon right on the home screen, next to the familiar phonebook and mail icons. The Obama iPhone application would re-organize the contact info in your phone according to Battleground states. Using the following tabs: friends, get involved, updates, news, local events, media, issues and donate, the iPhone was transformed into a veritable mini campaign office.

The online site for Obama and Bidden, more affectionately nicknamed “MyBO” saw the creation of two million profiles and more than 35,000 volunteer groups.

People created their own fundraising pages with personal goals. The campaign team found that this was a good tactic to attract the friends and family of supporters and that there is greater likelihood of donating to a new cause if there is an added incentive of personal attachment.

All across the country, people turned their basements into call centres. This was a “neighbour to neighbour” tactic in which you could sign yourself up on the MyBO site, download the voter script, receive a list of voter phone numbers in your area code and make the calls from your own house. All of the compiled information filled out was then sent back online to the main call center in that area.

The reason the whole strategy worked, however, was not due to the creation of all these applications, but rather, because it rested on a few core elements:

  1. A consistent message – “Hope. Change. Action.” The campaign was built around these three words, which were present across all of the messaging. In the Q&A, someone asked about the mistakes made by McCain, to which Rahaf pointed out his inconsistency: “What did he actually stand for? It kept changing.”
  2. A lifestyle brand – The brand, which rested on the three elements of the main message was consistent throughout the entire campaign. It was imbued with the values of a charismatic leader and his platform, which lifted it to realms beyond mere logo recognition.
  3. Give up control – “Open” — this new buzzworthy concept urges us to leave ego and attribution at the door and literally opening up your brand for all to use, manipulate and proliferate. Open is the ultimate PR strategy. Subsequently, the Obama campaign had everything from a plethora of YouTube videos made for them, namely the “Yes We Can” music video by Will.i.am, which garnered a staggering 20 million views, and Halloween parties called “Yes We Carve.”
  4. Call to action – No application was ever created to be static. For instance, the facebook page was not just meant for people to “be-friend” it. This was not armchair engagement – the team did not simply want “click to support” allies, but rather those who would join the offline community as well. Each application was therefore linked to clear actions on the ground that individuals could join according to their location.

For organizations wanting to undertake social media campaigns, Rahaf urged them to give new media a seat at the table. In other words, this is not the work of a summer intern. There should be a dedicated team or a whole department for new media since it should be considered integral to the execution of the overall strategy. Two exemplary companies that have defined such roles/job descriptions are Dell (enterprise technologists work at Dell’s new site Digital Nomads) and Wells Fargo (business technologists link up with web 2.0).

There’s exciting buzz around MaRS right now regarding our social media strategy. We’re not sure yet what it will look like, but there’s a dedicated team in place asking all the right (and wrong – both are important) questions. SiG@MaRS also includes social technology as a main plank of our program. After running a very successful inaugural Social Tech Training in June ’08 (check out the advomentary!), the discussion for ’09 has already begun with a few new unusual suspects.

Also coming to MaRS is a meet-up of 20 people from different organizations called “The Conversation I’d Like to Have,” — a conversation that will explore this and other such issues.

All this is to say, there’s a movement afoot here and it might have taken a high profile election to blow it out of the water, but those involved in social media know that tenets such as openness, honesty and co-creation are being spread and increasingly adopted.

Interested in Open? Check out the following:

You can also check out Rahaf’s presentation below or view them on Slideshare:
Yes We Did: Strategic Insights from the campaign that redefined modern politics
View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: organizations politics)

Lisa Torjman

Lisa manages social innovation projects for the Social Innovation Generation (SiG@MaRS) program at MaRS. See more…