The story behind Obama’s digital campaign

The Obama campaign picked up the Titanium Grand Prix at last week’s Cannes Lions advertising festival, and was praised in particular for its integration of digital into a traditional approach. Speaking yesterday at Fallon advertising agency in London, Thomas Gensemer of Blue State Digital, the company behind mybarackobama.com, explained how the website contributed to Obama’s success.

Mybarackobama.com during the campaign

 

The Obama campaign picked up the Titanium Grand Prix at last week’s Cannes Lions advertising festival, and was praised in particular for its integration of digital into a traditional approach. Speaking yesterday at Fallon advertising agency in London, Thomas Gensemer of Blue State Digital, the company behind mybarackobama.com, explained how the website contributed to Obama’s success.

Gensemer opened his talk by acknowledging the unusual nature of the Obama Presidential run, commenting that “if we had done Hillary or anyone else it wouldn’t have worked. It was because of the lack of baggage Barack Obama had and the newness of the campaign structure.” This is borne out by the enormous figures that the web campaign achieved, with over 13.5 million people signing up for email updates on Obama’s progress. Two billion emails were then sent out, although Gensemer stressed that this email content was carefully managed, with individuals targeted with different ‘tracks’ depending on their circumstances and whether they had already donated to the campaign. Instead of simply rejoicing in the numbers of people expressing interest in Obama, Blue State Digital worked hard to turn this interest into donations and also to utilise support on the ground, and by the end of the campaign the website had mobilised over 3 million people to contribute over $500 million online.

This was achieved in certain ways, many of which, now that the campaign is finished, seem simple and obvious, yet are rarely implemented in digital advertising. Firstly, the audience were treated with respect, both in terms of the type of email they received but also in the amount of time that they would be willing to devote to the campaign. Emails were short – never longer than 300 words – and never anonymous, there was always a consistency of voice and tone. Obama and other key figures in the campaign also contributed emails to be sent – “Michelle wrote her own emails,” commented Gensemer, “and more people opened those than her husband’s” – giving the campaign a personal touch and authenticity, rather than the impression of being simply churned out by the PR machine.

 

Mybarackobama.com now

Unusually in such an enormous campaign, the digital team were able to respond quickly to events, and once sent out an email within half an hour of an attack by Sarah Palin on Obama and his campaigners, which led to $22 million in online contributions. The team also had the flexibility to roll with events as they unfolded in other ways. One instance of this was when an Obama supporter contacted them to find out the pantone colours used in the Obama logo, as he wanted to paint it on his barn. Inspired by this idea, the team encouraged other barn-owning supporters to follow suit and eventually 1,500 barns were painted, strengthening support for Obama in rural communities.

Allowing such flexibility in a campaign is rare – especially if it is undertaken by a corporate client – but it appears to have been hugely beneficial to the Obama campaign. Gensemer did acknowledge that these new developments were often tested on a small group first however, before being sent to a wider audience, allowing a certain degree of control.

Finally, the campaign also set out to galvanise supporters to interact with it, either by sending in photographs or video footage, or by sending in their own stories online. This content was very carefully managed, however, with the team having defined a clear narrative that they wanted to tell about Obama, and only using user-generated content that fitted with this message. Gensemer commented that he realised during the campaign that “the notion of user-generated content doesn’t really work – the role of editors and brand managers in creating a narrative is necessary. It seems user-generated but in fact it’s very controlled.”

The Obama story is of course an exceptional one – to get such a groundswell of support and interest with little cynicism for a brand, for example, would be a difficult task. Yet what is interesting about the story of his digital campaign is the way in which digital was integrated fully into the Obama campaign, rather than been seen as an additional extra. What was revealed is that if technology is used correctly to harness interest, it is clear that the results can be huge.

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