Friday, November 7, 2008

Adopting innovation to market brand Obama

This isn't a partisan essay. At least it isn't intended to be any more partisan than were, say, our essays about Pixar. Like everything we discuss, our purpose here is to shine a light on important trends in managing talent and employing social networks.

That effort at careful bi-partisan positioning taken care of, we should be free to say: Barack Obama's campaign should be used as a case study in classrooms across the country. The Obama campaign made unprecedented use of social network sites and used existing web tools in exceptionally saavy ways to understand his supporters and shape and position messages to influence them. They employed some of the best talent in the field - including Joe Rospars, who managed Howard Dean's internet presence in 2004, and Chris Hughes, one of the co-founders of Facebook - and gave them the support and latitude to accomplish what they were brought in to do. There was an impressive degree of integration across the different dimensions of the campaign. When television ads were launched in battleground states, they were also posted on YouTube and displayed on the campaign's Facebook page, where they were picked up by Obama's 2.8 million Facebook friends and shared with others. Any gaffe by John McCain, Obama's Republican opponent, was similarly broadcast across the wide internet landscape, which the campaign understood better than their rival did.

The Obama campaign understood that "people influence people." Every time a new supporter signed up to be one of Obama's Facebook friends, that supporter's new affiliation was automatically broadcast to all of his or her Facebook friends. On average, each Facebook user has 150 "friends" plugged into his or her network, some have as many as 600, a few have many more. Of course, many of these "friends" already share political leanings, and many may also be part of Obama's Facebook community. Still, doing the math, we're talking about a potential social network of 420 million people - greater than the entire population of the U.S.

Many of these supporters also set up their own accounts on, where they could blog about their own campaigning and canvassing efforts, post photos, and set up their own fundraising pages with their own messages. As people registered on or on the campaign's more conventional website (which was, functionally, just a different portal into the same content), the campaign gathered information about them. Some of this information was volunteered - name, address, email, cell number - but the campaign also deposited a cookie on each vistor's web browser, allowing the campaign to track where that supporter went after he or she left the site. This helped the campaign know where the supporter was getting his or her news and entertainment, helping to craft advertising plans.

Ultimately, every registered supporter was recruited, by carefully targeted emails, to donate, or volunteer at phone banks, or contribute to canvassing and get out the vote efforts. When volunteers showed up at campaign headquarters, they were given lists that were made more precise by the campaign's capability to gather information from its web-based resources. All of these campaign offices, set up across the country, even in states Democrats often skipped, were financed by the unrivalled web-based fund-raising accomplished by the campaign. Some estimates suggest the campaign raised somewhere in the neighborhood of $700 million dollars.

In the end, of course, Obama won the race and, in the process captured 7.7 million of the 11.7 million voters under 29 who cast a ballot. The number of voters under 29 was greater than the number of senior citizens who voted. It will take some time to fully understand the numbers, and grasp what motivated voters and which messages caught their attention. But there seems broad consenus that Obama's bet on younger voters paid off, and his use of the web and the power of social networking sites generated armies of volunteers and helped generate unimaginable financial support.

After this breathless rush through the campaign's accomplishments, let's pause to connect all of this to what we normally talk about here. Obama's campaign had the insight to see the web as a campaign tool with impressive reach, and, more so than any political campaign before, they grasped the utility of social networking sites to connect with people (and connect people to people). They brought in the talent to give shape and form to their ambitions. Furthermore - and this is a powerful lesson for workplaces - they trusted millions of supporters to do a great deal of the work, downloading videos and passing them around, creating their own content and sharing it. This might seem like a risky move for a campaign so focused on communicating a carefully scripted message - emphasizing the candidate's commitment to change, while backgrounding discussions of race - but the campaign was counting on a preexisting set of practices it understood very well. Or rather, that Chris Hughes knew well. From his work on Facebook, Hughes knew that most supporters would share videos and other content crafted by the campaign. What the campaign counted on was that their message would be passed hand-to-hand, shared among "friends."

We have emphasized the importance of trust in workplaces. The Obama campaign was confronted with a workplace extending across the full landscape of the United States, and had to deploy "workers" who were unpaid and had no formal position within the organization. Yet, for their model to work, they needed to trust these supporters to broadcast their message and carry out the groundwork necessary to get out the vote. If trust is possible in this context, why do so many employers fail to trust their workers in more conventional workplaces?