The real lessons of Obama

For months now, the marketing press has been over-run with articles by industry experts telling us what brands can learn from how Barack Obama embraced digital media to help win the US election race. At conferences too, speakers have been queuing up to tell us how Obama’s team used Facebook, MySpace and Twitter for instance in a way that brands would do well to try and emulate.

But we’ve heard very little from the people actually involved in the campaign. Until this weekend that is…

Speaking at the first Progressive London Conference – organised by former London mayor Ken Livingstone’s new Progressive London organisation – Seth Reznik outlined how his company helped to mobilise the American people using digital technologies in a way never seen before in political campaigning – and in so doing, helped to generate over $500m from 3.2 million donors.

Reznik is director of client services at Blue State Digital (BSD), the Washington DC-based Internet strategy and technology firm described by Business Week back in June 2008 as “Obama’s secret weapon” and more recently as “the geeks behind Obama’s web strategy

At Saturday’s conference Reznik was sharing a platform with Sir Robert Worcester, founder of IPSOS Mori, who opened the discussion by arguing that the election of a “black, liberal intellectual” went against the usual three strikes and you’re out rule of American politics. “This was an amazing internet election,” said Worcester. “And boy did Obama’s team use it”.

Picking up the mantle, Reznik went on to explain that BSD had worked with Obama “from day one” – as he continued to stress, this was a hard fought victory “that didn’t happen overnight.” Indeed, when BSD took the job it was by no means inevitable that Obama would be the Democrat nominee – at that point most people expected Hilary Clinton would be running against McCain.

Reznik argued that right from the start of the campaign, the key was “building personal engagement”. As an example of this he explained that once someone signed up to the Obama campaign they received a phone call straight away. “It was about creating a two-way dialogue,” said Reznik. This two-way dialogue is something that should not be alien to most marketers with a well developed digital strategy. Neither should some of the other techniques outlined by Reznik.

Social networking for example was crucial. The figures are remarkable – BSD mobilised over 2 million social networking participants to post 400,000 blog entries and promote more than 200,000 events nationwide. However, for Reznik, BSD wasn’t doing anything new – they were simply doing it well: “The key was taking technology like social networking and putting those tools in the hands of ordinary people in a way that wasn’t intimidating. It wasn’t a new idea – it was down to the application.”

Email too was crucial. Over the course of the campaign, the Obama team communicated directly with 10.3 million people, sending 1.2 billion emails and tailoring over 7,000 individual email messages. “With email, the results are instant,” said Resnik. “The most important metric was the unsubscribes. This told us what we had done wrong.” Email success was not just down to volume however. “We used simple, short, action-orientated messages,” said Reznik. As a result, emails from the Obama team had an average word count of 250 words, were very direct and always included a call to action. A useful model for any brand.

Indeed, there were clear lessons for brands to learn throughout Resnik’s presentation. In conclusion he argued that contrary to what the cynics may say, the digital techniques deployed in the election campaign can have a universal application. “This type of messaging works,” he argued. “You don’t have to be Barack Obama”.

For Reznik though there is still work to be done. “We have not reached the limits of the technology,” he argued, stating that the key developments in the future will be in making the technology more open. “It’s not about the physical machinations of the technology – it’s about getting people engaged – and making it easy for them to get involved”.

Since the victory, much has changed for BSD. According to Reznik, he has had companies asking “how can you make us the Obama of this and the Obama of that”. For the US of course there is a new broom sweeping through Washington. Obama has been swift to take action over Guantanemo – and to reign in the activities of lobbyists. But there is more going on too. In what is being seen as the rise of a new digital democracy, the all conquering Democrats are being portrayed as enlightened technocrats brushing aside the Luddite Republicans.

This all bodes well for a forward thinking, open Presidency. All brands would do well to keep watching and learning.

For further reading, prior to Saturday’s event Reznik posted this analysis of the differences in the way the web is used for political campaigning in the UK and the US. You can also read more about BSD’s work with the Obama campaign in the case studies section of their website.