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How Social Media Built the Obama Brand: Understanding the Past

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Rahaf Harfoush, a volunteer on the Obama campaign and author of Yes We Did! An inside look at how social media built the Obama brand, looks at some of the important technological innovations that made many aspects of the Obama campaign possible and examines the political decisions that allowed the Obama team to be innovative with their social media strategy.
This chapter is from the book


Amid all the excitement and awe that surrounded this revolutionary campaign, people sometimes overlook the fact that Obama’s achievements were made possible by the initiative, resourcefulness, and experiences of those who came before him. Innovation happens gradually, and is often punctuated by bursts of disruptive technology that level the playing field, create new markets, and change the way people interact.

While this book focuses on new media strategy, it is important to understand the political and technological contexts surrounding the 2008 election to accurately evaluate the campaign’s success. The strategic decisions made by Obama and his team created conditions that fostered an agile and flexible social media plan. They validated the importance of new media by making it a stand-alone department instead of an add-on to the communications team. This campaign was run differently from the start and new media’s innovative spirit is a natural extension of that mindset.

The success of the Obama campaign comes down to refinement—not invention. The team improved upon existing new media tools to build a scalable organization with national reach that allowed the Democrats to compete in areas they had been unable to penetrate before. The campaign’s ability to deliver customized messaging to supporters (see Chapter 9) was built on statistical techniques initially pioneered by George Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign. The social network strategy that guided the development of the Obama social network (see Chapter 6, was built on the foresight of people like Howard Dean who saw the internet’s potential for effective organizing.

In this chapter, we’ll look at some of the important technological innovations that made many aspects of the campaign possible and examine the political decisions that allowed the Obama team to be innovative with their social media strategy.

Creating customized messaging—George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign introduced microtargeting as a statistical tool to identify voter demographics and craft a communications strategy.

Online organizing—Howard Dean saw the potential in using the internet to organize his supporters, but could not translate online enthusiasm into offline action.

Emergence of new technologies— fused microtargeting with online phonebanking to create a new campaign tool.

The innovation context—The Obama campaign adopted the Fifty-State Strategy, targeted the disaffected center of the Democratic Party, and focused on small donors; these decisions led to the creation of an integrated new media strategy.

Creating Customized Messaging: The 2004 George Bush Re-election Campaign

In 2002, the Bush Administration was considering strategies for the upcoming 2004 reelection. Republican Senior Strategist Karl Rove received an interesting pitch by a research consultant named Alexander Gage, who wanted to apply the same microtargeting techniques used to segment consumers for corporations to Bush’s reelection campaign. Microtargeting uses a statistical technique called predictive market segmentation to identify groups of similar individuals and extrapolate their patterns of behavior. By examining trends in income, family status, occupation, and other data, the Bush campaign could discover segments of overlooked voters and create a tailored communication strategy to address their needs.

Pioneered by Gage’s firm, TargetPoint Consulting, microtargeting had never before been used in a national political campaign. Rove was intrigued, but wanted proof. Gage was asked to predict how different population segments would vote in several Pennsylvania judicial races, a task he completed with 90 percent accuracy. Satisfied, the Bush campaign enlisted Gage to analyze and microtarget battleground states and used his findings to craft their strategy. It was a highly successful tactic that provided the Bush campaign with new population segments of likely Bush voters. For example, they were able to contact 92 percent of eventual Bush voters in Iowa and 84 percent of Bush voters in Florida, compared with 50 percent in each state during the 2000 election. The Obama campaign would apply these techniques to their email strategy and create hypersegmented emails that provided readers with customized messaging.

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