5 lessons from Obama’s Chief Digital Strategist

Barack Obama 'Hope' poster illustration used in 2008 election on social media.

Barack Obama’s Chief Digital Strategist, Joe Rospars, recently flew to Sydney for the 2013 Sydney Writers’ Festival and shared how his team managed to unite and mobilise 13 million online supporters toward a single goal of electing President Obama.

Although we may not be looking for a career in politics, there are some valuable lessons to be learnt about how to attract and persuade potential customers using digital channels like social media. Here are a few of my key take-outs from the event.

1. Use people as a channel

Word of mouth is still the strongest marketing tool available. The Obama campaign used this to their advantage, appointing ‘community organisers’ that would rally friends and family to join them in supporting the cause.

Think about how you can use a grassroots campaign to promote your business—you may like to speak at a local chamber of commerce or business community event, sponsor a local sporting team or partner with other local businesses that complement your product or service.

2. Tell a story

The most inspiring and persuasive videos in Obama’s campaign rarely featured the President. They turned the cameras away from him and onto the communities whose support they required, collecting great stories from supporters and putting names and faces to the facts. Great examples include this video promoting Obama’s healthcare reform and another about a little boy called Ian who wrote to the President and asked him to bring his dad home from war.

When you’re communicating to potential customers, don’t tell them how good you are. Show them the kind of impact your product or service will have on their life.

For example, Obama didn’t just tell everyone that his opponent wasn’t the best man for the job, he showed them why. This hilarious video turned a topic as dull as tax rates into an engaging piece of marketing that used the ‘show, don’t tell’ method brilliantly.

Overall, video is a powerful form of communication. According to Steve Grove at YouTube, the campaign uploaded over 1,800 videos which were viewed over 110 million times. One calculation estimated that YouTube was worth $47 million to the Obama campaign, if they had spent the same amount of time in TV advertising.

3. Think like a start-up

Joe Rospars explained how political campaigns in the US are like start-ups. Every aspect of the campaign needs to be created from scratch, including building a database of supporters and sourcing millions of dollars in funding within a matter of months.

Start-ups have a unique culture that often include fast, simple approval processes (Rospars said only he and one other approved social media posts before they went live) and a willingness to try new things. You may not be a start-up, but think about how your processes and systems may be holding back your creativity.

For example, Rospars knew that every media outlet in the country would have their cameras focused on stage when Obama spoke during public events. So the team captured various ‘behind the scenes’ videos and immediately uploaded them onto social media, meaning the online conversation began even before Obama had stepped on stage.

4. Don’t ignore email

Toby Fallsgraff, Director of Email for the Obama campaign, led a team of 20 writers that rigorously tested multiple drafts and subject lines—sometimes up to 18 different versions—before selecting the final email that was sent to tens of millions of subscribers.

They made sure that each email had a casual but intriguing subject line and segmented their database so each recipient was sent a tailored message depending on their previous donor behaviour.

Although many of us are focused on the benefits of social, don’t forget that email offers a direct line of sight to potential customers. Free email marketing software like Mailchimp allows you to segment your database and also offers analytics that can help you measure and test what subject lines and content works for your audience.

5. Keep it simple

Like any good marketing campaign, the call to action for each opt-in form was simple. It simply asked for an email address and zip code. The less barriers there are to encouraging people to take the next step toward purchase (or in this case offering a donation), the better.

What do you think? Could Australian politicians learn anything from the Obama campaign?

Image credit: Shepard Fairey, Obama – Hope, Detail (2008)

I'm an SEO copywriter and brand storyteller based in Sydney, who's besotted with words, good stories and hot chips. I'm currently studying a Master of Arts in Creative Writing at Macquarie University.

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