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Mktg – 10 marketing lessons from Obama

Vijay Sankaran

The battle for the American Presidency has been a fascinating and historic one. But a few weeks ago, the brand new President-elect of the US, Barack Hussein Obama won hands down in another equally improbable contest. He was voted Advertising Age Marketer of the Year, beating global icons such as Apple and Nike.

Obama has been in the news for his extraordinary online fundraising and $188 million TV ad blitz. But what won him acclaim from American chief marketing officers and chief executive officers was his pathbreaking digital strategy and campaign. The results have been a game changer: $640 million in funds, 3.1 million contributors, more than a 100 million page views of official and unofficial YouTube videos, five million volunteers, 2.2 million “fans” on his main Facebook page, 800,000 on his MySpace page, and more than a million more names on the official campaign website.

At a rough estimate, this translates into one in 10 possible Obama voters engaged and transformed into “brand advocates”! How did Obama and his campaign team do it? And what can you learn from it? Here are 10 tips from the Barack Obama Digital Marketing Playbook.

1. Define your goal. And build an integrated digital strategy around it. According to Obama aides, “our goal has been to ‘build an online relationship’ with supporters who will not only give money, but also knock on doors to help register voters and help get the votes out”.

The Obama team’s solution was built on a classic digital hub-and-spoke model. The hub: The spokes that drew traffic included referral email marketing, official pages on dozens of social networking sites, YouTube videos, online search/ display ads, distributable widgets, and tactical campaign sites such as

Email ID harvesting was the first critical step, right on the home page. In the early days, every rally focused on handing out and collecting cards with name, email ID, address and phone numbers. This became the core of the team’s database. Email marketing was the spine of the online campaign, not as a standalone channel, but fully integrated with social networking, mobile and tele-calling tools.

2. Bring the best minds to the table. Empower them to execute. As soon as he decided to run for President, Obama assembled a savvy team of marketing minds including 24 year old Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook.

Rather than “keep the money for TV ads in the final stretch”, the Obama campaign invested upfront in digital tools – email marketing, database and social media. Just as Obama put the voter at the centre of change (Yes We Can, not Yes I Can), his digital strategy was built around empowerment of the individual supporter. Naturally, the campaign site moved away from the conventional “speeches and policies” brochure ware to embrace Web 2.0. Even the name said it all. My

On MyBo, as it’s popularly called, supporters could create profiles, search and join local groups, create their own blogs, organise local events, sign up for email newsletters and updates and, most importantly, set up personal fundraising pages, selecting a personal target.

While the money was spent on TV and online ads, it was email that brought in the funds. A newly registered supporter could use the website’s simple email referral tool to send out customised email invites to friends, and track who had donated, and how much.

“Customer experience” was another big differentiator – friendly and one to one. The language was informal, and the tone and tools encouraged participation. In contrast, the McCain site was described by one branding guru as a “1988 Sears circular”.

3. Change the rules of the game where you can. In the Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton won the support of her party’s biggest fundraisers and thought she had shut out her rivals. But Obama tapped the power of the small time donor through online channels and went on to win the nomination. His fundraising methods and risky strategy of foregoing government funding have changed the future of American electoral campaigns.

4. Leverage your customers’ passion. Obama enjoyed a “soft power” advantage from the beginning – the passionate support of creative people in the digital, music, entertainment and advertising industries. Their independent viral marketing impact has been phenomenal. The Obama Girl video series enjoyed more than 60 million views on YouTube. Yes We Can, a recent music video with lines from Obama’s speech as lyrics and featuring 60 celebrities, achieved 11 million views.

On MyBo, the campaign site, supporters earned awards points for various volunteer activities. This made the entire grass-roots effort competitive and gave each one a measure of individual achievement.

5. Relinquish control – yes, you can. The Obama campaign was not a centrally run campaign, involving only party faithfuls. As Obama, a former community organiser, said, ”Change always comes from the bottom up, not from top down.”

Voters’ lists are traditionally guarded by the campaign headquarters, But in this case, volunteers had access to local voters’ lists. They could download local phone numbers and addresses to make calls or distribute flyers.

Decentralisation also unleashed “customer creativity”. Supporters in New York put together, successfully challenging others to bring together enough donors to donate $1 million in one minute. Just before the election, the same site was themed An Obama Weekend to get the votes out.

6. Segment and connect. Relevancy rules. The Obama campaign tapped into the normally apolitical and heavily online youth. Recognising that young people want to be in control of their relationship with a brand, the campaign site allowed them to customise and personalise the experience through tagging, discussion boards, personal blog pages, photo uploads and other interactive elements.

When independent voters searched online for hot button issues such as health care, Obama search ads drove them to customised landing pages on the campaign site. To target the Hispanic vote, registered volunteers made calls in Spanish using an online Spanish phone banking tool built into the MyBo campaign site.

7. Stay ahead of the curve or your customers will move on without you. Obama’s team exploited every digital tool and channel to the hilt. Obama has more than 33,000 followers on Twitter, a microblogging channel touted as the next Facebook. His digital team was quick to release a cool new widget for the iPhone. Obama was the first candidate to ever place ads in online games.

8. Run many small campaigns. Tactics matter as much as strategy. In late June, after Hillary Clinton bowed out of the race, millions of emails went out to the campaign’s email lists asking Obama-ites to rally her supporters as well as undecided voters by hosting Unite for Change house parties across the country. Nearly 4,000 parties were held. was a tactical site that enabled Democrat supporters to identify and refute Republican smears quickly. Obama’s selection of his vice-presidential nominee was leveraged fully to create buzz and generate leads.

“Be the first to know” was the email campaign theme, asking voters to sign up for exclusive email and mobile alerts. The result: Obama’s database grew even further.

9. Make sure the online community translates into real world wins. Obama’s campaign made sure that he wouldn’t suffer the fate of Howard Dean, the 2004 Democratic contender who couldn’t translate his online networking and popularity into votes.

Obama volunteers were mobilised to walk down a clear “user path” online: Register on the site, volunteer time, contribute, tele-call, organise local events, knock on doors, vote early and get out the votes!

The site boasts of 20,000 groups – from air traffic controllers to tango dancers, which the Obama team hopes to leverage to win support for legislation, now that the election is over.

10. Focus on the endgame. Close the sale. Amidst all the idealistic philosophy of hope and change, the Obama campaign never diluted its single-minded “get out the votes” focus. Obama supporters who signed up with the candidate received emails and text messages during the primaries and the elections, reminding them to vote. The text message included a phone number to help them find their polling station – a key feature that helped get out the votes.

The Obama iPhone widget could even sort your contact list according to which state each person on it lived in – the ones with the highest electoral votes featured on top.

According to Paul Saffo, a technology futurist, just as a charismatic Kennedy ushered in the telegenic brand era, beating a dour Nixon in the first ever TV debates, Obama marks the arrival of the cybergenic brand. The questions you need to ask yourself are: How cybergenic is my brand? And how digital is my marketing outlook and toolkit?

(Vijay Sankaran is digital strategy director at Urja Communications.)


November 7, 2008 Posted by | The Sunday Indian | Leave a comment