Inside the Obama Numbers: Tiers of Engagement

Cross-posted on techPresident and K Street Cafe

Now that the details are slooowly creeping out and we have a clearer idea of the Obama election team’s online numbers, what conclusions can we draw for the future? Right off the bat, Jose Antonio Vargas’s recent piece in the Post suggests something critical: online communications campaigns should consider offering supporters tiers of potential engagement.

It’s a rule of thumb in the advocacy world: the more difficult an action is, the fewer people will take it and the more valuable it will be. The more someone goes out of his or her way to communicate with Congress, an agency or a targeted corporation, for instance, the more likely that action is to register. Email is easy to send and Congressional offices drown in it, so individual advocacy emails count for relatively little even when from constituents. A phone call requires more effort, and as research from the Congressional Management Foundation has shown, Hill offices tend to accord them more weight. The same idea applies as you move up the scale, with a personal visit from a constituent ranking highest of all, particularly if that constituent is also a donor.

Now let’s look at the Obama numbers and see how they break down. Thirteen million people on the email list, three million online donors. Five million “friends” on the public social networking sites, two million profiles on Three million individual donors, 70,000 people creating their own fundraising campaigns via MyBO. If we had more information, I bet we’d find similar trends throughout the Obama online army: of those 400,000 blog posts on the campaign site, how many were written by a small core of prolific contributors? The basic rule applies: as you move up the ladder, each rung requires more commitment, creates more value, and will tend to hold fewer people.

Even without the Obama campaign’s massive resources, other online campaigns can apply this model. If all you have is an email list, track your members and note the most reliable activists. Once you have these “super-volunteers” identified, try to put them to work in ways that use their skills, connections and time. It works in the other direction as well — if you’re planning a create-a-video contest, find a way get people involved who AREN’T actually doing the shooting and editing, perhaps by asking them to rate or comment on the submissions. The overall goal: to provide opportunities for the most casual supporters to stay involved, while also providing more strenuous opportunities for the smaller core of activists. As in so many other ways, the Obama campaign lights the path.



  1. dan mcquillan

    Call me a curmudgeon, but this looks to me like the successful assimilation of social media by a traditional political campaign.
    Rather than challenging a top-down system through p2p collaboration it’s been used to put one guy in charge (even if he is ‘our guy’).
    Yes, i know that way more ordinary people helped elect obama than pitched in behind the other candidates. But now he’s in power, let’s see how much he crowdsources policy or wikifies decision making 😉

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  3. cpd

    Which brings up the question of whether policy and decision-making SHOULD be crowdsourced! It really comes down to that classic question of whether we’re electing representatives to do our bidding or to make their own independent decisions.

    A problem of direct democracy (see: initiative and referendum) is that it’s often AT LEAST as vulnerable to corruption as representative democracy. For instance, how many California ballot initiatives have been “bought” by some concentrated wealthy interest that spent tons of money to swing a low-turnout election? The Founders clearly feared The Mob, for better or for worse, and our system reflects that fear. I’m not sure they were wrong.

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  5. Brad Fitch

    While I wholeheartedly agree with the thrust of my colleague’s Colin’s comments, I must correct one factual error. He notes that according to Congressional Management Foundation research, which I conducted with Kathy Goldschmidt, “individual advocacy emails count for relatively little,” while Hill offices accord “more weight” to phone calls.

    In fact, our research showed that the vehicle did not matter, it was the content that determined impact. And, individual advocacy emails actually were more valuable than phone calls. In a survey of 350 staffers in 200 offices, 94% said individualized email would have “some” or “alot” of influence, while 88% said phone calls would have the same impact.

    More on the findings of the survey here:

  6. cpd

    Hi Brad, thanks for clarifying that — I should have been more explicit. When I was talking about advocacy emails that have little effect, I was thinking about the mass, undifferentiated email campaigns that bombard Congress, not individual communications from constituents, which are the next step up the ladder of engagement. Like a personal phone call, a personal email requires more effort and is likely to get a better response.

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  8. dan mcquillan

    Hmm. The idea that elected representatives are making independent decisions must be open to challenge. See for example Sunlight Foundation’s PARTY TIME or any of their work mapping voting decisions against financial contributions.

    The first impact that social media is having is transparency. I’m betting that the elected obama will resist rather than embrace that (see for example the termination of his twitter feed; or ‘so long, and thanks for all the fish’ as douglas adams put it.

    IMO the historical impact of social media will be to diffuse power; not so much through the superficial directness of referenda (or number 10’s e-petitions) but through enabling social action that more directly addresses issues.


    p.s. ironically, i suspect that highly centralised structures actually encourage ‘the Mob’ (as in, irrational group reactivity) whereas dishing out real responsibility is more likely to produce a mature response.

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