Learning from Obama’s Campaign Structure: How to Organize for Success

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Part Two of a six-part series

Structure isn’t sexy, but to talk about the online tools of 2008 without discussing the framework that governed their use brings to mind a certain metaphor about forests and trees. ANYONE could employ most of the technology the Obama campaign used, but very few online communicators have ever done so either as effectively or on such a scale. One important lesson from 2008: the tools you use don’t matter as much as how you use them.

For Obama, Online Communications was Communications, Not Technology

For starters, Obama’s new media department was NOT a part of the campaign’s tech team. Instead, it was an independent branch of the campaign, coequal with communications, field and finance, and was in fact as much a client of the technology folks as, say, the press department was. Like other department heads, new media team leader Joe Rospars was a central part of the campaign’s top-level planning and decision-making processes, and he reported directly to overall campaign manager David Plouffe.

In early 2007, Genachowski brought in Rospars, who co-founded his own online consulting firm and worked on Dean’s online-fueled campaign, to be the campaign’s new media director, and Kevin Malover, a veteran of online travel agency Orbitz, to be chief technology officer. In an interview in May 2007, Genachowski told us: “We may be the only campaign with a full-time chief technology officer.” While Rospars was in charge of the entire political operation, Malover helped build software and took care of integrating data and voter files.

“Obama Raised Half a Billion Online,” Jose Antonio Vargas, Washington Post, 11/20/2008

Contrast this with the arrangement at many other campaigns and advocacy groups, in which the online communications team is buried in a basement and often excluded from the communications planning process until its final stages, leaving the online element an afterthought with a stunted chance at success. Plus, their colleagues often lump online communicators in with “the techies,” expecting them to be able to fix a computer or configure a network as well as to run a coordinated email fundraising campaign — which is about as logical as demanding that your freelance writer be able to fix a printing press.

Obama’s campaign managers employed a completely different model. They saw that online organizing has become as central to modern political campaigning as direct mail, field organizing, advertising and media relations, and that the the internet can in fact become the backbone of campaign functions from fundraising to turning out voters on election day. Miss that point, and you miss one of the central lessons of 2008.

Online Communications Was Integrated across Entire Campaign

Separate and equal, but also integrated: notwithstanding its distinct place in the campaign structure, the Obama new media team worked directly and daily with the their colleagues in other departments. For instance, the grassroots/field team had staff working at desks in the new media section at the same time that the new media team had staff working at desks in grassroots/field offices — reflecting a drive throughout the campaign to break down the barriers that usually exist between competing elements of a political campaign.

To that end, Rospars and his colleagues essentially built a “shadow” field team that worked with the field organizing, new media AND technology folks alike. Likewise, the new media team’s online fundraising section actually had more staff than the official campaign finance arm by election day!

This level of integration applied to technological as well as to human systems. For instance, the grassroots volunteer-management software connected with the voter database system built for Get Out The Vote operations, letting volunteers update information directly — getting more value out of every individual voter contact. Online outreach methods also reinforced each other: videos motivated supporters to work harder, while the blog, email list and social networking outreach helped drive video viewership, fundraising and recruitment. Email drove fundraising, encouraged volunteers and maintained the long-term relationships that kept supporters by the millions attached to the campaign.

The website tied it all together, serving as a base for recruitment and volunteer action. And because of the need to design that website and other online imagery, the campaign gained another advantage rare for political communicators: good and consistent branding. Obama’s new media team included talented and experienced designers, who created a logo and identity package that the campaign deployed with a rigor most corporate brand experts would envy. From online ads to print materials, yard signs and wraparound graphics for buses, the new media team turned out most of the visual material used across the country, saving some $10 million on outside consulting fees while also helping to build the clear and identifiable brand “Obama.” An indicator of how good a job they did: take a good look at that new Pepsi logo.

Measure, Cut, then Measure Again

From the the ethereal heights of branding to the dreary valley of numbers:

Obama’s campaign tracked the success of every e-mail, text message and Web site visit, capitalizing on the analytics that are inherent in digital communications. Each ad and e-mail was created in multiple versions (e.g., different headers, buttons vs. links, video vs. audio vs. plain text) to test what worked and what did not. The campaign developed more than 7,000 customized e-mails, tailored to individual prospects, and made real-time improvements to its outreach materials. Adjustments were made daily to improve performance and conversion. It worked. As the campaign progressed, the effectiveness of the e-mail campaign increased and conversion rates similarly improved.

“The Social Pulpit: Barack Obama’s Social Media Toolkit,” Edelman Digital Public Affairs, January 2009

Measurability was so important to the Obamans that it actually influenced tactical choices: Rospars has mentioned that the campaign ran relatively few display ads (classic billboard-style online advertising) compared with search/contextual ads (Google Ads), concentrating their spending on what they could “measure and count” rather than on “amorphous” messaging goals. The point: what’s the use of doing something you can’t test? If you can’t test it, you don’t know how much good it’s doing you, and your money might be better spent elsewhere. In that vein, Joe Rospars has likened the Obama analytics team to the Government Accountability Agency, which acts as an auditor and watchdog for the federal government.

The core role of analytics in guiding new media outreach neatly illustrates the broader Obama campaign’s pragmatic and self-correcting approach. In this case, the staff realized that tweaking, streamlining and optimizing the details of supporter recruitment and management would yield more concrete benefits than developing any particular piece of gee-whiz new technology — a mantra other online communicators should recite every night before bed.

Volunteer Management — Context, Training and Accountability

How the Obama field operation organized their volunteer teams deserves special mention, in part because their grassroots GOTV technology depended on it and also because it provides an excellent model for community-based organizers of all flavors. The structure evolved in the primaries and went national during the general election season. Its critical features:

  • The campaign developed a clear team structure for the volunteer operation, replicable just about anywhere and with standard roles for each member. Each volunteer team included a leader (to hold everyone accountable), a data manager (because data doesn’t exist unless it gets in the system), a phone bank coordinator, a campus coordinator and a volunteer coordinator.
  • Training was absolutely vital, both for team members and for the individual neighborhood volunteers they organized.
  • Teams had clear vote-getting and voter-contact goals and were held accountable for them.
  • Example: for the general election, the Obama organization fielded 400 teams in the state of Missouri, supervised by paid campaign staff, with each team covering 8-12 voting precincts and starting work weeks or months before November 4th.

One thing stands out about this system: it required a lot from volunteers, both in terms of training and in actual sweat. To keep them working, the campaign was careful to let them in on the kind of strategy details that campaigns usually strive to hide. One trick to motivating people: let them know how their efforts fit into a larger framework, in this case via David Plouffe’s online video briefings, so that they know that their work has context and is actually valued. If you want to create a successful national grassroots outreach effort, focus on context, training and accountability. I.e., take your people seriously and they’ll return the favor — they want to know that they aren’t just blindly making calls or knocking on doors.

The T-34, not the Tiger

It’s hard to think of any organization that raises several hundred million dollars as “rough and ready,” but that description does seem apt for the Obama online campaign. They rarely seemed to aim for immediate perfection, but instead built tools that were needed and that worked, and then incrementally improved them through testing and experience.

As a military history nerd, I’m reminded of the tanks of World War 2 — the Russians built a standard model (the T-34) that was good enough, easy to manufacture in huge numbers and easy for draftee farmboys to learn to use (the Americans solved the same problem with the Sherman). Their German counterparts, by contrast, scattered their work among many projects and tended to prize engineering virtue above practicality, yielding tanks like the Tiger that may have been individually superior in battle but were few in number and often “white elephants” that broke down in the field. Guess who won? Scalability and usability mattered more than mere technological brilliance!

Now that we’ve talked about structure, let’s put it to work — how did the Obama campaign find and keep support online?

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Written by
Colin Delany
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