Learning from Obama’s Online Outreach: How To Find and Build Support on the Internet

Part Three of a six-part series

With a team in place and technology under development, the Obama campaign wasted no time in building their most important resource: the list of volunteers who would work to elect the Illinois senator president. And just as the campaign would use new media tools to encourage voter turnout and other action in the real world, they built their list of online activists in part at physical events:

Field teams used various tactics, including collecting addresses at events, via online advertising and by offering incentives such as a free bumper sticker in exchange for contact information. Often, after collecting addresses, follow-up emails steered people to MyBarackObama.com, where they could find information on how to host events themselves.

“Obama’s Road To White House Was Paved With Emails,” David Goetzl, Online Media Daily, December 9, 2008

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Once again, integration was key — offline recruiting (“BarackObama.com” backdrops at speeches, the URL’s prominent placement on yard signs, block-walkers trudging through their neighborhoods) yielded online activists, which in turn yielded more recruiting in the physical world. For all the attention we’ll pay to online outreach, remember that much of the work of building Obama’s supporter list took place face-to-face.

Online Video

Of course, if you can’t reach someone in person, video is often the next best thing. It’s immediate, it’s engaging, and it tends to evoke a much stronger emotional response than text and images alone — video feels more “real.” And the Obama campaign used video extensively: from very early in the race, his team already included a videographer and screenwriter/producer squad to shoot footage both for internal/documentary purposes and (more importantly) for use in public as a persuasive tool. By November 4th, they’d posted some 1800 separate clips on YouTube, generating over one BILLION minutes of total viewership.

Many of the videos (such as David Plouffe’s periodic online briefings) were intended for existing volunteers, but others were designed to deliver targeted messages to specific groups of potential supporters. And as with so many other online outreach tools, supporters took the reins themselves, in some cases creating pro-Obama videos that were seen millions of times. But even the ones that WEREN’T viewed by millions mattered: the internet is an endless sea of niches, and not only was it impossible for the campaign to target every possible interest or audience, they didn’t need to — their supporters were busy doing it for them, and in their own (authentic) voices. My own sister-in-law switched her allegiance from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama in part because she watched a video created by Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford law professor and online thinker whom she greatly respects.

Online Social Networks

If you read some of the more breathless coverage of the internet’s role in politics as the race unfolded, you might get the idea that Facebook and MySpace were the beginning and the end of online politics in 2008. And it’s true that Obama and the other presidential candidates found these sites to be fertile soil for supporter harvesting, at the very least because so many Americans spend so much time on them. It’s a classic observation: if you want to find supporters, go where they are — and a lot of people are on social networking websites for a lot of hours every day. But the Obama outreach team kept public socnets in perspective, investing resources in them but not to a distracting extent, and worked hard to move new recruits found there into the campaign’s overall volunteer structure.

Obama limited his official presence to 15 [online social networks] and leveraged these platforms to direct people to the MyBO Web site, where the campaign had a greater ability to channel people to the specific activities and causes that were deemed the most important to fulfilling the campaign’s electoral strategy.

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

But the campaign’s own official presence was only a slice of the pro-Obama activity to which these sites played host, since millions of Obama’s “friends” were also evangelizing on his behalf on their own:

For instance, while Obama had more than three million Facebook friends, supporters also used the tools that they were familiar with in Facebook to find creative ways to spread the message in support of his candidacy. More than 900,000 people joined the “One Million Strong for Obama” group on Facebook. There were Facebook groups for Obama for almost every college in America. The campaign leveraged participation on these existing networks to reinforce messages across platforms and create as many touch points as possible.

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

Besides its main Facebook “Fan Page” and the “One Million Strong” group, the campaign actively encouraged supporters to create their own Facebook Groups based on location or interest, realizing that these separate groups expanded Obama’s outreach rather than diluted it. The campaign also created a Facebook Application for fans to add to their profiles — like a badge or a button but constantly updated — which spread the campaign’s messaging directly through natural channels as friends interacted with friends.

The Obama campaign invested in other site-specific tools besides the Facebook App. MySpace allows users to customize their profile pages to a much greater extent than Facebook, for instance, so Obama’s staff created an array of buttons, badges and widgets for supporters to add — like virtual yard signs, they advertised the candidate by just sitting there on a page. The campaign’s ultimate goal was to use to use each Facbook/MySpace supporter’s profile page as a communications hub within that supporter’s own social circle, building up up volunteers and donors friend-to-friend.

And as the campaign worked in other social networks such as Black Planet, they adapted their approach to meet the particular rules, requirements and customs of each site — every network is different and requires a different approach. Of course, it didn’t always work smoothly, as when the professional staff took over a volunteer’s MySpace page early in the campaign and encountered a sharp backlash. But that stumble and any others were only minor hurdles — and unlike John McCain, at least Obama didn’t have his MySpace profile hacked.


Though immensely popular, social networking sites still didn’t reach everyone online in 2008, and I suspect that they achieved some of their prominence in media coverage of the election because they were visible — you could SEE how many “friends” Barack Obama had at any given moment, and you could SEE it when thousands of people changed their middle names on Facebook to “Hussein” in solidarity against Republican attempts to brand Obama as “other.” But just about everyone with internet access uses email, regardless of age, and research from the E-Voter Institute published in the summer of 2008 found that people were significantly more likely to send or forward political email than they were to reach out via Facebook or MySpace.

Another data point: many websites (including Epolitics.com) have employed the “ShareThis” widget to encourage readers to forward content or post it to social sites, and stats published by the folks at ShareThis in August of 2008 showed that email-forwarding still dominated their widget’s use across the web. We’ll never know how many Obama supporters bombarded their friends and relatives with emails on his behalf, but we shouldn’t forget them or discount their ultimate effect because their work was invisible to outsiders.

Online Advertising

By November of 2008, Obama’s new media team had spent some $16 million to buy ad space on the web, most of it devoted to list-building:

The presidential hopefuls relied on Web ads almost entirely for building supporter lists and garnering donations. Obama’s ubiquitous “Join Us” call-to-action drove supporters to his site to sign up to volunteer, throw debate-watching parties, attend local campaign events, and, yes, donate. His campaign raked in millions of small payments from online donors, and we can assume much of that cash came in as a result of search and display ads and e-mails sent to those joiners.

“Web Ads Mattered More than Ever in ’08 Election,” Kate Kaye, ClickZ, Nov 4, 2008

The campaign did run some influence-the-discussion display ads, for instance buying space on the websites of major media outlets immediately after debates, but they focused more on the practical goal of list-building. And that meant search ads, since new media team head Joe Rospars has said that search ads yielded a Return On Investment as high as 10- or 15-fold, presumably measured in campaign contributions. And though Obama advertising team bought ads on some issue-based keywords, they found that targeting the obvious searches for “Barack Obama” was steadily and consistently effective. As elections approached, their strategy shifted somewhat:

As voting time drew near during the primaries, the Obama camp targeted ads to specific states, suggesting people click through to learn more about early voting, or find their local polling places. The same went for geo-targeted ads from both the Democratic National Committee and Obama’s campaign seen in recent months; those promoted voter registration and early voting. Obama’s ads pushing early voting even appeared in online games leading up to the election.

“Web Ads Mattered More than Ever in ’08 Election,” Kate Kaye, ClickZ, Nov 4, 2008

Many other political communicators working in both the electoral and advocacy spaces have found search/contextual ads to be extremely effective for list-building, and they’re likely to be a first consideration for online political advertisers over the next few years.

Political Blogs

Remember 2004, when blogs were the darlings of the political world, king-makers in the waiting? Fast-forward a few years and every one of the major political campaigns dedicated time and resources to reaching out to bloggers and their communities of readers. Many candidates “wrote” (i.e., probably had their staff write) posts for prominent blogs, hosted conference calls for bloggers and paid close attention to what bloggers and commenters said about them. The Obama campaign was no exception, but to a great extent, it didn’t NEED the political blogs — because it was building its own independent base of zealous supporters.

In a sense, Obama could do an end-run around the top-level progressive blogs, adding their readers to his own network by reaching them through other channels. He didn’t ignore the blogs, but he could afford to keep them in their rightful place — as particularly influential voices and as gathering places for potential supporters, but not as the be-all and end-all of online outreach.

Catching ’em When They Come to You

Of course, for all of his campaign’s aggressive outreach, plenty of Obama’s donors and volunteers found him on their own, either through a web search or by going straight to BarackObama.com. And as we discussed earlier, the website was a supporter-grabbing machine, encouraging visitors to sign up from their first click. BarackObama.com was easy to find, easy to navigate and provided links to volunteer tools on essentially every page, and its designers tried never to miss a chance to turn a visitor into a convert.

Next up: let’s put all those new supporters to work.

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Written by
Colin Delany
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