The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama’s Historic Victory

“Technology played a key role in our success. Reaching an audience involves more than just figuring out who your audience is; it also means knowing how to find them. Part of the reason our campaign was so successful is that we were able to identify early that many of the people we wanted to reach were spending more of their time on the Internet. We realized that a smart, and large, Internet presence was the best way to provide people with the opportunity and the tools to get involved in the campaign–they were already immersed in the world of technology and would be more likely to encounter us there. We met people where they lived, instead of forcing them to deviate from their habits or lifestyle to seek us out. Our early commitment to a digitally based platform paid huge dividends.” – David Plouffe

The Obama campaign utilized technology and the internet more effectively than any campaign in history. Throughout The Audacity to Win David Plouffe reveals how and why they were so successful.

Online Advertising

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post about the role of young voters in the campaign, they used specifically targeted online advertising to reach young voters and other underrepresented demographics to promote information about how to caucus or vote early.

There was a strong long-tail effect with the efficacy of their online ad spending:

Our return on Internet advertising was unbelievable. Each dollar invested in list growth returned several times that–immediately. Over time, as these new recruits game more money (and time), the return grew even greater. This result was highly unusual. Customarily, organizations are paying several dollars just to get someone to sign up on their list, only to see many people decline to take the next step of involvement, like contributing.

The ability to micro-target ads for certain demographics or specific online searches, combined with a pay-per-click structure, made online advertising a much higher return on investment than traditional pay-per-spot blanket advertising. In addition, the online advertising was trackable and provided valuable metrics.

Text Messaging

The most impressive decision in terms of mobile that the campaign made was to announce Biden as the Vice-Presidential candidate via text to build their list of mobile numbers:

The idea appealed to me on two levels. First, it was consistent with other key junctures in the campaign–reporting fund-raising numbers, the decision to limit our primary debates, opting out of the public funding system–where we had communicated first directly to our supporters. This was their campaign as much as ours, and they deserved to get a heads-up from us about important decisions. Those previous announcements had all been made by e-mail or Web postings; this would be our first large-scale text-only notification. Second, this was a great way to grow our text-messaging list. Rospars was right about the increasing gap in our contact figures: our e-mail list was now over 6 million, but our list of mobile numbers was in the low six figures. Making a big announcement by text would ignite a spark and juice the latter number.

It sure did. By August 22, the night before we announced Biden, over 2 million people had signed up to receive the VP announcement by text. Our first communication announcing the ‘Be the First to Know’ campaign had happened on August 10. In less than two weeks, we had grown our list over fifteen-fold.

Mobile is often under-utilized or ignored by campaigns. The commitment to the platform that led to the Biden announcement decision paid off. With 2 million people on the mobile list the campaign could send rapid response texts, vote reminders, and event invitations through a medium with an extremely high open rate.

Online Fundraising

The Obama campaign made history with their online fundraising success. One reason they were so successful is that they showed a genuine appreciation and respect for low-dollar online fundraisers:

In our campaign, grassroots supporters started to raise money. Generally, they brought in relatively small amounts–$100, $500, $1,000–using a tool on our social-networking site to keep track of the money they raised and to ask others to contribute.

Over time this grew into a powerful force. We treated these citizen fundraisers as no less important than our larger raisers. They were asked to join conference calls with Barack, me, and other senior staff so we could thank them for what they were doing and give them updates on the campaign. They believed their effort was valued–and it was–so they dug deeper and kept raising. This was not a tactical relationship. It was authentic. And that authenticity became a very powerful driver in the connection between Barack Obama and his supporters.

The campaign also realized that these initial low-dollar donors were in for the long haul. They “believed that making a financial contribution would lead people to feel more invested in the campaign and could result in higher degrees of activism” and if they could ensure these donors “felt part of and connected to the whole campaign, they might be more generous over time.”

E-mail

The Obama campaign had a massive e-mail operation, and because of this and their commitment to metrics and research they were able to learn a lot about their techniques and what supporters wanted.

We also learned a lot about the regular e-mail messages we were sending out. People wanted information, and a lot of it. We could send more e-mail than we originally thought advisable, which spoke to the heightened interest in the race and the commitment of our supporters. To keep things fresh, we varied the length and tone of the messages–some were long and informative, others quite short and informal. Perhaps most important, we learned that people responded very well to e-mails from Michelle Obama and that we needed to use Barack somewhat sparingly–when he signed an e-mail it always produced by far the biggest response, but we did not want this to become a stale event. So many of the e-mails came from me, though when we needed a big response to an ask–for money, volunteer time, or to watch an event–we made sure the e-mails came from the Obamas.

It is important to note how many variables the campaign looked at when making decisions about e-mail. They consciously saved their big guns for the most important messages as opposed to having every e-mail come from the Obamas. The variety of the messages help decrease the feeling that supporters are receiving standard list blasts. They also made an effort “to include a lot more videos in our e-mail communications–the data suggested that supporters spent more time with these e-mails than with the text-only versions.” By constantly tracking what was and wasn’t working in their e-mail messaging they were able to keep improving their game over the long campaign.

The campaign also learned that using e-mail to share campaign strategy with supporters helped strengthen the sense of purpose and discipline with supporters:

What we found when we researched things a bit more was that we were not doing enough internal communication to ensure that our supporters, and even staff, knew exactly what our strategy was and how their efforts fit into the puzzle.

This internal communication allowed everyone that was involved in the campaign to be on message and as effective as possible when talking to friends, neighbors, and other potential voters:

Through e-mailed talking points, postings on the website, and conversations with local field organizers, our volunteers were stressing the same arguments Obama, Biden, Ax, and Gibbs were delivering on any given day. Our philosophy was that John from Durango needed to be as current on the campaign as the candidate was. We wanted to build a message-delivery army in perfect harmony from top to bottom.

Online Video and Live-Streaming

Online video has become a game-changer in politics, and the Obama campaign’s understanding of the importance of the medium and willingness to experiment allowed them to consistently bypass the media filter and go directly to supporters.

As was the case throughout the campaign, most people did not watch the speech on TV. It was delivered on a Tuesday morning, when just about everyone was at work. Instead, people watched it online, most of them on YouTube, either as it was happening or at their leisure later that day or in the days to come. Eventually, tens of millions of voters saw the speech through various outlets.

This marked a fundamental change in political coverage and message consumption, and one that will only continue as technology rolls forward: big moments, political or otherwise, will no longer be remembered by people as times when everyone gathered around TVs to watch a speech, press conference, or other event. Increasingly, most of us will recall firing up the computer, searching for a video, and watching it at home or at the office–or even on cell phones.

The campaign used live-streaming both to give supporters the opportunity to see events live from across the country and to turn the campaign website into a “real ‘home’ for our supporters and a one-stop shopping place for anything campaign related.”

An interesting lesson the campaign learned was the importance of authenticity in online video. After putting out a video with webcam picture quality, they “tried the next one with better lighting and an actual high-definition camera. The results looked much more produced. Our supporters hated it. They thought it seemed inauthentic, staged, and less personal.” By being authentic, transparent, and honest with supporters in their videos, they were able to get great results:

This was not a mere tactic to get more money or volunteer time. It was what we believed. This video message was one of the most effective ones we sent; the response factors we could measure–contributions, spike in volunteer hours–unmistakably bore this out, but we also received a lot of anecdotal feedback from our staff in the states and in conversations our supporters were having with Chris Hughes’s online organizing team. People felt like they were being leveled with, that we were explaining clearly how their time and money was being utilized. And they felt that we valued and needed them.

List-Building and Events

The Obama campaign viewed every event as a list-building opportunity. This gave the campaign a huge advantage because of the size of the crowds that Obama was able to draw. By having people RSVP for events ahead of time and checking in at the event they built their list and were able to trace people back to the voter file. Of course, this opportunity only presented itself at their own events:

So while candidates were thrilled to have a big audience to speak to at an existing event, we were more interested in building events that would feed into our specific voter targets and that included trying to attract a lot of people who do not like to pay to go to a political event.

The campaign chose to put the additional work in to create their own events instead of taking the easy way out by attending existing fundraising dinners and state party events. By holding events in areas where a lot of unactivated potential Obama supporters could attend, many times in locations that were not used to seeing candidates personally, the campaign was able to sign up new voters and further expand the electorate.

Supporters were told “that nothing was more important than getting additional people signed up on the site so we could communicate with them and try to convert them to donors and volunteers.” The list was able to grow organically as supporters, through peer-to-peer contact, recruited new supporters who then did the same.

The Role of Technology in Staff

Plouffe’s view of the role of ‘new media’ within the campaign structure really resonated with me:

The new media group (online communications, Web-page development and maintenance, texting) in most campaigns reports to the communications department, and its department head is not considered an equal of other senior staff. But I saw how important the burgeoning online world was to our overall success; new media would touch just about every aspect of our campaign. So I had that department report directly to me.

Having been the person in that role in the past, his take on it is 100% accurate. I also agree with his following prediction: “I assume in future campaigns this department will be called digital strategy, not new media–it’s not new anymore and it’s not just media.”

As we have seen technology played a integral role in the campaign at every level of organization and strategy. Both internal and external communication, list-building, field and voter contact, GOTV, finance; all these areas were bolstered by the effective use of technology.

Also check out Learning from Obama: Lessons for Online Communicators in 2009 and Beyond by Colin Delany.