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Looking back on the Obama Campaign: Lessons for Navigating New Media

This is a guest post by: Pamela Quiroga

Hindsight is 20/20.

Just ask Mark Soohoo, deputy e-campaign director for John McCain, who back in June 2008 infamously stated “You don’t necessarily have to use a computer to understand how it shapes the country…John McCain is aware of the Internet.”

Well on November 27, 2008 I was one of many computer users gathered at the University of Toronto to hear Rahaf Harfoush’s lecture “Applying Barack Obama’s Social Media Strategy to Your Brand’s Communication Needs.”  Surely if Obama’s phenomenally successful presidential campaign taught the world anything, it’s the power of new media to shape almost everything.

Rahaf is definitely an expert on the topic. A freelance Innovation and New Media Strategist based in Toronto, she spent almost three months in Chicago volunteering with Obama’s New Media Team.  Working with the likes of Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook, their group spearheaded what Harvard Business Publishing calls a “case study in Marketing Excellence” and what helped earn Barack Obama the title of Ad Age’s Marketer of the Year.

The Lessons

So what can we learn, as communicators, looking back at the Obama campaign?  Well, as with any form of media, there are rules of engagement. Regarding new media, Rahaf’s were these:

1)    Give new media a seat at the table
Realize that successful new media campaigns require investments of time, people and money.
2)    Tools are useless without a blueprint
Have a plan and be strategic. Carbon copy campaigns don’t work in new media. Your approach should be unique while still carrying a consistent message.
3)    Know the lay of the land
Map out your digital landscape and find the conversations people are having about your product or service.  Get involved and make it easy for people to access you within that landscape.
4)    Build relationships
Know the culture, know the etiquette and be authentic within it.
5)    Have a call to action
Obama’s campaign believed that online organization = offline action.  Have a mission and work towards it.
6)    Give up control
Embrace co-creation and let your brand evolve, it will happen with or without you.

While following these precepts will not guarantee success, they do offer a practical framework to use when tackling new media initiatives.  In the Obama campaign, the magic really happened in their application.  If I were to take away an overall theme from the presentation, it would be how powerful group cohesion can be built simply by respecting a user’s online participation.  Small acts like tweeting about Joe Biden as VP nominee before it was released to the main stream media and Obama deploying a personal email to his supporters minutes before his Grant Park victory speech, created a sense of intimacy and a sense that each person’s participation, both online and offline, mattered. This “we’re all in this together” approach captured the American public’s imagination and renewed their faith in the belief that each vote and each dollar counts.  In retrospect, there will be many lessons learned from the 2008 American Presidential campaign.  But if history has taught us anything, it’s that you’ll probably need a computer to understand it.

Pamela Quiroga is a Research Analyst with the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term Care and a Social Media enthusiast.  You can find her online at www.twitter.com/newtypography.

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