Digital Marketing Lessons from the Obama Campaign

Ryan Moede, Former Viget

Article Category: #Strategy

Posted on

Barack Obama earned a new title this past week, but you may not have noticed that in addition to now owning #44, Obama also was named Marketer of the Year. Awarded at the Association of National Advertisers' annual conference, Obama beat out a few brands you might be familiar with – Nike, Apple and even the much-loved

And rightly so – the effectiveness of his campaign has set a new benchmark for all advertisers and marketers, especially those in the digital space. His online campaign for change was a grassroots movement on steroids. The seven million names on its lists (email addresses, mobile phone numbers, Facebook and MySpace pages) represent a staggering 11 percent of the approximately 64 million votes the President-elect received. The Obama campaign was an impressive orchestration of on-message brand discipline, social media marketing, networking, user-generated content and direct marketing that built a fiercely passionate movement.

While political pundits and marketing strategists alike will be dissecting the many strength’s of Obama’s strategy for years, there are several fundamental themes that are important for any digital marketer to understand.

Social Media with a Purpose
Too often brands jump online with a broad expectation of simply wanting to “build community,” with no clear understanding of how or why. Obama’s team knew very clearly how to identify, engage and empower their community members online through targeted messaging, crystal-clear calls to action and the appropriate amount of flexibility to give them room to work. As Chris Hughes, who led the creation of, said,

"I don't care about online energy and enthusiasm just for the sake of online energy and enthusiasm. It's about making money, making phone calls, embedding video or having video forwarded to friends."

That purpose translated to building various levels of participation for people to engage in the election process. As Sarah Lai Stirland wrote for Wired, "Obama's campaign carefully designed its web site to maximize group collaboration, while at the same time giving individual volunteers tasks they could follow on their own schedules." From their site, the Obama community created more than 200,000 events, initiated 35,000 groups, and in the last week of the campaign launched more than 1,000 phone bank events. This was a social network that understood it's mission and had the right set of tools to accomplish it.

Focused Message
The Obama campaign focused on simplicity, consistency and relevance during their nearly two-year march to the White House. They understood the glut of noise their message needed to cut through to be received, and their relentless focus on crafting a sticky message made it simple for voters to hear, believe and share with others. And with that simple message came the room for people to make the campaign their own and share the message with others in their own relevant way.

The campaign was an outstanding blend of old and new school marketing, with deep data analysis and segmentation of their audience and a wealth of tools to reach them.

Brand Flexibility & the Empowered Community
A brand has truly arrived when the community makes it their own. Part of why the Obama campaign had an incredible outpouring of user-generated content is that he provided the community with a simple and focused message that invited them to participate in the movement. From Obama-Girl's videos, Shepard Fairey's artwork or the Obama '08 iPhone app, a successful brand today needs room for the community to help shape it.

While there were many other factors supporting Obama's victory, it was his marketing strategy that enabled the campaign to reach out to new demographic of voters - many in states that had traditionally voted Republican or even simply had ever voted before - and mobilize an impressive new tribe that propelled him to a win on November 4th. Obama is a lesson in the brand as facilitator - he brought together people not just around himself, but connected them with each other to accomplish a bigger purpose.

Writing for Pop!Tech, Tim Leberecht may have captured it best:

Obama has radically altered the marketing playbook, and the astonishing rise of the Obama brand is a template for all marketers from this point on. Weaving together data and human intelligence, collective wisdom and individual charisma, strategic calculus and enthusiasm, the Obama campaign reestablished marketing as marketing for the people, with the people, and by the people. When charismatic leadership meets organizational prowess meets community, the result is marketing that is truly Presidential.

And that is a lesson all companies should understand.

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