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Blue State Digital Takes Over the World

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, August 31 2009

The fact that the campaign web team wasn't relegated to some back office but was instead placed at the center of the action on Howard Dean's 2004 campaign -- the campaign that spawned Blue State Digital and a handful of other web firms -- was consider a considerable mark of respect, a sign of how far things had come. With the Obama '08 campaign under the company's belt, the 110 men and women who make up Blue State Digital (BSD) are, today, being offered more than a decent office seats. BSD's reach extends beyond American politics to advocacy, policy, and cultural campaigns here and abroad.

Here's a look at some of the ways the firm that helped power Barack Obama to the White House is selling what it has learned since those Dean days. Through it all run the same simple but powerful threads. Tell stories. Make design a priority. Focus on people. Use video whenever possible. Build community. Treat your email list with great respect. And, in doing so, help to turn visions of how the world should be into how it is. Blue State Digital is busily working to figure out how well what has done to American politics translates in other realms and around the world.

Of course, there's no forgetting that at its core Blue State Digital is a political beast. "Even during our deep commitments to the Obama campaign and many other Democratic candidates in 2008, BSD worked hard to diversify our client portfolio into other types of advocacy and membership efforts," says Blue State Digital managing partner Thomas Gensemer. Blue State Digital co-founder Joe Rospars, one of the Dean campaign's writers and strategists, was installed within the Obama campaign as its new media director, and other company staffers worked on the Obama account. But BSD never dropped its working relationships with other non-Obama political clients. Ted Kennedy was a long time Blue State client, and the company handled the recent creation of a memorial site to the senator. The company consulted for, among other politicians, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson during the 2007-2008 cycle. And Open Secrets reports that the Democratic Party paid out more than $2.5 million to Blue State Digital during the 2008 cycle, and an additional half a million since.

But the firm is increasingly looking outside its political comfort zone. The company germinated in a Burlington office park, but today Blue State's outposts are found New York City's Flatiron District, south Boston's waterfront, Los Angeles's Koreatown, London's Regent's Park area, and downtown Washington DC -- about a five minute walk from the White House (where former BSD director Macon Phillips serves as White House new media director). From those headquarters, BSD has its fingers in projects of all size and stripes. "We continue to get our biggest thrills from political fights, Politics is in our DNA and always will be," says Gensemer. That said, "What's exciting for the business is to see how these same tactics apply in non-political situations."

There's non-partisan advocacy work. Blue State recently took over fundraising for the American Red Cross, directing the Red Cross's campaign to win a share of the $3 million that Target was handing out to non-profits that earned the most votes on Facebook. The effort paid off -- the Red Cross got 27% of the Facebook vote and thus $793,942. BSD is also pulling together a coalition of Jewish groups to name a "Jewish Community Hero." (What's a good online campaign without a leaderboard? The frontrunners for the Jewish hero's contest are ranked here.) And there's academia. Alumni fundraising is notoriously difficult and costly, and the company has just kicked off what Gensemer calls its "first series" of university clients, organizing alumni and raising funds for the University of Wisconsin, the University of Florida, and NYU.

Next up, culture. Through their LA office, housed in a 12-story Art Deco building, the company is working to build a movement around "Dirt! The Movie," a Jamie Lee Curtis-narrated film on "the amazing and little known story of the relationship between humans and living dirt." Dirt! made a strong showing at the Sundance Film Festival -- which also happens to be a Blue State client. The firm has put together a full-featured hub for the film event. Also out of the LA office is a new online presence for that city's Museum of Contemporary Art.

Another well-known museum is also in the BSD client roster is London's Tate Modern. From culture we move to sports. The company recently picked up the bid to bring the World Cup to the United States in 2018.

None of which to say that BSD is abandoning rough-and-tumble American politics. Blue State driving the online campaign of Health Care for Americans Now, also known as HCAN, which has emerged as one of the most prominent champions of health care reform in the United States. And they've long worked with WalMart Watch, an-SEIU affiliated group seeking reforms at the commercial giant. A recent project featured photographs of supporters holding signs reading "I support change for WalMart workers," a slideshow of which was emailed out WalMart workers whose addresses had been collected by WalMart Watch.

Blue State, though, is eager to see how what it knows about online campaigning translates in different political worlds. Some of the other web firms that emerged from the Dean campaign have stuck closer to home. The Drupal-centric Advomatic, for example, has a team of 15 core staffers who work from home offices; clients include the New York State Senate, Air America, and Netroots Nation. EchoDitto is roughly the same size as Advomatic, and they service Mother Jones, Free Press, and the Clinton Foundation, among others. CivicSpace, another development project, has since forked into a small consulting firm and an open-source content management system. One of its two co-founders recently opened a bicycle shop.

Blue State Digital, meanwhile, is expanding its global reach. It recently drove the Hope Not Hate campaign against the far-right British National Party. The campaign, a joint project of the Daily Mirror and the anti-facism group Searchlight, was one part political strategy to one part community organizing. The election of two BNP candidates to the European Parliament was put in its political context: "[T]here was no groundswell of support," they explained; instead, historically low turnout created an opening that put the pair of extremists in office. Blue State organized a protest against a BNP event, and, of course, emailed its base of supporters when the event was canceled. And the firm created a "Not in My Name" video, set to the music of Snow Patrol, which celebrated the image of a multicultural, embracing British society.

Fianna Fáil, Ireland's Republican Party, had its website and digital strategy rebuilt by Blue State. And Blue State, according to the Times Online, was brought on by a local MP to organize the resistance against the closing of a Johnnie Walker plant in Kilmarnock, Scotland. The Time quoted one shop steward saying "If these campaigners can win the presidential elections for Barack Obama and they are willing to back us, then I am confident we have a good fighting chance of saving our jobs." The tactic? Build a community of supporters, especially those authenticity-minded drinkers who like their whiskey bottled in the land of its birth.

The company is also working with unionized communications workers in the U.K. A recent campaign worked to halt the privatization of the Royal Mail. BSD collected witty and passionate slogans submitted by supporters, and then used them as the basis of a Google Ad campaign. One referenced an MP backing the privatization plan: "Post Mandelson back to Brussels. It's our mail!" The plans to privatize government mail services were shelved.

Heads of state, current and future, have been asking for Blue State's assistance. The company has been working with Prince Charles' Rainforest Project on a campaign to get rainforest issues more front and center in the climate debate. (It seems necessary to point out that that effort features YouTube spotlights of prominent British people holding what may or may not be a real frog). And Blue State has also been counseling new Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd of Australia's Labor Party as he figures out how to both win future elections and govern his country in the meantime.

And remember how we discussed that, in years not too long past, a measure of great respect was giving your web team respectable seats in the office? Not only did the firm recently design an online presence and strategy for the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Commission on Smart Global Health Policy, a group aimed at pulling in non-specialists into global health discussions, BSD partner and co-founder Joe Rospars has a seat on the Commission itself, alongside former Senator Bill Frist, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, former Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, and other notables -- the sort of people that, for web gurus of yore, functioned as bosses, rather than equals.

Not everything that works in American politics translates -- starting, in fact, with the name "Blue State Digital." In the U.K. for one, conservatives are the blue team. The labor party is red. Beyond color coding, the Financial Times reported last week that at a meeting with Gensemer, British bureaucrats struggled to figure out how what Blue State had done for Barack Obama could work for them. "What puzzled some of the civil servants," reported the FT, "was how politically neutral Whitehall could use these techniques." How does what has been learned online in American political campaigns translate to other attempts to shape the world? It's a good question. It's worth keeping an eye on Blue State Digital as they look for the answer.