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Learning from Obama's Campaign Structure: How to Organize for Success

BY Colin Delany | Thursday, March 5 2009

Part Two of a six-part series, cross-posted on e.politics

Structure isn't sexy -- but to talk about the critical online tools of 2008 without discussing the framework that governed their use would be missing the most important part of the story. ANYONE could employ (most of) the technology the Obamans used, but very few online communicators have ever done so either as effectively or on such a scale. One important lesson from Obama: the tools don't matter as much as how you use them.

For Obama, Online Communications was Communications, Not Technology

For starters, Obama's new media department was NOT a part of the campaign's tech team. Instead, it was coequal with communications, field/grassroots or finance, and was in fact as much a client of the technology folks as, say, the press department was. Like the heads of field, fundraising and press, new media team leader Joe Rospars reported directly to campaign manager David Plouffe, and he was as much a part of the campaign's planning and decision-making as they were.

In early 2007, Genachowski brought in Rospars, who co-founded his own online consulting firm and worked on Dean's online-fueled campaign, to be the campaign's new media director, and Kevin Malover, a veteran of online travel agency Orbitz, to be chief technology officer. In an interview in May 2007, Genachowski told us: "We may be the only campaign with a full-time chief technology officer." While Rospars was in charge of the entire political operation, Malover helped build software and took care of integrating data and voter files.

"Obama Raised Half a Billion Online," Jose Antonio Vargas, Washington Post, 11/20/2008

Contrast this with the arrangement in many other campaigns and advocacy groups, where the online staff is buried in a basement and is implicitly expected to know how fix a computer as well as to understand how to use the internet as a modern political mobilization tool. All while often being excluded from the communications planning process until the last possible moment, rendering the online element an afterthought with a stunted chance at real success. Obama's campaign managers employed a completely different model -- for them, the internet was as central to a modern political campaign as the traditional tools of direct mail, field organizing, advertising and the like. Miss that point, and you really miss the point of '08.

Online Communications Was Integrated across Entire Campaign

Separate, but integrated: just as important as the new media team's distinct place in the campaign structure was the degree to which it worked directly with the campaign's other arms. For instance, the grassroots/field team had staff working at desks in the new media section at the same time that the new media team had staff detached to work at desks in grassroots/field, reflecting a drive throughout the campaign to break down the barriers that usually exist between competing elements of a political campaign. To that end, the new media team essentially built a "shadow" field team that worked with the new media, field AND technology folks alike, while the new media team's fundraising section finished the election with more staff than the official campaign fundraisers!

This level of integration applied to technological as well as human systems -- for instance, the grassroots volunteer-management software connected with the voter database system built for Get Out The Vote operations, letting volunteers update information directly and getting that much more value out of every individual voter contact. Online outreach methods also reinforced each other: videos motivated supporters to work harder, while the blog, email list and social networking outreach helped drive video viewership, fundraising and recruitment. Email drove fundraising, encouraged volunteer work and maintained the long-term relationships that kept supporters by the millions attached to the campaign.

The website tied it all together, serving as a base for recruitment and volunteer action alike, and because of the need to design that website and other online imagery, the campaign gained another rare advantage for political communicators: good and consistent branding. Obama's new media team included talented and experienced designers, who created a logo and identity package that the campaign deployed with a rigor most corporate brand experts would envy. From online ads to print materials, yard signs and wraparound graphics for buses, the new media team turned out most of the visual material used across the country, saving some $10 million on outside consulting fees while also helping to build the clear and identifiable brand "Obama." An indicator of how good a job they did: seen that new Pepsi logo?

Measure, Cut, then Measure Again

From the the ethereal heights of branding to the dreary valley of numbers:

Obama's campaign tracked the success of every e-mail, text message and Web site visit, capitalizing on the analytics that are inherent in digital communications. Each ad and e-mail was created in multiple versions (e.g., different headers, buttons vs. links, video vs. audio vs. plain text) to test what worked and what did not. The campaign developed more than 7,000 customized e-mails, tailored to individual prospects, and made real-time improvements to its outreach materials. Adjustments were made daily to improve performance and conversion. It worked. As the campaign progressed, the effectiveness of the e-mail campaign increased and conversion rates similarly improved.

"The Social Pulpit: Barack Obama's Social Media Toolkit," Edelman Digital Public Affairs, January 2009

Joe Rospars has likened the Obama analytics team to the GAO, the Government Accountability Agency, which acts as an auditor and watchdog for the federal government. Measurability was so important to the Obamans that it actually influenced some tactical choices: Rospars has mentioned that the campaign ran relatively few display ads (classic billboard-style online advertising) compared with search/contextual ads (Google Ads), in part they concentrated their spending on what they could "measure and count" rather than on "amorphous" messaging goals. The point: what's the use of doing something you can't test? If you can't test it, you don't know how much good it's doing you, and your money might be better spent elsewhere.

The core role of analytics in guiding new media outreach neatly captures the entire campaign's pragmatic approach -- in this case, realizing that tweaking, streamlining and optimizing the details of supporter recruitment and management would yield more concrete benefits than spending resources developing gee-whiz new technology.

Volunteer Management -- Context, Training and Accountability

How the Obama field operation organized their volunteer teams deserves special mention, in part because their grassroots GOTV technology depended on it and also because it provides an excellent model for community-based organizers of all flavors. The structure evolved in the primaries and went national during the general election season. The critical features:

  • The campaign developed a clear team structure for the volunteer operation, replicable just about anywhere and with standard roles for each member: each volunteer team included a leader (to hold everyone accountable), a data manager (because data doesn't exist unless it gets in the system), a phone bank coordinator, a campus coordinator and a volunteer coordinator.
  • Training was absolutely vital, both for team members and for the individual neighborhood volunteers they organized.
  • Teams had clear vote-getting and voter-contact goals and were held accountable for them.
  • Example: for the general election, the Obama organization fielded 400 teams in the state of Missouri, supervised by paid campaign staff, with each team covering 8-12 voting precincts and starting work weeks and months before November 4th.

One thing stands out about this system: it required a lot from volunteers, both in terms of training and in terms of actual sweat. To keep them working, the campaign was careful to let them in on strategy, in part via David Plouffe's online video briefings. The trick to motivating people: let them know how their efforts fit into the larger framework of the campaign -- unless they knew that their work had context was actually valued, they were just blindly making calls. The keys for success: context, training and accountability.

The T-34, not the Tiger

It's hard to think of any organization that raises several hundred million dollars as "rough and ready," but that description does seem apt for the Obama online campaign. They rarely seemed to aim for immediate perfection, but instead built things that were needed and that worked and then incrementally improved them through testing and experience.

As a military history nerd, I'm reminded of the tanks of World War 2 -- the Russians built a standard model (the T-34) that was good enough, easy to manufacture in huge numbers and easy for draftee farmboys to learn to use (the Americans solved the same problem with the M4 Sherman). Their German counterparts, by contrast, tended to prize engineering virtue above practicality and divided their work among too many competing projects, yielding tanks (like the Tiger) that may have been individually superior in battle to their Allied opponents, but were too few in number and too often "white elephants" that broke down in the field. Guess who won? Scalability and usability mattered more than mere technological brilliance!

Now that we've talked about structure, let's put it to work in the third article in this series -- how did the Obama campaign find and keep support online?

In This Series:

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