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Teddy Goff and Joe Rospars On How Obama's Campaign Is Trying to Get Back to the "We"

BY Nick Judd | Friday, February 17 2012

Getting back to the "we" of Barack Obama's 2008 campaign — the now-legendary level of energy and individual commitment from grassroots volunteers that Obama was able to harness en route to an improbable victory in the Democratic primary and then in the general election for the presidency of the United States — is in many ways the "central challenge" of his 2012 re-election effort, Obama for America Digital Director Teddy Goff said Friday.

Speaking with Obama's chief digital strategist, Joe Rospars, and techPresident publisher Andrew Rasiej at a Social Media Week event in a conference room at Thomson-Reuters with a panoramic view of New York City, Goff described the myriad ways Obama's re-election effort is looking to harness digital tools to connect with voters, whether they be supporters from 2008 or newcomers to politics.

The campaign tries "to create interactive experiences that are designed to persuade people," Goff said, whether that's an infographic designed to tell the story of small-dollar donors to Obama's campaign or online videos designed to represent the president as capable, human, approachable — in short, the kind of apt, likable guy that might deserve a second term as president.

"For us, social media is ultimately about community organizing," Rospars said, adding later on, "this is something that is at the core of who Barack Obama is and why he's in public life to begin with."

That's as much a statement of strategy as it is a declaration of ethics: Obama's "community organizer" narrative is the core of the brand, organizing efforts foster buy-in to the brand, and the resulting horizontal organization will be leveraged in hopes of keeping that brand of leadership in the White House for another four years.

And it works. Goff and Rospars played a recent Obama video for the audience.

"#TeamObama certainly does a great job with videos," Beatrice Frey, who was watching, said on Twitter. "... I'm crying already!"

This is where smart use of data comes in: Putting the right message in front of the right person requires knowing who the campaign is talking to.

"We try to speak to people in the language of the people we're speaking with," Goff said. Later on during his talk, he added, "We also try to keep in mind that we are not speaking to the same people all the time."

As an example, Goff and Rospars showed a photograph of a white board depicting the 26 segments of an email list that all received an Obama for America email. Different segments might receive different messages; a committed supporter might receive a link to a video to get them, in the parlance of the campaign, "fired up," while an undecided voter might get a chart intended to show that the jobs climate has improved with Obama in the White House — something that might persuade that voter to come around. On Tumblr, the campaign eventually followed a user who engaged them with a clever campaign to have them on her list of blog followers, slyly deploying a knowledge of Internet memes to win over that most mercurial of constituencies, the microblogger set.

Another segment of the Obama for America email list contains the addresses of everyone who has given a certain amount of money to the campaign that is less than $200 — the amount after which the campaign is required to disclose the donor's name and information, such as employer, occupation and address. Before quarterly filing deadlines, Goff said, the campaign reaches out to these people to tell them that the official report is a record of the names of people who are building the campaign, and tells them how many dollars away they are from being on that list.

That, he said, is one of the most effective segments of the campaign's email list.

But the real challenge will be — and what many of the campaign's data tools, which Rospars and Goff seemed reluctant to discuss, are built to help the campaign to do — to return to that 2008 level of enthusiasm, where the campaign has grassroots volunteers going door-to-door on Obama's behalf. It is to that end that the campaign is building a unified platform for staffers and volunteers alike, providing the same tools to a volunteer at home as to a staffer in a campaign office; it is to that end that the campaign is honing its understanding of each potential voter, donor, or volunteer, through whispered-of data mining and list segmentation projects with codenames like "Narwhal" or "Dreamcatcher;" and it is to that end that the campaign is hoping to build tools for supporters to upload their own stories to share.

"We're in the process of what we're calling the one-on-one program whereby everyone who donated to the last campaign or who volunteered for the last campaign is going to get a one-on-one conversation with a human," Goff said, meaning a staffer, volunteer or supporter involved the 2012 effort that might win back that voter's support a second time.

"There are people all over the country who have stories that are far more powerful than anything we could do," he said later on.