Perhaps the single most important ingredient to Obama’s online success was his campaign’s thorough understanding of social networks. That understanding is unsurprising, given, as I said in a previous post, Chris Hughes, a former Facebook founder, ran Obama’s new media campaign. But it is probably the single most significant factor in the monumental strides the Obama campaign took in online politics.
What you typically get with a given political campaign’s use of new media is they set up shop and hope for the best but they never really make the most out of the medium. Conversely, the Obama campaign got the most out of this medium.
Social networking was the organizing principle of the Obama campaign, literally, in both cyberspace and meatspace. Whereas the Howard Dean campaign used Meet Up as a heavy-duty invite system, the Obama campaign used social networking sites to actually get people to do stuff in the real world.
First and foremost, Obama’s team understood how people use social networking sites and, as a result, how communication works within them. But because networking is an integral part of politics (all politics are local), and because the candidate was a community organizer who had hands-on experience with using social networks in the real world, they understood better than anyone else how the virtual and real-world social networks could work in tandem.
Wherever You Are, There He Is
One of the most important things you need to understand to be successful reaching people online is that you need to go where they’re at, let them use the communications tools they want to use and don’t force them to use your tools.
Thus, the Obama campaign set up shop on all the major social networks:
- Black Planet
While not all of the aforementioned sites are strictly social networks, all have elements of social networking sites; that is, the ability to find and communicate with one another in one shape or form.
The Obama campaign smartly set up shop at all the major centers of gravity but also at the major niche networks that cater to specific demographics. Within Facebook itself, they segmented audiences by creating fan pages for various demographic groups.
They even created a presence where you wouldn’t expect to find them, such as at Faithbase. While Democrats have typically not fared very among people who attend church regularly, their mere presence there speaks volumes. People will often give you credit for merely being there; they may not vote for you in the end, but you’ve earned a measure of good will for trying.
Attention Crash – Top Of Mind With The Status Update
Steve Rubel talks a lot about the attention crash. While he first blogged about it in 2007, it is even more relevant now than it was a year ago. And it’s hyper-relevant when it comes to politics.
Those of us who follow politics closely tend to be information junkies as well as political junkies. The two go hand-in-hand. But even for those who don’t follow politics religiously, those normal souls who tend to tune in during the latter stages of the campaign, even for those people the number of sources and volume of political content has exploded.
This is truly the attention economy.
So in this environment, how do you maintain much less initially grab, people’s attention? You get–and stay–within their focus.
When you log in to Facebookand now MySpace and Linkedin, your eyes focus on the “news feed’ or the status updates of all your friends. The YouTube and Flickr version of this is a display of the new photos or videos of your friends. Seeing what you’re friends are up to is the most interesting thing about social networks, so naturally they put that front and center.
If you want to stay top of mind, that’s where you need to be…in the status updates.
The Obama campaign understood this. While they made full use of all of the social networking features (Fan updates, events, uploading videos and photos), an emphasis was placed on getting into the status update stream.
So they encouraged sharing. They built a Facebook application that did just that, helped people share comapaign content with their friends. They created an application that would, as election day approached, automatically send out status updates on an individual’s behalf, telling their friends that they supported Obama and encouraging their friends to do the same.
For every action a person took, their friends would get that update. If I became a fan of an Obama page, all my friends would see that I’d done so. Encouraging as much interaction and sharing as possible created that many opportunities to deliver messages from trusted sources.
And that’s the thing. Status updates are coming from a known source; your friend. Presumably, a trusted source. That implied endorsement carries a great deal of credibility in this day and age, when people are far less likely to trust businesses or government or authority figures, much less politicians.
The Network Effect
What the campaign also understood is the power of the networking effect. When you connect with someone on a social network, you connect with their network as well.
Two years ago Mark Zuckerberg said the average Facebook user had 130 friends in their network. I assume that number has since grown but let’s use it anyway just to be safe.
As I said earlier, when I join a group or become a fan of someone on Facebook, my entire network can see that I’ve done that. So if I become a fan of the Obama page, my network gets that notice but also can see that icon among my fan pages.
By making one friend, you increase your reach exponentially. I make five friends: 5 x 130 = 650.
Campaign Infrastructure – my.barackobama.com
The Obama campaign understood the power of social networking so well that they made it the infrastructure of their web site, allowing supporters to find and friend one another, and to use social networking tools to organize together.
This election season began with the MySpace Primaries and a debate about whether social networking could make a difference and it concluded by proving it could.
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