Obama's Win and the Power of Networking

Barak Obama won of the US presidency due to a number of factors. Many attribute his campaign's use of the Internet as one of these factors. Yet it was not the Internet that helped him win: it was networking.

Over the coming weeks and months, the staff and observers of the Obama campaign will spawn articles, books, new companies and blog posts (like this one) that summarise what factors made the campaign successful and what others can learn from it.

I'll leave the big picture to those closer to the campaign, but one point I think is key is that it was not the use of the Internet that helped make the campaign successful, it was the building and mobilisation of a network. While the Internet made this easier, faster and perhaps bigger than has been done before, if a better tool for networking came along for the next election then it would be wise to use it and not the Internet (although I don't think it will! for decades!).

Why the Distinction?

This distinction is important because if you think it was the Internet that made a big difference, then you could use the Internet without ever using networking. However if you think of campaigning as networking then you plan to use the right tool for the right task and the Internet will be part of that.

Networking is key because it is about not only establishing a relationship with supporters, but also about sustaining it, developing it, extending it and helping supporters do the same.

It was because of the Obama Campaign's networking that they were able to raise $650 million USD and it was because of the networking that they didn't have to spend it on hiring 'local canvassers' as the McCain campaign did, but could instead spend it on offices, ads, staff, etc.

Obvious? To many of us, yes. But too many people I come across in campaigning organisations (outside those working full-time online) still don't get this point - so I thought it worth pointing out again.

The Obama Campaign's Networking

So what did the Obama Campaign do in this area?:

  1. Focused on collecting email and/or contact details at every touch point
  2. Stored the data they collected in databases for easy segmenting and targeting
  3. Has a graduated scale of actions supporters could take from donating to organising
  4. Put the data and the tools to use it in the hands of the volunteer supporters (as well as staff) so they could use it locally to identify and recruit supporters and mobilise them on election day
  5. Asked for a small donation on every occasion - and had incentives to donate like matched donations for new donors and a message from an existing donor so it was a social experience
  6. Used the Internet in timely ways to recruit, engage, mobilise, record data and deliver the tools to use the data. Ultimately this was about mobilising people face-to-face not online. The Internet only helped reach out to potential and existing supporters.

So while networking was not the only factor in the success of the Obama campaign (e.g. other factors were a public disenchanted with Republican leadership, the economic downturn, Obama as a great inspirer, McCain's choice of Palin as VP candidate), it underpinned all of his other activities by bring the people and money resources needed to win the campaign.

What Campaigning Organisations Can Learn

Campaigning organisations can learn a lot from this and could likely do it better than the Obama campaign if they put their minds to it. They could do better because they:

  • Have more specific issues
  • Have existing passionate supporters
  • Do not have a polerised opposition
  • Do not dissolve the campaign once it has been won but instead re-focus it on related issues.

Some may grumble about the lack of budget, but the Obama Campaign started with little and grew to $650 million USD in less than 2 years. The Atheist  Campaign in the UK raised £100,000 in 3 days - during a time of recession. I can only conclude from this that much more is possible of campaigning organisations are a bit bolder and have bigger visions. Even deeper may be the failure to focus on value / return instead of cost which is a cronic problem in most campaigning organisation....but that is another blog post :-)

So campaigning organisations should learn from this:

  1. Integrated planning ensure all mediums can contribute to achieving the same objectives according to their strengths
  2. The real power is in the network of people.
  3. The Internet can help networking by helping to:
    • Connect to people
    • Connect people with each others
    • Allow people to connect with the campaign
  4. Ask campaigning supporters to donate and they will (with good timing, specific asks and/or good incentives)
  5. Ask campaigning supporters to volunteer in specific ways and they will
  6. Focus on what produces the best return, not what costs the most

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What are your thoughts on this?

by Duane Raymond published Nov 05, 2008,
Filed under: ,
Chris Rose
Chris Rose

As well as allowing a conversation outside a hostile press, there's another thing campaigners might note about the Obama 'internet' strategy: there was an election. Sounds stupid but none of the networking would have counted without a real world mechanism - in this case voting - that could change something. Too many well devised online 'campaigns' fail because they don't lead to a real world instrumental outcome, ie remain just mechanisms for awareness and alignment.

  • Nov 10, 2008 05:39 am
Charles Lenchner
Charles Lenchner

The use of databases is the infrastructure upon which all this networking took place. Some nonprofit organizations are still using Excel spreadsheets to maintain lists.... Don't tell them that 'the internet' isn't the key, but rather networking. It's all about having a CRM and using it wisely.

  • Nov 05, 2008 09:53 am

Hi Charles - excellent point. I aluded to this in talking about 'tools' without mentioning what ones - but the CRM was the central one.

I've updated the post to make the fact that 'networking' is about relationships but I'll leave the term CRM out since you mention it here :-)

  • Nov 06, 2008 08:55 am

Excellent piece. Another thing the 'internet' did though was to enable a conversation outside the control of US TV networks. Equally obvious to readers of this blog but not to many others perhaps. This is important because for decades (see 2007 report at http://mediamatters.org/progmaj/) newspapers and tv have been denying or ignoring evidence of America's population becoming progressively more 'progressive'. By constantly reiterating that the Democrats could not win because they were out of tune with a 'conservative country' the mainstream media will have significantly deterred Democrat voting for several psychological reasons. A separate 'internet' based dialogue avoided that.

  • Nov 10, 2008 05:32 am