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Six lessons from the guys who #Social-ed Obama into Office

WritersFest-thumb-400x219-106936Thanks to the generosity of a good friend I had the privilege last week of hearing from two of the real pioneers in the use of Social Media to get a message across.  Described by their host, ABC journalist Michael (@M-Brisso) Brissenden, as the Led Zeppelin of Nerdsville; Joe (@Rospars) Rospars and Stephen (@mullerstephen) Muller of Blue State Digital can genuinely claim to have played a huge part in getting and keeping Barack Obama elected.  The two were visiting Sydney as the guests of the Sydney Writers Festival. I've written before (on my personal blog) about the excellence of the 2012 election campaign.  So many aspects of the Democrats' campaign were streets ahead of what the Republicans were doing, but they seemed to take the 2008 revolution in campaigning to a new level.  In particular it was worth noting the brilliant #stayinline campaign to make sure that those still in line when the polls closed were still able to vote.  Where margins are as  tight as they were in this election, it is this kind of micro-targeted message around a #hashtag that makes Social Media so powerful.

It is well known that the roots of the 2008 Social Media campaign lay in the pre-Social pioneering use of internet crowd-funding by the Howard Dean Campaign in 2004.  Joe Rospars was the DNA that transitioned those lessons from Howard Dean to Barack Obama.  In an interesting show-and-tell presentation, Joe and Stephen told the story of the challenges, the successes and star-struck moments with Mr President from both the 2008 and 2012 campaigns.

The bulk of what they had to share was You Tube videos that demonstrated how to press people's buttons on Social Media, like this one about one of the older volunteers on the campaign, Charles Alexander; or this one about Ian's letter to Obama thanking him for  bringing his Father home from Iraq.  While a little sentimental I think for the Australian audience, they are powerful examples of how to use Social media to inspire, motivate and engage your audience.

It was not lost on anyone in the audience however how much the Australian Labor Party needed this kind of campaign strategy and this very point arose as soon as questions went to the floor, "are you available from now until September?" asked one lady, almost pleadingly.  I wonder if Joe and Stephen did catch a moment to bring Julia's team up to speed, but if not here are some lessons I collected from their talk:

  1. Relationships - A grass roots Social campaign is about building relationships with people at scale, fast and engaging them in two-way conversations.  Joe and Stephen talked briefly about the challenge of beating Hilary Clinton, a seasoned Washington veteran with a rich tapestry of relationships.  They talked about how they were able to use Social to quickly build a network in a timescale no other medium could achieve.
  2. Telling stories - This is not news, it is wel established that telling stories is the key to content creation for the Social web.  But these guys seem to have it nailed.  The videos they showed told powerful and compelling stories very succinctly and evocatively and in a way that would inspire action.  The political campaign ad has evolved to suit the new medium.
  3. Grass Roots Organisation - I've written before on this blog about lessons that Todd Wheatland drew from the 2012 campaign about how to use Social to appeal to the base, motivating them to carry your message.  Joe and Stephen reiterated that the campaign was very much focussed on producing content that the base would retweet and amplify on the campaign's behalf.
  4. Let others tell your story - A common facet of the videos Joe and Stephen showed us was that, as Joe said, "the candidate wasn't in them".  Particularly in the two examples I've embedded above, Obama plays only a very brief cameo in either.  This is fundamental to a good Social Media campaign - don't make it about you, make it about those you are trying to reach.
  5. Honesty and Belief - Perhaps more relevant to community activism than corporate marketing, but the point remains strong that Social Media shines a penetrating light on your work and has a nose for insincerity.  Joe in particular was ernest on the point that you need to believe in what you are doing and you need to be honest about what you are creating because only that will make for an effective message.
  6. Put Social at the top table - Last but not at all least, Joe made the important point in response to a question that the reason he was able to be so successful within the Obama campaign is that Digital was given a seat at the top table.  He was included in every discussion across the campaign and urged to consider the Digital and Social implications.

I think this last point is perhaps the most important lesson he brought with him and one all organisations should embrace.  Until Social is integrated across the organisation and as long as Social remains a neglected silo; the real power of Social, the kind of power that can elect a President, cannot be truly realised.