Yes we can (go digital) The 2012 election saw incumbent President Barack Obama face off against Republican challenger Senator Mitt Romney. While Romney adopted more-or-less conventional wisdom when it came to his campaign’s digital strategy, Obama built on the support he’d seen through social media in the 2008 election, to create a campaign unlike any seen before in US politics, and one that has gone on to profoundly shape this year’s race. At the beginning of 2011, as planning began for the upcoming presidential campaign, Obama’s odds of re-election were anything but certain. While his digital strategy in 2008 had helped him move from long-shot candidate to President, 2012 posed a number of different challenges. The Tea Party movement meant that there was a groundswell of support for Republican candidates, while the Citizens United decision opened the door to more active opposition and millions of dollars in financing for groups who opposed Obama. The Obama for America campaign worked with a number of digital agencies to build on the work it had done in 2008, creating a suite of tools that could serve as the backbone of the digital campaign and handle fundraising, community-building, communication, voter mobilisation and message optimisation. Rather than hire political experts or traditional campaign staff, Obama
“WE NEED TO STRIVE FOR AN ENVIRONMENT OF INTELLECTUAL CURIOSITY, DATA, RESEARCH AND TESTING TO ENSURE OUR PROGRAMS ARE WORKING” REPUBLICAN REPORT ON THE AFTERMATH OF THE 2012 ELECTION
appointed digital and technology teams with technical experience and marketing savvy. The campaign’s chief technology officer was Harper Reed, previously CTO at online retailer Threadless; senior data analyst Michelangelo D’Agostino was a
particle physicist, and chief scientist Rayid Ghani came from Accenture. The Obama for America campaign made sure that every level of the organisation understood what tech startups and marketers had been saying for years: data doesn’t lie. Analytics were hard-baked into every aspect of the campaign, from the digital team’s targeting, to determining how many field organisers should be deployed in a given city. Overall, the analytics team for the campaign was five times bigger than it was in 2008. The campaign wasn’t just some swollen behemoth, however; it understood where to adopt a leaner, more agile approach. Obama’s social team, managing his 34m Facebook fans and 24m Twitter followers, was made up of just four people. This small team was crucial for mobilising the 18–29 demographic, who were overwhelmingly likely to support Obama. Traditional campaigns typically aimed to encourage voters through phone calls, but the growth of mobile meant that half the campaign’s young target voters were unreachable by landline. Instead, the social team built a Facebook-based app that connected with supporters and asked for their permission to look at their friends list. Over 1m supporters signed up, and thanks to their data, the campaign was able to identify 85 per cent of those without listed numbers.
Barack Obama’s sophisticated digital strategy in the 2012 presidential campaign was unlike any seen before in US politics, and has had a profound effect on this year’s race
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