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Article – The Obama Effect

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Here’s my article published on Catch-21 – the UK’s first political internet television channel based at Westminster – run by young people, for young people.

Online participation in this year’s general election may, at first, look certain to set a new benchmark for the web’s influence on political debate. However, the political communications experts will be hard pressed to match the impact achieved in the campaigning for President Obama.

Key to his 2008 Presidential campaign was that his team went further than just putting Obama’s message ‘out there’ into the virtual world. In my.BarackObama.com they created a key organisational tool which brought in party supporters well beyond the usual faithful. These new recruits, or ‘ambassadors’, could then be made into active campaigners on the ground through careful and selective communication techniques.

Email remains the richest of all forms of online communication and over the course of the campaign, aides sent more than 7,000 different messages, many of them targeted to specific donation levels (people who gave less than $200, for example, or those who gave more than $1,000). In total, more than 2 billion e-mails landed in inboxes (Four years ago, Sen. John F. Kerry had 3 million e-addresses on his list; former Vermont Governor Howard Dean had 600,000.) and this ‘individual’ approach meant many people thought Obama was communicating directly with them and therefore were more likely to stay engaged with the campaign.

The success of this community outreach program must be measured by it fundraising results. Overall 3 million individual donors gave around $560 million. This averaged out at $80 each time and the majority of people donated more than once. The cost to Obama for hiring BlueStateMedia to manage his online fundraising and communications was just $6 million.

Obama’s internet team focused on notions of membership and loyalty. The more you got involved, the more events you organised, the more money you raised, the more points you were given. These subtle inducements deployed to deepen involvement provide evidence that the degree of commitment to Mr. Obama’s campaign was as much a social experience as it is a fundraising and activation tool.

The stocking trade then was to build membership as broad as possible, communicate with these people as effectively as possible and engage them into doing ‘real world’ things for the campaign – like door-knocking or hosting community barbecues.

Looking forward to May then, how much of this insight into online communications will influence the British election? According to Thomas Gensener, one of the pioneering forces in the 2008 US Presidential campaign, “very little”.

For one, the investment and staffing needed to build the critical mass of public involvement simply isn’t there. The investment in new technology and the launching of micro-sites is growing steadily, but these so far have been unable to build the long-term relationships with the public needed to foster the numbers of ‘ambassadors’ required.

And asides from having a much stronger national press here in Britain and a different election process which simply doesn’t allow for the long-term campaigning techniques that Obama ran from 2006 to late 2008, the reason why the internet will only play a meagre role in the forth-coming election is quite simple. The core product in the campaign was Obama himself. His concept was so authentic, so inspirational and so ideological that most could not help but feel affection for it and ‘buying in’ to Barack Obama was easier than not. But in Britain we have the direct opposite – just Facebook search ‘David Cameron’ and all the insight you need is there.

Until British politics produces such a product, it appears that no matter how much time, money and resources the communication teams throw into the virtual world, the electorate will just continue to shrug it off with the usual mistrust and cynicism that plagues our political environment.

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Written by Robert Dale

March 11, 2010 at 8:08 pm

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