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Why Obama is Kicking Ass Online…and Off…

Posted by noetical on October 17, 2008

Dear Readers:

Recently, I did some research on the ways in which the Barack Obama Campaign (BOC) has revolutionized the ways that political campaigns use of technology. It was in answer to a question on LinkedIn, and I thought I’d share it with you here.

The BOC’s use of technology to further their goals has been extensive, sophisticated and groundbreaking. While we know this from the buzz around the BOC and see glimpses of their activities here and there, what isn’t immediately apparent to most people outside the BOC is how integral technology is to their campaign. Yes, they have a website, as well as dedicated Obama pages on most of the social network sites. Most candidates these days do. What’s different about the campaign’s use of technology is the way they have combined a variety of existing technologies with newly developed tools in order to more fully harness the power of digital technology. One thing that the BOC realized early on is that the most valuable currency they can derive from a Web presence is DATA. Most of their online presence either drives, inspires or requires data deposits of various kinds by their users.

Following is a description from Blue State Digital, the developers of, of the online tools suite they used to create the site:

Blue State Digital:
BSD’s Online Tools Suite is the most effective Internet community solution available for candidates, cause-related organizations, and companies.  Our tools combine fundraising, advocacy, and constituency-building capabilities into a comprehensive, action-oriented suite that will help you raise more money, grow your community faster, lock in constituent loyalty through social networking, and motivate your constituents to build public and legislative support behind the issues that matter to you.

The best fundraising tools on the market – including our innovative True Match technology, which matches up individual constituents personally to drive your fundraising revenue up – are at your fingertips, behind a program manager interface that helps you select segments based on their activity history and message them more effectively.  And our advocacy tools, integrated with our versatile Legislative and Media Contact System, have been used successfully by dozens of organizations to win critical issue victories in state houses, in Congress, and among opinion leaders and the press.

But the real power of the BSD suite flows from our community development and social networking capabilities.  By deploying BSD’s Online Tools Suite on your Web site, you can help your constituents connect with others who share their interests, motivations, and passions; leverage their desire to be part of a change-making movement; and motivate them to take specific actions that will further your cause.

Lead generation and tell-a-friend, peer-to-peer fundraising, blogging and community content management, event calendaring, a group communication engine open to every member—all these tactics are available for you to deploy, through our easy-to-use program manager interface.  Point tracking, built-in messaging, and community rating are all built in, to help encourage your constituents to stay involved and active.

Another thing that the BOC realized from the start was how to utilize technology to facilitate action. Using the data they collect from a variety of places, including the Web, they provide their staff and volunteers with multiple tools to execute targeted campaign activities with various ends including:

  • Registering new voters
  • Recruiting new volunteers
  • Message pushing (i.e.: facilitating viral dispersion of a given message)
  • Getting out the vote (first in the primaries and for the general in November)
  • Fundraising

While many of these tools have a Web component, it is the synergistic use of the Web with their offline activities that has yielded spectacular results. Most candidates use the Web much like corporations did in the mid-1990s to showcase their products. With the success of the Dean campaign at raising money on the Net, many campaigns have added ways to contribute, which is much like early e-commerce shopping carts that some companies used to start selling their products directly to their consumers. However, this limited approach doesn’t gather nearly as much information about each user, nor does it empower them to take action.

Here I’ve listed a few of the tools that were custom built or tailored to fit the needs of the BOC:


I. On demand CRM software and services: RightNow Technologies.

RightNow constructed two tools for the campaign:

“Invite Barack”: A scheduling and email response system.
Handles non-media requests for Sen. Obama or members of his campaign to attend local events. Users fill out an online form that goes to a work queue with a team assigned to properly acknowledge and respond. In addition, the system allows the campaign to monitor trends in requests such as location, requesting organizations, outcomes, and so on.

“Obama Answer Center”: A dynamic FAQ listing
Users can search questions by category and keyword, browse the most popular answers, and submit questions that haven’t yet been answered.

Because the system captures all the actions and inputs of people who participate, the Obama campaign is able to use web analytics to sort the most popular keywords and questions by region to better understand the concerns of people in different parts of the country. This allows for more targeted ads and other messaging, but more importantly it provides another perspective on the issues that are important to voters. The campaign can also examine the questions that have been rated most effective and least effective in order to improve the quality of the answers.

II. Web-based, distributable voter file system: Voter Activation Network.

Voter Activation Network is a Voter contact tool, frequently referred to as “the VAN.”
The BOC used a distributed deployment of the Voter Activation Network (or VAN), the voter file tool provided by the Boston firm of the same name. This is a database of registered voters by state that contains contact information coupled with information about how active that voter has been in the past, what their key issues are, etc.

III. Field operations management: Central Desktop.

Central Desktop helped the campaign build a precinct captain website that recruited, trained, and gave tools to thousands of volunteers in California and Texas. The My Barack Obama site allows supporters to build their own profiles in order to connect with local supporters, find or create a local or national group, create a personal fundraising page, find events or plan their own, and record their campaign experiences on their own blogs.

“When the Barack Obama Campaign team came to us, they needed a solution that would be up-and-running in minutes to manage a complex communication challenge for a widely dispersed group. Each California precinct has an externally facing workspace where information and tasks can be easily shared and disseminated. Each campaign team captain can create and view up-to-date information, coordinate and track projects, tasks and milestones as well as access data and statistics in real-time to help them ‘identify, persuade and get-to-vote’ as many Californian’s as possible.”

Isaac Garcia, CEO of Central Desktop.

IV. “MyBo” Social Networking and Social Action Campaign Site.
In addition to the standard informational content of most candidate websites, the My Barack Obama site  allows supporters to build their own profiles and connect with local supporters, find or create a local or national group, create a personal fundraising page, find events or plan their own, and record their campaign experiences on their own blogs.

V. “Neighbor to Neighbor” Volunteer/Field Operations Management Tool.
Description from

“What this tool does is allow you to find lists of undecided voters in your area, whenever is convenient for you, go door to door to talk to them about Barack Obama and the campaign, and then provide an easy way to report back to the campaign what you have learned. I’m just going to show you a few quick things about the tool to make it easier for you as you go along.

When you log in, you’ll see a list of undecided voters in your neighborhood on the screen. Click ‘print walk lists’ to get a map of those voters in your area. Here you can see a map of where the undecided voters in your area live. If you scroll down, you can see that you will also have a sample script with each voter and a spot to report the information of what you learned. The next step is to print out a flyer for your neighborhood if you want to leave information about Barack or the campaign for your neighbors. Click on ‘next review flyers.’ The final step takes you to a home page that you will see every time you log on. The most important part of the page is at the top, where you report voter contacts.

I cannot tell you enough how important it is that you report back what you have learned so we can bring new voters into this process. Once you click “report voter contacts” your list of voters in your neighborhood will come up. Click on the link next to each voter to report what you learned when you had a conversation with them.”

VI. “The Donkey”: Volunteer Management System
Overview from tinyHorse Solutions:

“Designed specifically for the volunteer tracking and campaign management needs of a field program, the Donkey Campaign and Volunteer Management System provides a straightforward and easy to use interface built on the very latest web technologies. Traditionally organizers lose valuable time and data by tracking some information in the voter file and resorting to spreadsheets (which get trashed after the campaign) for calling, scheduling and event building. The Donkey combines the flexibility of individual volunteer spreadsheets and the benefits of centralized scheduling and tracking for accountability and measurement of progress to goal.

Why Do We Need the Donkey?
The Donkey is not a voter file tool but instead is meant to compliment and integrate with an existing voter file solution such as the VAN (or other voter data tools such as Catalist). Every campaign should have access to a modern voter file, however there are limits on the extent to which data in those systems may be customized to the needs of each campaign. The Donkey is meant as a agile campaign and volunteer management tool which can be setup quickly on an as needed basis to specifically match the organization structure and needs of each campaign.

What Exactly Does the Donkey Do?
There are no other current applications for progressive campaigns that fill the same requirements as the Donkey. The best analogy for this system is a ‘customer relationship management’ or CRM tool, an integral type of sales and contact tracking tool in the corporate world. Existing field and online tools provide an excellent means of communication with large universes of individuals, but lack the precision to effectively manage volunteer data. The Donkey focuses on individual communications shaped around building a relationship with each volunteer rather than bulk voter contact.

Some key highlights of the volunteer management functionality include:
•    Easy to use “call screens” offering instant access to information during call time – enter call mode from anywhere you see a list of volunteers.
•    Advanced and highly usable calendar functionality (similar to Outlook or Google calendar).
•    Complete tracking of any type of event, such as regular phone banks, large rallies and GOTV activities.
•     Detailed tracking, searching, and reporting on all communications and scheduled activities for each volunteer.
•    Completely custom organizational structure per campaign for flexibility and security.

Additionally, the Donkey is a campaign management tool as much as it is a volunteer database:
•    Centralized system for collecting nightly status reports to ensure staff accountability.
•    Real-time manger dashboard providing an up to the second summary of daily numbers and user activity.
•    Live ‘top callers’ and ‘top schedulers’ sections foster competition among organizers.
•    Upload and share documents to distribute scripts and talking points or other materials.


Finally, here are re-posts of two excellent articles about the BOC’s technology strategy:

Obama’s Wide Net

This article appeared in the January 10, 2008 edition of The Nation.

Despite the different outcomes for his campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire, Barack Obama won among young voters in both states–and more important, he drew them to the polls in unprecedented numbers. People under 30 made up a third of his support in Iowa–four times the margin of victory–and their turnout was up 19 percentage points from 2004 in New Hampshire. Obama has inspired them, just as Howard Dean did last cycle, but the Chicago organizer’s campaign excelled by using technology that mobilized new and young voters to actually show up and be counted.

On the night of the Iowa caucuses, Obama’s organizers blasted thousands of cellphone text messages to the supporters they had meticulously identified. Younger voters were offered rides. Precinct captains got turnout projections in real time, so they could show undecided caucus attendees that there was statewide momentum. The campaign mobilized others by texting a classic Obama quote, the kind of simple declaration that can sound vague or inspiring, depending on how much idealism you have left: “‘In the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it’–Barack. One hour until Caucus starts! Be there by 6:30pm & bring 3 friends!” Hours later, more texts went out by cellphone. One urged tens of thousands of supporters across the country to watch the victory speech on television, while a local message announced victory to exhausted volunteers across Iowa, many of whom were still at their caucus sites. The text replies poured in swiftly. “I have tears of joy in my eyes!” wrote one volunteer at 9:14 pm, and another banged out an exhilarating revelation: “I am so happy & excited for the usa! I can not believe it is about politics! Obama for President!”

In Iowa, Obama’s aides systematically used the popular social networking site Facebook for targeting and organizing. Allison York, a 20-year-old Obama supporter and student at Iowa’s Drake University, spent six hours of her winter break driving from her parents’ Wichita home to Des Moines to a caucus location she found through Facebook. Another student launched a Facebook challenge that recruited more than a million supporters for Obama across the country. And one field organizer created a group for Iowans pledging to caucus for Obama–the first web version of the famous “supporter cards” that candidates urge voters to sign–drawing more than 1,000 people who were not in the party database. “We try to just go where the people are,” explained Obama’s online organizer in Iowa. “Facebook, because of its size, is where the people are, which is why we’ve taken it so seriously as a campaign.”

Obama’s official Facebook profile has about 200,000 “friends”—more than triple Hillary Clinton’s network and six times John Edwards’s yield. Clinton’s top strategists once mocked those numbers, telling reporters, “Our people look like caucus-goers [and Obama’s] look like Facebook.” But after Clinton placed third in Iowa, they hastily tried to catch up. She toured New Hampshire with students, held “roundtables with young undecided voters,” talked up a new idea for a “government blogging team” and launched an “Ask Hillary” Facebook feature on the day of the New Hampshire debate (which was co-sponsored by Facebook and ABC News). Those efforts paid off, giving her a boost among young people above her Iowa showing, but it’s probably too late for her to overtake Obama in organic online support. Beyond Facebook, Obama has the most friends on MySpace and BlackPlanet—about 630,000 combined—and the most traffic by far on YouTube, where people can watch him sans media filter. (After Obama’s stirring Iowa victory speech was uploaded, his official channel alone spiked by more than 1.5 million views.) Obama is also remarkably popular on apolitical Internet terrain. He regularly ranks atop Eventful, an entertainment site that helps fans join forces to request local concerts by their favorite bands. He netted appearance requests from eighty towns in Iowa and has held his own against rock stars across the country, currently ranking third behind the rap group Wu-Tang Clan.

Obama’s aides have not simply been riding a wave of hit websites; they also built their own social networking portal to connect and empower activists. Chris Hughes, a 24-year-old co-founder of Facebook, joined the Obama campaign to build MyBO, which invites users to network, blog and promote grassroots events. Unlike many campaigns that treat web politics as a separate silo, Obama’s field program is tightly integrated with MyBO. Iowa organizers were required to post all their events on the site and encouraged to write MyBO blog posts, vetted by the campaign, about local efforts. And the campaign trusts supporters to post whatever they want, from house parties to fundraising ideas to blog commentaries. More than 350,000 people have already created MyBO accounts, posting more than 10,000 grassroots events offline, including 1,000 gatherings where supporters simply wear Obama buttons and do community service in their neighborhoods. No other campaign has a decentralized program like it. While young participants are active, the majority of users, according to the site’s administrator, appear to be middle-aged women.

Cheryl Kimmel, 48, is a self-declared “Deaniac” who first learned about Obama when Dean fundraised for Obama’s 2004 Senate primary. This month, Kimmel used MyBO to announce a house party for undecided voters. “It’s a good way to reach out to people that may be interested but that aren’t in the fold,” she explained. MyBO is not just for Deaniacs. Frank Dickerson voted for Bush’s re-election, but the 59-year-old “recovering Republican” has used it for the past four months to organize events and phone banks at his North Carolina home. His MyBO invitation after Obama’s Iowa victory recruited seven new people in a single day, he said, and he is coordinating volunteer trips to South Carolina for the upcoming primary. It’s the first time he has ever been politically active.

This kind of self-starting activism could be crucial on February 5, the largest Super Tuesday ever, with primaries in twenty-two states. It is impossible to visit or buy advertising in every state. “Twenty states and all you’ve got is the candidate on a tarmac–frankly there’s not a whole lot that paid media can do,” predicts Joe Trippi, who ran Dean’s Internet strategy and now works for Edwards. “The traditional old-style top-down centralized campaign structure doesn’t work [for this schedule],” he adds, so the key is “to decentralize.”

Editor’s Note: For more on this subject, see A Conversation with Joe Trippi on

Obama’s ‘Gigantic’ Database May Make Him Party’s Power Broker

This article appeared in the April 28, 2008 edition of

Barack Obama’s supporters are giving him more than just record amounts of cash. They also are providing personal information that may make his donor list the most powerful tool in U.S. politics.

Even if the Democratic presidential candidate doesn’t succeed in his White House bid, this data will make Obama a power broker in the party for years to come. For the interest groups or Democratic candidates he chooses to sell it to, it would provide a gold mine of information and access to potential donors.

Almost 2 million people have entered personal information on Obama pages on social-networking Web sites such as Facebook, MySpace and his campaign’s, offering home addresses, phone numbers, their views on specific issues and the names of friends. The data have allowed Obama, 46, to raise more than $200 million, fill sports arenas with supporters across the nation and motivate millions more with custom-tailored messages.

“It’s gigantic,” said Laura Quinn, chief executive officer of Catalist, a company that maintains a database of 280 million Americans. The list is as “transformational” as the advent of political advertising, she said.

Volunteering Information
The Illinois senator’s biggest innovation is in persuading people to enter personal information directly on his campaign’s Web site, according to Bill McIntyre, executive vice president of Grassroots Enterprise Inc., a Washington-based Internet marketing firm that advises campaigns.

McIntyre, a Republican and former chief national spokesman for the National Rifle Association, said the data entered by 800,000 names on may be worth as much as $200 million.

While in the past, campaigns have cross-referenced lists of registered voters against other records such as credit-card purchases or magazine subscriptions to find potential supporters, Obama’s information is more accurate and precise because it relies on data that donors provide themselves.

“When people give information online, they are going to be more truthful and more credible because they are in the privacy of their own environment,” said McIntyre.

Republican Effort
It’s the kind of detailed information that Republican operatives such as Karl Rove, who directed President George W. Bush’s campaigns, excelled at gathering through expensive microtargeting techniques that combine data from several sources. The Democrats responded with Catalist, a similar list- building effort organized by top Clinton campaign adviser Harold Ickes that sells its data to “progressive” causes and candidates, according to its Web site.

Obama’s success stems from a decision early in his campaign to embrace the concept of social networking, allowing him to leap ahead of his Democratic rival, Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, or the presumptive Republican nominee, Senator John McCain of Arizona. For example, Obama now has 790,000 Facebook “friends,” compared with 150,000 for Clinton, 60, and 117,000 for McCain, 71., the first social network specifically devoted to a political campaign, is modeled on Facebook. Chris Hughes, a 24-year-old Facebook co-founder, has been a fulltime Obama campaign worker for more than a year and helped develop the candidate’s site.

Part of Campaign
When supporters join, they become part of the campaign, gaining access to phone bank lists, local events and the ability to contact like-minded people or recruit new ones. is also a sophisticated data network that allows the campaign to home in on detailed information such as whether a supporter is more concerned about civil liberties, foreign policy, education or energy policy.

People who provide their information on line may not realize that the data they are posting at may have a long afterlife and find its way to other campaigns in future election cycles.

According to the Obama campaign’s online privacy statement, it reserves the right to “make personal information available to organizations with similar political viewpoints and objectives, in furtherance of our own political objectives.”

Fair-Market Value
Federal election laws require campaigns to charge for the use of their data. The campaign must either sell the information or record the transaction as an in-kind contribution at fair-market value.

Obama campaign spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to comment on the value or possible future uses of the data.

Even as Obama’s interactive databases prove to be efficient ways to energize volunteers, their ability to raise large amounts of money may outlast the current campaign, said Tad Devine, an independent media consultant.

“That’s really what we are talking about here,” said Devine, a former strategist for Democrat John Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid. “We are talking about a fundraising network that will far surpass the dominance that the Republicans held in the ’80s and even in to the ’90s.”

Obama’s list of 1.4 million donors may be an especially strong fundraising tool in the future, Devine said.

“This is something where if this guy sends out a letter saying send some money to someone, suddenly a House candidate can have a half million dollars in a day,” said Devine. “That may be what the House candidate was hoping to raise in a quarter.”

This ability to produce results ensures Obama will play a prominent role in the future.

“Win or lose, it’s his list,” McIntyre said.

There’s much more, but I’ll save it for another time. Their mobile campaign, about which there is much discussion as well, is also quite sophisticated. But that’s a whole other discussion.

I hope you’ve found this interesting and/or informative.

Best, noetical

PS: Here are some more links about the BOC use of technology: (has stats on FB and MyS presence, etc.)’s-use-of-the-web/


One Response to “Why Obama is Kicking Ass Online…and Off…”

  1. Terrific article; are you still planning to do a follow-on?

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