President-elect Barack Obama's election victory has clearly set many precedents. But never before has social/online media played such a big part in a political campaign. It is no exaggeration to say that Obama's smart use of technology played a significant part in him being elected as the next US president. If you want some evidence to back-up that last statement, look no further than the close to $500 million raised by the Obama campaign, of which almost half was donated online.
Obama's Social Networking website
At the heart of their online campaign efforts, Obama's campaign team built a powerful social networking website at my.barackobama.com, where supporters could create their own personal profile, add friends, organise events, create fundraising pages and much more. Not to mention the plethora of downloadable resources such as literally hundreds of web graphics, widgets and news feeds for the avid Obama supporter to add to their website or blog. And, even as recently as a few weeks ago, they added the ability for the site to connect to your Facebook profile and cleverly cross-pollinate your Facebook network into your Obama network.
The powerful organising and campaigning tools provided by the website brought three key advantages:
1.) The ease in which supporters could communicate, collaborate and invite others to join.
2.) Powerful tools allowed groups to organise offline events, door to door and telephone campaigning, and mobilise supporters for Obama's mass rallies
3.) The enablement of a vast and unprecedented online fund-raising effort
With regards to point three above; in contrast to the questions about dubious large donations that usually surround political campaigns and parties, Obama's funding consisted of an overwhelming number of small donations from individual supporters. In fact they received over 2 million donations of $200 or less, with almost half their total funds donated online.
Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes left in 2007 to run Obama's campaign website. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that the Obama team was among the first to make use of Facebook's [then] newly released API (Application Programming Interface) which allowed third-party developers to create Facebook applications. Indeed the launch of the Obama Facebook App early in 2007 was a very quick and smart move for the Obama team. Combined with Obama's facebook group and various other online activities on sites such as MySpace and YouTube, Obama's online support base quickly grew. At the time of writing, just a few days after the election, Obama's facebook page has over 3 million supporters, nearly 5 times that of his rival John McCain who has just a little over 600,000 supporters on his page.
Audience Reach through the internet
Just as businesses have realised over the years that their potential audience reach over the internet dwarfs that of any other advertising method or medium, the Obama team were switched on to the fact that a well planned online campaign had the potential to draw in supporters and donors far in excess of anything their offline campaign efforts could produce.
Obama was certainly the candidate for the online generation. Combined with his relative youth and already general appeal to younger voters, his successful use of social-media brought him much more online visibility than his republican rival or even his early democrat leadership rival Hilary Clinton. Over the many months of the presidential campaign I noticed numerous blogs and social websites sporting one of the "Support Obama" badges or widgets. By contrast I cannot recall seeing even one McCain banner.
Whilst there are evidently a large number of online McCain supporters, Obama certainly made it easy for the internet generation to support him. The wealth of tools and resources on his website made it quick and simple for supporters to spread the Obama word.
Connecting online and offline efforts
A successful web strategy, whether for a business or a politician, relies not only on getting the online aspect right, but also connecting this up seamlessly with offline channels and events. The Obama team didn't miss a beat here; in order to get into Obama's vast "offline" rallies, each supporter had to provide an email address. They would each shortly receive an email, sometimes before they had even returned home from the rally itself, asking for donations or to spread the message of the Obama campaign.
President-elect Obama has raised the bar for the use of social media in politics. He is by no means the first politician though to jump on the social networking bandwagon. Here in the UK, the government has been working steadily over the last few years on making more use of internet technologies and social media, not just as a means to communicate to a wider audience but no doubt also to try to appear "cool" and "with the times" in the eyes of younger voters! Indeed 10 Downing Street recently re-launched their website with a distinctly social feel; plastered with Flickr, Twitter and YouTube feeds along with interactive features such as "Ask the PM".
Politicians and political parties around the world are waking up to the prominence (even dominance) of social media in our lives. While some may stumble in their early attempts to stake out their own virtual real-estate, make no mistake, we will see increasingly competent and polished attempts at influencing political outcomes online over the coming years.
As Obama says himself: “One of my fundamental beliefs from my days as a community organizer is that real change comes from the bottom up, and there’s no more powerful tool for grass-roots organizing than the Internet.”
This BBC News article reports on an online video game created specifically for Obama and talks further about the two parties' differing approach to online campaigning: