Insiders reveal tech secrets behind Obama’s winning campaign

See related story: Obama’s creaming McCain – if you follow politics on the Internet

New media played a pivotal role in Barack Obama’s incredibly successful presidential campaign, according to experts closely associated with the campaign.

At an event in Toronto, Tuesday, Scott Thomas, design director for the Obama presidential campaign, and Rahaf Harfoush, a Toronto-based new media strategist shared how Web design, social media and other tech tools were effectively used for key tasks – raising funds, registering voters and garnering volunteers.

Thomas and Harfoush spoke at the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) at an event hosted by the Strategic Innovation Lab – a new centre for research and innovation affiliated with the Faculty of Design at OCAD.

All the various elements of the Web site conspired to communicate messages of “hope and change,” Thomas noted.

The design team created images around these themes and made them available on the site, he said.

Thomas and the design team created Obama’s Web site, logo and other marketing material – while the campaign was on – through a trial-and-error process that used analytics to determine optimal imaging techniques.

Thomas called the analytics department the “line backers” of  the organization. “They crunched the numbers, told us what was working, where to place priorities, and where not to prioritize.”

The goal was to “keep [alive] the message of hope, while dismantling the notion of being aloof,” Thomas said.

He said a major issue from the beginning of the campaign was whether Obama was qualified enough to become President.  

So Thomas used design techniques to illustrate Obama’s strength, stability, and experience. He selected a strong type graphic lock up and consistent colour palettes to illustrate consistency and order.

Even the logo was designed to give Obama credibility.

“We believed lower case word marks made him seem aloof. The perpetual typeface feels soft and not strong and stable, so we tried a small cap approach, tapping the ends of the O and A to lock it up. We also placed the images in a triangular composition to show stability.”

The logo used a blue and white colour palette to illustrate hope for a better America. These colours were then carried through every aspect of Obama’s campaign.

“If he was speaking at an event and there was a guy in a green shirt in the background, we got him out of there, or gave him a blue shirt to wear – the whole campaign was consistent.”

The original Web site was very crammed, Thomas recalled. “Everyone wanted to be featured on the front page. They had an ‘above the fold mentality’ that wasn’t working. So we got rid of the clutter and introduced a scroll – everyone scrolls and has a scroll wheel – it’s not a big deal to be further down the page.”

The team reorganized the Web site to have the MyBO social networking tool on the upper right hand corner, allowing users to get right into the network, to contact voters and raise funds.

They also introduced LiveNow – a video streaming tool, which streamed every single event in the general election that featured Barack Obama or Joe Biden.

“We were basically able to run our own television station with about 20 million views of our videos on YouTube.”

The most important feature Thomas added to the Web site was the voter registration tool. “Barack really believed in getting out the vote. We knew if we could get more people to vote, we would win the election. But the voter registration process was very complicated.”

The design team created a basic wizard – asking a series of simple questions to improve the speed and efficiency of the registration process.   

In the beginning, the site was not affiliated with Obama’s campaign, but they slowly changed the typeface and colour scheme to match Obama’s campaign colours and style.

Harfoush – the only Canadian recruited to work at Obama’s campaign headquarters – related how social media was used to transform the way people became involved in the campaign, and encourage civic participation before the voting began.

The campaign team started by looking at existing social networks, such as Facebook and MySpace, and targeting users who had already created support groups.

They built more support groups on 15 social media pages – distributing information on what Obama was up to and providing links back to his main page.

Traditionally there are only a limited number of ways voters could engage with the campaign: knocking on doors or putting a sign on your front lawn. “Social networking provided people a new way of helping out in the campaign and gave us a tool for finding devoted campaigners,” said Harfoush.

MyBO – the internal social network attracted two million users, who created profiles to mobilize support for Obama and meet other fans.

“MyBO was the heart, soul and pulse of the campaign,” the Toronto designer said. “It was the gateway into external networks and the anchor that allowed us to push into as many online spaces without losing people.”

Thirty-five thousand volunteer groups were formed with 2,000 offline events, such as Dungeons and Dragons for Obama or Guys with Bears for Obama. Four hundred thousand blogs were also written.

Throughout the campaign, the biggest concern was that voters would not turn out – so MyBO was created to motivate people to take action. Profiles were given points based on offline activities, such as campaigning or hosting events.

This also helped the campaign team figure out who their “high-value” supporters were, and send them more personalized e-mail information to help improve their efforts and recommend resources, tips and tools to improve campaigning efforts.

Harfoush also used the increasing popularity of mobile technology to distribute Obama information. The team developed an iPhone application to support the campaign in various ways.

One feature, “call friends,” reorganized your phonebook based on battleground state priority – allowing you to call friends and discuss the election. When you hung up, a screen popped up asking how the call went, and if campaign information could be sent to that friend.

The “get involved” feature used GPS to find events in close proximity to your location. And the “issues” feature was a locally hosted application, which presented bite-sized chunks of information on various aspects of Obama’s campaign issues, such as health care or environmental policy.

To personalize the campaign mission and encourage the “we versus he” mentality that Obama stood for, the new media team used a personalized widget for fund raising.

The thermometer widget could be placed on a blog or Facebook page and allowed users to say, in their own words, why important Obama was important and allowed each user to set a personal goal for fundraising.

Through the widget, the team was able to raise $30 million.

The important key to their overall fundraising success was focusing on small donations, and engaging every person, Harfoush said. (All told, Obama raised an unprecedented $639 million). 

“As much as we planned, most of the campaign’s innovation came from individual supporters,” she said. “For instance, YesWeCarve was a Web site providing Obama-themed pumpkin-carving stencils – and these pumpkin designs were seen all over Chicago.”

Harfoush isn’t sure Obama’s techniques would work in the Canadian political landscape – largely because of the relative speed of the Canadian electoral process versus the two-year campaign that the Americans have.

But that hasn’t stopped many Canadian politicians from using tech tools and strategies to bolster their image and brand.

New Democrat party president Jack Layton and newly selected Liberal president Michael Ignatieff have a wide range of followers on Twitter, as does Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The tools will only be effective if the politicians use it to create a two-way dialogue, Harfoush says. “I’ve seen some of these politicians tweeting and they’re not using it correctly. It should be a two-way dialogue, not just a one-way broadcast tool.”

She says she always reminds people that the Obama campaign isn’t a win for technology, but it’s a win for a “strategic vision” in which all the pieces tie together.   

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