The Largest Grassroots Organization in the History of Politics

Laura Olin was one of the driving forces behind Obama’s online campaign. She talked with Martin Eiermann about digital strategy, Republican copycats, and the benefits of in-house campaigning.

The European: How big was the IT and online team for the Obama 2012 campaign?
Olin: By the end, the digital team – which includes online fundraising, communications, and front-end development – was about 200 people. The tech team which built the digital platforms was another few dozen people.

The European: What was the main purpose and thinking behind your online activities? Is there some kind of campaign philosophy?
Olin: The digital team’s goals were the same as the overarching campaign’s goals: to build the largest grassroots organization in the history of politics to re-elect the president. To do that, we had to: 1. Raise money; 2. Persuade voters to support the president; 3. Get out the vote.

The European: Which social network or sharing platform or app do you think made the biggest difference for voter engagement and voter persuasion?
Olin: For voter engagement, persuasion, and turnout, the two giants were Facebook and Twitter. Facebook was particularly important for younger voters: of 18- to 29-year-olds get-out-the-vote targets, half couldn’t be reached by phone, but 85 percent of them were a friend of a friend of Barack Obama on Facebook.

The European: For fundraising?
Olin: For fundraising, Facebook brought in more money for us than Twitter. Twitter was hugely important for us in helping to direct the conversation online during the political conventions and the presidential debates.

The European: Do you think Republicans were able to match your online efforts in any area? There seemed to be a brief period of hype around Orca at the very end, but I wonder whether you ever felt that they were cooking up something that would have put you on the defensive in terms of online outreach.
Olin: No. They copied a lot of our tactics wholesale, from e-mail fundraising contests to have dinner with the candidate to the way our Facebook graphics looked to free bumper sticker giveaways and a copy-and-paste rip-off of our Quick Donate program’s website.

The European: Obama did the Reddit chat, which seemed like a very brief moment of direct engagement. How much of the social media work was one-way communication, and how much did you make use of comment/feedback mechanisms?
Olin: It depended on the platform, but we were able to be the most interactive on Twitter and Tumblr. A few examples: we did Twitter Q&A’s with senior adviser David Axelrod. We did a series of social media video Q&As with the First Lady. We regularly retweeted supporter stories and opinions in response to calls for feedback, and we did Twitter roundups of these things as well. For a State of the Union gallery, we brought in Instagram photos hashtagged with #SOTU2012. And we regularly posted reader submissions to our Tumblr and re-blogged others’ posts.

The European: Is there any way to assess how much of an impact the social media outreach had, whether it changed the makeup of the electorate?
Olin: We measured what we could: the e-mail addresses we acquired for people who could then be contacted to give money, go to events, and volunteer; fundraising; voter registrations. And social media had an impact. But the persuasive power of people asking their friends to do things, which I think a lot of social media’s impact came from, can’t really be measured. If you find a way to do it let me know.

The European: Your campaign tried to frame Romney pretty early during the summer months. What was your guiding rhythm? Month-by-month campaign strategy plans, or the daily news and campaign cycle?
Olin: There were overarching plans, but in terms of planning for social media we generally operated with week to week and day to day plans that were often blown out of the water by events by 10 a.m. each day. We had to improvise and operate on the fly a lot to properly take advantage of moments and the rapid social media news cycle.

The European: On Thanksgiving, a photo surfaced from the Romney kitchen that shows Mitt and Ann relaxed and smiling. Do you think that Romney would have benefitted from more photos like this during the campaign:
Olin: It might have helped a little if they’d managed to make their candidate more relatable, yes. But I think they had far larger problems than that.

The European: You brought a lot of people in-house instead of relying on external companies to run your online operations. Do you think that this was a watershed campaign in the way it handled IT, social media, and voter outreach?
Olin: I believe we built an in-house digital operation to rival anything outside companies could have provided. I think we benefited enormously from having everyone on the team in-house, steeped in the campaign culture and philosophy and able to build the sort of relationships among teams that we all needed to do our jobs as efficiently as we had to. The Republicans relied on lots of outside vendors and consultancies for their online and tech operations and it did not end well for them.

The European: How different was this campaign from 2008? Or, put differently: how much work was done in between campaigns and out of the public view?
Olin: I didn’t work on ‘08, so I can’t compare firsthand. But the arc of the overall race was very different, and that colored everything: unlike ‘08, we didn’t have several primaries over the course of months. It was a slow build, instead, which had its own advantages and challenges. We didn’t have regular do-or-die moments to mobilize people around for fundraising and volunteerism, etc., so we had to work harder to create moments.

The European: You were dealing with enormous amounts of voter information. How was that managed and channeled to the people who could digest and use it?
Olin: The targeting was primarily done through the e-mail team and the digital organizing team, who worked closely with the data team to make sure we were being as efficient as we could be in our outreach.

The European: Do you think elements of this strategy can and should be exported beyond the US?
Olin: Yes. Elections and campaign finance laws are obviously different everywhere, and the technology and platforms we have here are not necessarily available everywhere either. But in terms of digital, some of the basic tactics can be exported: segmented e-mail campaigns that focus on building relationships with recipients; social media campaigns that focus on asking people to share things with their friends to leverage network effects as much as possible.

The European: Social media seems very 24/7. Did you have downtimes or personal off-time?
Olin: Not a lot, but I knew what I signed up for when I took this job.

The European: Are you glad it’s over now?
Olin: I wouldn’t trade it for anything, but yes!

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