From the very beginning, the Obama campaign met the standards of modern entrepreneurship: a clear goal (get to the White House), a strong leader (Barack), a simple pitch (Change) — and it needed cash, lots of it. And, unlike the Iraq war, it had a preset deadline, the close of business Tuesday November 4th. Not an IPO’s variable price, but a binary ending: either a milestone in modern History or a hard, highly visible failure.
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Before we go any further, a few facts:

  • $401million raised by the Obama campaign – so far.  ($245m  for Hillary Clinton, and $171m for John McCain).
  • $200 million from the website alone (as of June 08)
  • $45 million were raised on the web in February alone
  • > 1 million user accounts on My.BarackObama.com
  • 75,000 local events organized through the site
  • 2 million phone calls originated from the site
  • $4 million have been invested (so far) in the site, including 1.1 million for Blue State Digital and about $3m for Google
  • 38 million people watched Barack’s acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention in Denver (YouTube viewership not included).  A new record.  This is more than the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony.  In 2004, Kerry got 24 million viewers and GW Bush 27.5 million
    4 million people watched Obama’s March 18th speech on race on YouTube
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Based on revenue, return on investment, popularity, penetration rate, brand recognition and any other business indicator, Barack’s Internet operation, MyBO (MyBarackObama) is a roaring success. For our humble media business, are there are lessons to be drawn from this incredible (but retroactively logical) ride? After all, we, too, live on popularity and meeting financial milestones.
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Lesson #1: extract the best of a social network application. Above all, MyBO is a barebones version of a Facebook or a MySpace, focused on two goals: money and message. A detailed look shows how every single feature is designed in accordance with those goals. On the Obama social net, you give the minimum of yourself: you don’t share you tastes in music or reading. But you’ll find all the tools needed to fulfill your dual mission.

You want to organize a door-to-door campaign in your neighborhood? Everything’s there: scripts, ready-to-print flyers, and even video footage of the Illinois senator to be transferred on a DVD for handouts. You feel like throwing a fund-raiser on your block? Set up your fundraising page in a few clicks, assign yourself a financial target, a nice thermometer will track your results.

I spotted a group close to a place I used to live in New York (postal code 10011). I see “Downtown West Side Manhattan for Obama”, as it is called, counts 113 members, hosted 812 events, placed 10,722 phone calls, and raised $59,631.06. That is $527 per head. Not bad. Better that “Chelsea4Obama”, a few blocks north, yielding a mere $358 per member. You can track, compare, and peek at all the 8000 groups created that way. This amazing machine explains how the Obama campaign is able to raise two million dollars a day at its peak performance.
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Lesson #2: Reward, involve, empower. In a YouTube video a black, middle-class woman summarizes the general feeling: “Grassroots Financial Committees mirror Senator Obama’s broader mission, [that is] people owning a part of the campaign and later, a part of the government…” Simple as it sounds, this view echoes the feelings of hundreds thousands of volunteers, donors and fundraisers: being part of the action now and after the election.  And doing it the fun way, because everything in the Obama site is designed to link, connect, share, stimulate and finally reward its contributors, no matter how modest.
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Lesson #3: Don’t improvise, execution is key. No tinkering in the Obama site (unlike John McCain’s). It is engineered by pros, in that instance a small company called Blue State Digital, founded by alumni of Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign, the one that marked the first real debut of Internet fundraising.

Early 2007, BSD picked up some of the best skills available in the social networking space by hiring Chris Hughes, a co-creator of Facebook. Interestingly enough, the 24 year-old gent is not a techie. He majored in history and literature at Harvard and he’s responsible for many non-nerdy features of Facebook such as its privacy policy. Speaking of it, MyBO is fully loaded with all the state-of-the art tracking systems you can think of. To sum up, all members are now part of a big database, a pollster’s dream-come-true. Equally important is the high-level involvement of the Internet operators: at the Obama campaign, a BSD partner attends all senior staff meetings.
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Lesson #4: Use Best-of-Breed interfaces and tools. Donating to the Obama-Biden ticket is roughly comparable to the One-click purchase on Amazon. You can even donate few dollars every months, and pay through Google Checkout.  Spreading the message relies heavily on always precise and relevant SMS, as well as social networks messaging.  No phone banks, this is for traditional (read old folks like McCain) campaigns. Calling for donations is decentralized and organized through the site (two millions calls placed so far). Blue State Digital has created a broad set of tools specially designed for political action, the ultimate form of promotion — and petition.
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Lesson #5: Find the right balance between top down organization and anarchy. Of particular interest is  how the system is both directive and self-reliant. On MyBO blogs look (and are) true blogs, but it also looks like the organization’s gestalt instinctively directs, disciplines content. The site’s architecture and the ways tools work all converge towards providing clear direction. (I suspect a powerful monitoring system is working behind the curtains as well).
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Lesson #6: TLA (Test, Learn & Adjust), more than ever. Once the basic infrastructure (one capable of handling massive traffic) got up and running, MyBO switched to constant improvement mode. One large scale instance of the test and learn approach: a year ago, the staff introduced a point system to track member activity. Three points for a phone call, fifteen for hosting an event. Predictably, people started racking up points for the mere sake of it, regardless of actual impact. The system needed adjustments. Early August, MyBO rolled out an upgrade called the Activity Tracker. It replaced the brute force point accumulation with a more detailed breakdown of activities: Events hosted,  Doors knocked, Number of blog posts, Calls made, Groups joined, and of course, Dollars raised. To encourage sustained effort, another dimension was added: the Activity Tracker became time-sensitive. The more recent the work, the higher the member’s Activity Index becomes. Of course, all of the above happens in everyone’s full view, thus creating peer pressure. This is just one example. Over the course of the campaign, many such features were added, modified or dropped.
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What’s lies ahead. The Monday Note will stick by its December 24′s predication: Barack Obama will be elected. Now, one of the most interesting features of his presidency will be how all the lessons gathered while operating MyBO will be translated into a powerful public governance tool. No doubt that Blue State Digital will work on it soon.  How an Obama administration balances grassroots induced policies with the bulky (but essential) legislative apparatus is sure to be closely watched by all mature democracies — as well as big corporations.  –FF

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