Obama’s Digital Campaign: Reflections by Camilla Cooke, digital strategist at Wunderman, on what she considers is possibly the best case study for digital direct marketing ever witnessed


Photo of Camilla CookeNow that I’ve managed to stop blubbing, hugging my children and watching re-runs of election night speeches, it’s time to reflect on all the commentary to date and on what is possibly the best case study for digital direct marketing I have ever witnessed. Many journalists and commentators have referred to the incredible marketing “machine” used by Obama’s campaign, and the “brilliance” of his digital communications. From a digital marketing standpoint, it was not so much brilliant as comprehensive. It was the 2.3 million Facebook supports AND the 18 million You Tube views AND the millions of My Space friends AND the 112,000 Twitter followers AND the advertising in Xbox 360 Live games AND the iPhone application etc. etc. The list goes on.

I was lucky enough to work on the KEVIN07 digital campaign last year, and in my initial recommendations, I was trying to persuade the ALP that for the first time, they’d be able to reach, educate, converse with & influence at a grassroots level - at a fraction of traditional media costs. I realise this turned out to be more prophetic of Barack’s campaign than Kevin’s. Notwithstanding, I’m very proud of what we did (not least that we were the first to run a political campaign mobi site, kevin07.mobi, a technique then “copied” in obama.mobi!) but the Obama campaign took it to a whole new level.

Obviously, the democratic nature of the digital world (you don’t get much more “by the people,of the people and for the people”) means it lends itself to the more left wing party; as Obama said in an early video email “We want to change this country from the ground up” (before inviting people to donate $5 for the privilege of entering into a draw the prize to which was dinner with him – and yes, he did have dinner with the winners – you can see it on You Tube). In Australia, the differences in the digital campaigning symbolised the difference between Howard and Rudd – the past and the future. In America, where time had moved on (so digital campaigning was, in and of itself, a given), the digital channels were more symbolic of the movement for change itself, which they both mobilised and facilitated.

Having said which, the difference in digital attitudes between the two candidates was stark, which Obama’s team exploited in their ads, and Mark Soohoo (on McCain’s e-campaign team) epitomised by saying “John McCain is aware of the internet”. In this one sentence, Soohoo branded McCain as a man no longer of our time. The internet is not something you are merely ‘aware of’. It’s a fundamental part of our economy. Just imagine if, when questioned during the recent financial meltdown, Kevin Rudd had responded: “I am aware of the banks.”

The brilliance of Obama’s digital campaign was not its size, but what he did with it. From the very beginning, across every touch point, it was about lead generation. He slowly and consistently built up his database over time. He then cut and sliced it, analysed it, and targeted the relevant segments. You will notice that, despite the highest turn out in electoral history, and gaining control of the Senate and House of Representatives, he did not get an overwhelming % of the popular vote (53% to McCain’s 47%) but that’s largely because he targeted, appropriately, all his efforts and funds on swing voters within swing states. In Florida, he identified 600,000 African Americans who had not voted in the previous election, and sent them a targeted communication to get them motivated. A Republican commentator a few days ago on CNN, pointing out the uplift Obama received from the Oprah Winfrey endorsement, said that Obama’s volunteers had “captured the email addresses” of everyone who attended the Oprah rally (as if this was in some way “unfair”). And as he amassed the names, so he put them to work. I like to think I coined the phrase “one click canvassing” but Obama facilitated the viral impact through digital channels like no one else – even creating an iPhone application that automatically trawled contacts for those in swing states, to help supporters communicate quickly, and showing a perfect understanding the immediacy of mobile. And as the database grew exponentially, so did the donations – like he said – from the ground up, dollar by dollar he out-did the Republican fundraising machine so emphatically that he was able to walk away from public financing and the restrictions it imposed. And this is where it gets really clever – Obama changed the game. The quality of his digital and direct marketing was such, that he was able to outspend McCain by up to 4:1 in TV advertising, and blow millions on a 30 minute ad that then dominated the media for 24 hours in the crucial last days. And there’s more. The database he developed gives him significant leverage in government. As David Von Drehle said last week in Time Magazine, it will give him particular sway with special interest groups: “a capital that used to be impressed by the Bush family’s thousands-strong Christmas-card slit boggles at the millions of names in Obama’s digital address book”. And of course, the outer skin of his digital onion was the communications generated by his army of digital volunteers and support organisations themselves – congratulations to moveon.org for the best personalised viral ever.

I like to think the considered, systematic, long term, rational and logical way Obama executed his digital and direct marketing strategy is symptomatic of his overall approach. And who would have thought that so much could come from digital and direct marketing, which in fact ended up funding their traditionally more glamorous cousin, above-the-line advertising? Perhaps digital has come of age – perhaps this is our moment; for the first time, during the campaign, there were far more views of Saturday Night Live (thanks to Tina Fey) that weren’t live at all, but online. So what is the likelihood in the future of digital and direct rather than above-the-line driving strategy? About as likely as an African-American entering the White House? Yes we can.


Camilla Cooke worked on the KEVIN07 digital campaign last year, and is currently the Digital Strategist at Wunderman.

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About the author
  • Camilla Cooke, Digital Strategist
  • Wunderman