I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Rob Shepardson, one of the founders of SS+K, and ask him a handful of questions about the firm’s involvement with Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign. SS+K was honored to work for Barack Obama as part of the national media team.  As the youth agency, we helped mobilize and turn out the historic youth vote.

What follows is a very candid insiders perspective on the candidate, the campaign’s use of social media, and lessons for marketers as they strive to emulate some of the tactics this presidential team so deftly executed.

What was SS+K’s role in the now historic Obama campaign?

We were part of the campaign’s national media team, made up of a handful of agencies and research firms.  We had responsibility for the youth advertising, youth in this case defined as ages 18 to 34. 

SS+K had the opportunity to get behind other candidates 2 years ago before President-elect Obama became the Democratic nominee.  Why did the firm select Obama back then?

Well, I’ve been watching national politics for a long time now, and have worked for some brilliant politicians.  But I had never seen anything like Barack’s speech at the Democratic convention in Boston in ‘04.  Others talked about changing politics in America; with him, you believed it.  You could see how it could happen.  And then, his books.  The first one, “Dreams from My Father” is jaw-droppingly good.  And he wrote it when he was a kid.  The other factor was David Axelrod, David Plouffe, Larry Grisolano and Jim Margolis.  They had a vision for this campaign, what it would be and what it wouldn’t be.  How it had to be different to live up to Obama’s promise. It was a movement from the very beginning, starting small, from the inside out. 

Every marketer in America seems to be interested in finding out how they can leverage some of the tips and tricks that Team Obama so deftly executed during the campaign. Can you provide some insight here?

The insight is, there weren’t any tricks.  Barack Obama is an extraordinary leader, with a story, talent and vision unmatched in recent American political memory.  He’s not a brand; he’s a person who can transform a living room or a country equally well.  That’s unique.  As one of the campaign’s top strategists said early on, “It feels like we’ve been handed a priceless Ming vase, and all we have to do is not drop it.” 

Yet, I guess as in all good things, the basics apply.  Here are a few:

  •  The strategy was clear, set early and didn’t change.  It came from Barack, and never wavered.  His announcement speech and his victory speech were practically the same. 
  • The circumstances were right.  Americans were desperately concerned about the state of our country, and were crying out for change. They vote for their presidents with the current office holder setting the context for what they want, and don’t want.  In this sense, running when Bush was president was, let’s just say, advantageous.
  • The campaign insisted on collaboration.  Usually, it’s hard to legislate that people get along.  But because of the people in charge, it worked.  There was clarity, discipline, and respect.  It lead to a truly integrated campaign.  For instance, paid media, the grassroots operation and digital communications flew in formation.
  • The campaign made investments early in critical areas, and stayed with them.  From the youth marketing perspective, this includes bringing in Joe Rospars (head of new media) and Chris Hughes (head of social media) early.  Everyone believed that the confluence of Barack and new technology, such as Facebook and YouTube, would be powerful, but no one predicted how well it would work.
  • We kept our target upper-most in mind.  In politics, you don’t need everyone.  You need more than the other guy, and eventually, 50% plus one.  So research and targeting was critical.  No one did anything without testing and measuring.  Technology wasn’t used just because we could.  It had to move our targeted voters. 

How did Team Obama leverage social media to its advantage during the campaign?

Early, often and brilliantly.  It was amazing, really.  The social media effort was the first of its kind, and will change things forever.  A few things were critical.  One was they understood that passion fuels social interaction and movements.   Why would anyone tell a friend, “Hey check this out” if it wasn’t really important to them?  Barack produced passion by the truckload.

Two, the campaign knew that social media expands beyond online social networks.  We wanted friends to engage and recruit friends, and that could occur on or offline.  Nothing was left off the table. In fact, a lot of our work to get out the youth vote was offline, using street art, palm cards, posters and interactive billboards to spread the word. 

Three, the campaign knew the difference between conversations among voters, which need to be respected, and the campaign-to-voter conversation, which must be controlled and directed from the top.  Consider the campaign’s light touch with Shepard Fairey’s iconic posters and our voter registration work designed by street artists.  It was definitely not politics as usual.  Inside the Obama camp, this was known as the “dog whistle” approach—sending a signal that only young people could hear.  This approach had a parallel benefit; by appearing to stay out of peer-to-peer conversations, the Obama campaign allowed supporters to say to each other things the campaign itself could not say. 

Four, they used any and all methods to bring people into the system.  For youth especially, we had to induce them to send us their email address or cell number via text, because many of them hadn’t voted before.  Even if they had voted, official voter rolls don’t list cell phone numbers.  Once we got them in, the relationship marketing system kicked in to keep the conversation going, learning more and more about each person with every interaction. 

Brian Morrissey, Digital Editor of AdWeek, recently wrote about the graveyard of brands now turning up on Facebook. That brands continue to have trouble gaining traction on Facebook and other social networks. Why do you think this is and how do you think public affairs, politics and advocacy will fair in this new media environment?

I think the Obama campaign wrote the playbook for every advocacy and issue campaign out there.  As I said, the key is to find the passion in your issue.  Too many times, issue-based campaigns focus on rational policy briefs as their messaging.  Don’t get me wrong; you can’t win without good policy.  Yet the emotional truth surrounding an issue is what will drive people to pass it along, and eventually, become evangelists themselves.  I think, secondly, you have to give people something to do to solve the problem, or you’ll only have done half the job.  Be useful.  Be of service to them.  Give them something tangible to do.  Think of creative ways to help people move the ball in a direct way.  We call it an MPA – meaningful personal action.  We saw this with our work with Lance Armstrong Foundation and the yellow band, maybe the best MPA of all time. A great example now is the Nothing But Nets campaign.  For $10 dollars, you can send a bed net to Africa and save people from dying of malaria.  It’s easy, cheap, and wildly effective.  In the Obama campaign, they did this really well.  They gave people many options to help: hold house parties, make phone calls, or hand out literature.

Issue campaigns need to know that especially these days, people want to be asked to take action.  Americans think we’ve become a little lazy; as one woman said in a focus group recently, “It’s time to shut the cookie jar.  We need to get to work.”  They’re optimistic, but they’re pragmatic; they know it’ll take some sacrifice.  Moreover, the tools exist, and are easy to use.  It’s shocking how routine they seem now, but they are still new and revolutionary.  They have already helped bring down dictators.  YouTube, social networks, and texting make a group of like-minded people more powerful than ever before in human history.  Yet, they are at their core simply conduits; they give you the possibility for igniting the power of many.  You still need to find the right way to light the fire.

By the way, having said that the Obama campaign wrote the playbook, they also know that the playbook has a short shelf-life.  They won’t rest on their laurels. 

How has President-elect Obama’s campaign changed the world of politics?

He changed politics in many ways that I think will be with us for a long, long time.  First, he brought a whole new generation into politics that wanted nothing to do with politics or politicians.  This alone might usher in a Democratic dominance for at least a generation.  Beyond age, he broke other barriers.  Race, obviously.  Geography, for sure.  Culture, too.  The Baby Boomer standoff that’s paralyzed our country for years – between the 60’s anti-Vietnam liberals and the Nixon/Reagan/Falwell social conservatives – is to a large degree a history lesson.  Barack brought about, or at least set the stage for, fundamental change on many levels. 

How do you foresee President-elect Obama using it going forward?

We’ve seen already how he’ll take his campaign ethos into government.  He will use social media to maintain an ongoing, transparent, personal conversation with Americans.  He will listen to them, and ask them to engage.  For example, you saw that he asked people for their ideas about what his top legislative priorities should be.  The results were astounding; supporters held over 4,000 house parties, and half a million people filled out surveys.    You saw how Secretary of HHS-designate Tom Daschle reached out to Obama supporters on healthcare reform.  You saw how Obama has put his weekly radio address on YouTube, so it reaches more people and in a way that’s familiar to them. It is a very sophisticated operation, and just as in the campaign, they will be focused on results, such as legislative victories.  There’s a national, empowered, and knowledgeable base that exists.  And, importantly, it is practiced at the art of political mobilization.   That’s huge.    

What are the three things every marketer can take away from Obama’s online success?

  1. Find the passion.  It may be hiding, but humans are emotional beings.  It’s there. 
  2. Be useful.  Be of service.  Give them an easy thing to do (or MPA) that satisfies their passion.  Show them how they really can help someone and advance the cause at the same time. 
  3. Only do what works.  Don’t do something just because you can.  Try everything, but kill anything that doesn’t get you closer to the promised land.