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6 Lessons from the Obama campaign

Yesterday evening I went, with a number of Ontario Public Service colleagues, to a talk by Rahaf Harfoush. Rahaf was a member of U.S. President-Elect Barack Obama’s Presidential Campaign’s New Media Team and she was talking about “Applying Barack Obama’s Social Media Strategy to Your Brand’s Communications Needs”. Here is a summary of what she had to say.

After a quick overview of her experience with the campaign, she presented her 6 key lessons:

Lesson 1: Give new media a seat at the table.
In the Obama campaign the leader of the new media team was a direct report to the chief. When strategizing was done, it was done with new media at the table. You need to recognize that new media requires investment: in time, in people and in money.

Lesson 2: Tools are useless without a blueprint.
Effective use of new media requires planning. There isn’t a “one size fits all” solution available off the shelf. Every campaign (or project) will require a different toolset, a different balance. However, while planning is crucial, you can’t let it box you in. You need the agility to recognize opportunity and incorporate it into the strategy. A lot of great stuff (from grphics to videos to entire organizations) were being developed outside the official campaign organization and they needed the flexibility to incorporate it rather than reject it.

Lesson 3: Know the lay of the land.
What is the environment or context? Who are the audiences, what are the conversations? You can’t operate effectively on the ground without a knowledge of the environment.

Lesson 4: Build relationships.
New media marketing is not a hit and run activity. It is ongoing relationships that make it effective and grow the movement. An important part of this is being easy to find and easy to use.

Lesson 5: Call to action.
People need to know the concrete actions you are asking for. In the Obama campaign, not only did the messages always end with specific calls to action, but those calls were tailored to the level of participation of the individual receiving them. More was asked of those who had demonstrated a high willingness to contribute (not just financially). Someone who had done a lot of canvassing might be offered additional canvassing training, or a canvassing organizing role. It woudn’t make sense to suggest those to someone who wasn’t interested in canvassing.

Lesson 6: Give up control.
This was probably the most important lesson (and one that aligns well with Scott’s post: “Shut up. Listen. Learn.” The Obama campaign was very strong and absolutely consistent on their vision: Hope. Change. Action. All of the material spoke strongly to one or more of those themes. Within that context, the community of Obama supporters was totally free to adapt or create materials. (The example she showed at this point was a pumpkin carving campaign with a great “Hope” pumpkin using the Obama logo elements.) The idea is to empower everyone who shares your vision to be a brand ambassador without having to go through some sort of approvals process. She finished with a very powerful Obama video using clips from speeches and elements of Obama iconography that the “official” campaign organization had nothing to do with.

Afterwards she took some questions.

How did they empower the new media team? They trusted the net generation to run their own show and understand their (online) culture.

This is all very well for a non-profit, charity or political group with goals that people can believe in? How would it need to be adapted for for-profits or capitalists? It’s all about value. If you provide the value you will receive the participation.

How will Obama keep the passion in his followers after inaugeration, when the heat of the election campaign is past?He will continue to provide calls to action.

Faced with the same sort of situation, what would she do differently? Leverage Twitter better to engage the community and not just push messages leading to other channels.

(Note: This is taken from my tweets from the session and my memory. The lessons were, I believe, copied verbatim from the slides. The other matieral may involve my interpretation. You can see someone else’s interpretation in this Intangibles blog report.

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Thanks for sharing. I’ve seen tons of articles on Obama’s team but have not heard directly from their mouths. So it is great to hear a report from your event. Is she still on the team or is doing this full-time now?

David Tallan

I get the impression she is a new media consultant now. She’s a friend of one of my team (who is home with pneumonia and had to miss the talk) so I can ask him on Monday. We’re getting an interview with her for the podcast, too.

Denise Hill


Thank you for sharing. I am printing and posting this on my wall. This is a great lessons learned and I definitely want to learn from others.

Erik Jonker

Great post, would be great to have some audio/video material or slides etc. But anyway, great lessons which probably apply to more of us.

David Tallan


Back to your first question, on her blog she describes herself:
“I am an independent Innovation and New Media Strategist based in Toronto, Canada. My playground is the nexus between emerging technology, the art of innovation and daily life. I am also a journalist, a blogger, a poet, and an aspiring author.”

It seems she was working with Tapscott on a number of his projects, including Wikinomics and Grown Up Digital.