Is the key to Number 10 a high social standing?

After Barack Obama’s strong social media campaign paved the way to his election as US President in 2008, British politicians have been turning out their own efforts in the social sphere to amass public support.

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Joe Rospars, founding partner of agency Blue State Digital. He took leave from the agency to serve as new media director for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and was digital strategist for Obama between January 2007 and January 2009

“Authenticity is key to building relationships [with voters] because digital tools are just tools. You can have Twitter and email but it doesn’t necessarily mean you are doing things differently. There are political organisations whose strategy is to just use these new channels to play the same old game – to spin the press. You must use these channels to speak to people in a two-way conversation and really engage at a human level.

We viewed the digital side of Obama’s campaign as an opportunity to communicate with a younger, wider audience. Campaigns typically produce content for press or for that seven-second sound bite on the side of the street. My team on the campaign produced an unprecedented level of content. We hired journalists to produce written and video content for the web, largely about and for our supporters – the core of people who are going to do the work for you.

Thirteen million people signed up to the digital side of the campaign. Those were the people that we were in direct contact with every day. They weren’t supplemental to the organisation; they were the organisation. We raised $500m online, out of the $750m we raised for the campaign.

The tactics on the digital side were about the old-fashioned goals of getting people knocking on doors and becoming leaders in their communities. We didn’t invent the idea of people doorknocking and making phone calls but we did make it a lot easier for them to do that. We also made clear how they could plug into our organisation to lead the people around them.

Over the course of the campaign, the TV ads we put out were just a fraction of the videos that went online – we put up 2,000 YouTube videos. The vast majority were about our supporters and documenting the movement that was going on. But we also saw people were hungry for real substance, so our new media channels gave us an opportunity to offer people full speeches or 20-minute documentaries about a particular issue.

Our biggest advantage was in the organisational structure and having digital at the core of the campaign and having a specific new media department. My job didn’t exist in previous US election campaigns. At the beginning of it all, we had to invent an organisation from scratch. We had to sit in a room and say, let’s do new media and technology this way. My job as an organiser and writer was to manage the digital strategy and not worry about the technology as a CTO did that.

I had a team of writers, organisers and designers that were able to manage our relationships from a communications side, organisational side and fundraising side. My job was co-equal to the communications director and the traditional finance director. I reported to the campaign manager and to Obama himself.

The best campaigns are the ones that are integrated and are playing each of the channels off each other. A TV ad should feature a URL, an ad on the side of a bus should have a text message short code. Even these one-way interactions in advertising still have an opportunity to create a new relationship.

If you get someone to respond and begin a two-way conversation then it will open up further opportunities to build a much deeper relationship.”

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