Viral strategies aren’t strictly for businesses. They are also seeping into other arenas – politics, for example. And no one was more successful in imprinting a viral loop into a campaign than Barack Obama. “One of my fundamental beliefs from my days as a community organiser is that real change comes from the bottom up,” he said in a statement. “And there’s no more powerful tool for grass-roots organising than the internet.” Because an organisation can reach only so many people, it must turn to its loyal followers to widen that pool. As with all things viral, connecting to others outside the initial cluster of supporters depends on the quality of referrals. Friends, family and colleagues are far more credible than any ad that a marketing exec could dream up.
A pivotal moment came when the campaign hired Chris Hughes, the 24-year-old co-founder of Facebook. With the title of “Online Organising Guru”, Hughes retrofitted grassroots campaigning to web 2.0 by weaving together social networks and the mobile internet into a central platform of Obama’s campaign. The linchpin was my.BarackObama.com (“MyBo” for short), which functioned as a lively online community and social network, registering 1.5 million volunteers. Users created profiles with friend lists and blogs, joined one of the 27,000 groups that formed, raised money, and organised meetings through a Facebook-like interface. The site had a search function, enabling likeminded people to find each other; a page offering tools for creating a personal fundraising page (“You set your own goal, you do the outreach, and you get the credit for the results”); a blog and a forum. Each drove even more traffic to the site.
Leading up to the election MyBo members organised more than 200,000 campaign events, which didn’t just energise Obama’s support base but generated loads of cash. Over the span of two years, the campaign brought in $750 million from three million donors, with nine out of ten donations less than $100 (and half of $25 or less). It achieved this by democratising its fundraising. Instead of turning to wealthy Americans, who could be seen as leveraging their privilege into power, Obama’s campaign tapped the little guy, spreading donations across millions of Americans – giving each donor a stake in his success. In February 2008, his campaign raised $55 million online without its candidate attending a single fundraiser. What’s more, while the law allowed large donors to contribute $2,300 for the 2008 primaries and the same for the general election, smaller donors were tapped repeatedly, forging a persistent connection with the candidate.
The campaign’s viral strategies included a short, clear positioning statement as a call to arms. Unlike Hillary Clinton touting her “experience” or John McCain bragging that “I have the record and the scars to prove it”, Obama’s two core messages were “Change” and “Yes, we can”. Obama’s campaign galvanised its supporters while they, in turn, extended his message virally. It also relied on multiplier effects. During the campaign, will.i.am, frontman of the Black Eyed Peas, created a musical mashup based on Obama’s phrase “Yes, we can” that included celebrities such as Scarlet Johansson. The campaign quickly embedded a link to the YouTube clip on its website. “After nearly a year on the campaign trail, I’ve seen a lot of things that have touched me deeply, but I had to share this with you,” Michelle Obama wrote in an email to supporters. The video was viewed 20 million times. Another music video, I Got a Crush… on Obama, starring the bikiniclad “Obamagirl”, was downloaded more than 13 million times. Fomenting the creativity of its supporters helped the Obama campaign to extend its message.
I remember being in New York a few weeks before the Election. There was electric in the air. A real sense that Obama was about to make history. Not just because he was a black man about to take the White House and become the most powerful leader in the modern world, but because a new way of getting him there had been born. It was literally a movement. In Union Square there were hordes or young people selling t-shirts, badges and other merchandise… but more importantly you could tell on the faces of every single one that their antics on Facebook, Twitter and other Social Channels they were making change happen.