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Welcome to the New Media Campaign Tools of 2012

The real secret of Obama's tech team—and what's next for online organizers.

| Fri Mar. 13, 2009 1:52 PM EDT

We'd all been receiving text messages from the Obama campaign long before I hit the ground in Ohio. But it wasn't until after a few days working alongside field organizers and their humming cell phones that I realized what was going on: Staff were receiving all kinds of messages that you and I were not. I watched organizers smile at and react to special SMS updates from the state and national headquarters, often designed to keep morale high or to relay timely insider information to key volunteers. For example, "we've already knocked on 40,000 doors today across the state—keep it up and we'll reach 50,000 new voters by dark."

Everything I thought we knew about the campaign's use of technology and the Internet faded as I spent more time with the campaign. The game-changer in the Obama campaign, as I found in talking to key staff—and through volunteering in southern Ohio myself—was that technology was not an add-on: It represented a carefully considered element of almost every critical campaign function. Most remarkably, technology played a critical role in the one area least understood by the "digerati" and most online campaigners: moving online supporters toward real-world action.

The New Media team's mantra and focus was "Message, Money, and Mobilization"—three critical campaign functions that their work served and supported. The Internet's role in the first two—enabling a massively successful online word-of-mouth campaign and record-breaking fundraising totals—are both fairly well documented. Not so the third "M," mobilization.

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As Dean campaign vets like me learned in 2004, all the Internet buzz and fundraising and volunteerism in the world is moot if you can't get enough people to the polls. The holy grail of online organizing is in its ability to inspire and facilitate real-world action.

Again, it's tempting to think of Obama's impressive field campaign and his online organizing programs as separate—the 2,500+ field organizers and volunteer neighborhood teams on one side, the online activists using MyBarackObama.com to set up discussion groups and events on the other. But much of the critical grassroots organizing actually happened at the intersection of the two. Perhaps the greatest example of this fusion is in how the web was used to recruit and funnel volunteers into traditional organizing and local activities.

"Neighborhood Team Leaders" (NTLs) represented the heart and soul of the field effort, and their work was brought to life by more than 2,500 well-trained field organizers. On Election Day, I met Sandy in rural Jackson, Ohio. She was a Neighborhood Team Leader running the entire get-out-the-vote operation from the Obama field office so that the campaign's field organizer, Courtney, could support multiple locations like Sandy's across several counties. Sandy had signed up on the campaign website many months earlier as one of the first people in her area to join the campaign. Shortly thereafter, she was invited to join an informational meeting with organizers like Courtney who had just arrived in nearby Athens. At this point, Sandy was trained and ultimately recruited for a leadership role after proving herself through a series of volunteer activities.

It became clear from almost every conversation I've had with campaign staffers that the online tools at My.BarackObama.com (MyBO) played a critical role in jumpstarting the field work. Activists on MyBO with a track record of activity or engagement in the campaign were invited to Camp Obama trainings, where they would learn the skills needed to organize their community. Staffers explained to Colin Delaney how the MyBO tools "let volunteers create the initial supporter networks which paid staff could then use once they arrived in the state. Online volunteer organizing essentially built the campaign a structure in places where it didn't exist, letting paid staff parachute in and immediately take command of a working political army." All this was managed through an enterprise-level database unprecedented for political campaigns.

The fact that field organizers were able to use the MyBO tools as a high-tech prospecting device represents a remarkable level of integration between the Internet and field campaigns. I spoke with organizers who used their own campaign's website to identify individuals for their local efforts. These young organizers did what comes naturally to anyone who grew up surrounded by online social networking or online dating: They logged into the web-based phone-banking tools, found the online volunteers in their area who demonstrated a clear interest in calling voters, and then invited those volunteers into the local office for more rigorous canvassing and voter-contact work. (Zack Exley, who also spent time with the Obama campaign in Ohio, describes the organizing and volunteer leadership development models in detail in his HuffPo piece, "The New Organizers.")

The recruitment funnel moving people from online to "offline" runs even deeper. The Voteforchange.com online voter registration site that the campaign launched in early September registered more than 700,000 voters, providing the campaign with yet another clear avenue for follow-up by local volunteer teams or field organizers.

Chris Hughes, the Facebook co-founder who directed the campaign's online organizing work, offered some additional examples of how online activity via MyBO was directed into useful real-world voter contact or field work. More than 9 million calls made via the online phone-banking tools on MyBO and Neighbor to Neighbor allowed remote volunteers to help 'clean' the voter file before local teams ever made contact. By taking a first pass through the voter list, Internet volunteers could essentially verify voter data from their homes, culling bad data on voters who had moved or died and saving local volunteers time. (Watch the N2N video demo).

The groups organized via the online MyBO tools performed at least two additional real-world organizing functions, says Hughes: The 200,000 offline events—house parties, national days of action, or local independently organized events—organized by MyBO group leaders and volunteers served as recruitment vehicles into the campaign; event organizers faxed or emailed their signup sheets into the campaign after events and helped build that 13 million person list. In several battleground states, some MyBO groups were primed for more advanced field work. The campaign asked them to walk their neighborhoods and familiarize themselves with their local "turf," in preparation for the canvassing work that they would soon be asked to do by field organizers.

A primary reason why Obama was able to include remote and distributed volunteer groups in its ground campaign was that it made inroads to solving the age-old problem of having multiple, silo'd databases. Perhaps the greatest investment that the Obama campaign made was having its various databases share data with one another. It may seem obvious that field organizers ought to be able to pull a list of online volunteer sign-ups, but this has been a challenge for campaigns forever.

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