This month’s election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America will be remembered in part, for its many firsts; as the first African-American candidate to take the White House, the first northern Democrat (since JFK) to win … and the first time a major political campaign harnessed the full power of Web 2.0.
The digital landscape has changed considerably since the last US election in 2004. Since then, MySpace and Facebook have emerged as powerful social networking tools, YouTube has enabled video distribution and sharing at a speed and level previously unheard of, and a range of other online tools and services are part of our everyday that were simply not around just a few years ago.
And it’s precisely this confident and intelligent use of digital that produced the groundswell of grassroots support for an unlikely candidate, helping to catapult his message far beyond what he could afford, as well as raise more money for an election campaign than any other in US history.
The scene was set as early as March 2007 when Obama hired 24-year-old Facebook founder Chris Hughes as his new media strategist. Hughes set up an impressive Facebook campaign involving regular actions-oriented contact with over three million supporters by the time Nov 4 arrived, and an aggressive pursuit of micro-donations. In the end, two million donations of under US$200 were collected. MySpace, LinkedIn and even Twitter were covered too.
Central to Obama’s campaign was My.BarackObama.com. Far more than a typical Presidential hopeful’s website, its role was to turn interest into action. Every user was encouraged to find a way to get involved in the campaign for change, whether through volunteering their time, contributing to discussion and persuasion or, of course, donating money. They were given tools to organize their own local events across the country and encouraged others to do the same.
Videos of support made its way onto YouTube, from everyday citizens to musicians and celebrities creating music videos off their own backs and clocking up millions of views. The most successful being Will.i.am’s Yes We Can, played over 15 million times so far without costing the campaign a cent.
All this helped put the public at the heart of Obama’s campaign and motivated millions of people, including myself, to join his campaign – online and offline. And how else to thank everyone personally than with a Facebook message from Barack himself the day after his historic victory:
"I'm about to head to Grant Park to talk to everyone gathered there, but I wanted to write to you first.
We just made history.
And I don't want you to forget how we did it.
You made history every single day during this campaign -- every day you knocked on doors, made a donation, or talked to your family, friends, and neighbours about why you believe it's time for change.
I want to thank all of you who gave your time, talent, and passion to this campaign. We have a lot of work to do to get our country back on track, and I'll be in touch soon about what comes next.
But I want to be very clear about one thing...
All of this happened because of you.