Fast Company

What Obama Can Teach You About Your Business

Fast Interview: John Della Volpe, founder and managing Partner of SocialSphere Strategies and director of polling at Harvard University's Institute of Politics, contends that Obama campaign marks a once-in-a-generation innovation in American politics.

Memo to CEOs: Yes You Can. The Obama campaign can teach businesses a few things about using technology. The campaign changes the game just as much as the introduction of tracking polls or focus groups, and is perhaps the most prominent example yet of Net Roots, a combination of Internet and grassroots strategies.

How well has the Obama campaign used technology compared to others?

Obama's use of and understanding of technology is better than any campaign I've ever seen -- ever. Certainly better than any campaigns in this cycle.

What are some lessons we can take away form the way the Obama campaign has utilized IT?

There's a lot of up front expense to building the databases and building the infrastructure to run campaigns. Most campaigns think of that as an expense. They think, "What can we do to save as much money as we possibly can until the final week of the election so we can run TV ads?" The Obama campaign looked at it completely different. The Obama campaign says, "We have an asset, which is technology and IT. How do we leverage every ounce of this asset to meet our goals?" The goals are raising money, organizing people and communicating. They handed over the reins of this technology to every aspect of this campaign. It wasn't just the IT department; it was the communications folks, the interns -- everybody was involved in all aspects of using this technology.

How the Obama campaign used social media to engage with voters and what's the lesson for business?

The first example is the easiest to do but is not often done, which is e-mail. The way the Obama camp is using e-mail is brilliant. Regardless of which side of the aisle you're on, subscribe to his e-mail and look at it.

The way in which personas precondition people around his e-mail is brilliant. I'm living in Massachusetts and I typically get three kinds of e-mail from the Obama campaign. I get e-mail from the state director in Massachusetts, Jon Carson. He's going to ask me to volunteer my time in phone bank or to walk a precinct. I get e-mail from David Plouffe, the campaign manager, and that's going to be about letting me know there's a debate coming up, a major speech or what his strategy is going to be. Or I get e-mail from Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, or Joe Biden and that e-mail is typically going to be about raising money. So the first thing they did is just personalize and build a relationship with the campaign. Most campaigns, most businesses, most customer service operations and most marketers still send e-mail from info@ their company and it immediately goes into the delete box.

More important, the Obama campaign really understands the social media landscape in terms of the blogs and the communities. They really understand the impact that the big three progressive blogs have in shaping campaign news: Daily Kos, Talking Points Memos and Huffington Post. They understand now that there's really no line drawn between traditional and social media. They understand the impact of it, they leverage it but they're not beholden to it. Understanding the way in which information is processed and information flows in the social media universe is key to any business, and that's been played perfectly by the Obama campaign.

What is Obama doing that's innovative on the social media frontier?

The use of user-generated content has changed the way campaigns will operate forever. Facebook, MySpace, and other kinds of social networks can help feed this idea and there are also other platforms as well. For better or worse, Facebook is now a news portal site for millions of people. Creating groups and empowering people to share information has gone a long way to help communicate and persuade a significant segment of the electorate. Probably among the top three best-known commercials for this cycle were Paris Hilton ads by McCain, the red telephone ad by Hillary, and the Yes We Can ad, not by Barack Obama, but by Will.I.Am, that had been viewed at last count over 17 million times. I don't believe it was written or even authorized by the Obama campaign. His supporters using Facebook, YouTube, and other social networking platforms were responsible for spreading the one of the most effective messages that he had.

 

Web 2.0 is about letting go of central control and empowering the edges of your organization, right?

I agree. The CEO ultimately has to trust his or her people. But the most important the aspect of that is finding the right people. It's finding your most passionate advocates, and providing an opportunity, oftentimes using technology, to harness their creativity and ideas to make your organization more successful. That's what Obama is doing. He has a staff of hundreds of passionate people and millions and millions of passionate voters who want to help, who want to have little piece of that campaign. He's using technology to do three things: mobilize, raise money and persuade. It's a question of understanding your audience and your objective and using technology appropriately. I've always believed that Web 2.0 is far less about technology and far more about people. Web 2.0 simply is a better way to do everything.

As regards social networking and Web 2.0, persuasion has more weight because comes from within your social circle?

Somewhere between two thirds and three quarters of Americans do not trust traditional means of marketing and advertising. I would almost guarantee if you added the word "political," the number would be closer to 90 percent.

In one story, Obama was quoted as saying, "One of my fundamental beliefs from my days as a community organizer is that real change comes from the bottom up. And there's no more powerful tool for grass-roots organizing than the Internet." Does that capture the thrust of what you're seeing?

It completely does. It goes back to what I've believed from the beginning: It's less about technology than it is about people. The internet allows him to organize millions of people, raise money from millions of people, much faster than the old fashioned way.

You've called Obama an example of blue ocean strategy. Why?

There's a book written on the Blue Ocean Strategy. Red ocean and blue ocean are metaphors for the market universe. The red ocean is all the industries and businesses in existence today, kind of the known space. Too often, companies are trying to improve within the margins to get a little bit more marketshare. The reason it's referred to as the red ocean is because everybody is fighting, there's churn and there's blood in it. The blue ocean represents new ideas, open space unattained by the competition that's not really fought over. The new voters, the millennial voters, represent blue ocean for Obama.

Where have you seen his campaign put this strategy into action?

What Obama did in Iowa is one of the most important reasons why he's the nominee today. The Hillary Clinton campaign -- and many of the campaigns on both the Democratic and Republican side -- targeted the hardened Iowa caucus goers, the relatively small part of all the potential voters in Iowa, who show up year after year to caucus for the candidate. It's a very, very small pool. Up until nine months ago, it was a winning strategy for most presidential campaigns.

Barack Obama realized that in order to be successful, he had to engage new audiences and expand the marketplace. He did something few believed could happen -- he extended the voter pool. The return on his investment for that strategy was a winning margin of 5:1 for voters under the age of 30.

If Obama were a CEO, what type of CEO would he be?

Maybe he's a combination of Howard Schultz of Starbucks and the founders of Google. Howard Schultz created something that didn't exist before -- Starbucks was a "third place" outside work and home where you go to chill out, meet friends and drink a $5 cup of coffee. It was centered around community, neighbors and conversation. Then you have Sergey and Larry from Google who are constantly reinventing their company and constantly finding ways to use technology, not only to meet their business objectives and earn money for their shareholders but also to do good. So it's a combination of the innovation on the technology side of Google and the innovation on the community side of Howard Schultz.

And McCain, what type of CEO or company would he be?

McCain is more like a big American institution. I'm thinking more like a Home Depot. A little bit more narrow in scope, tried and true, just doing what you do and trying to do it better every single day.

Imagine you're the CEO of company. What lessons should you draw from the Obama campaign?

Expect more. Ask for more from your customers and your employees. Abandon the silo approach. Find the 10 to 20 percent of your most active, passionate customer, and bring them inside the tent. Help them help you to innovate, make better products and market better. Same thing within your company, whether you're a multinational company or a small business. There is tremendous value sitting inside your company. There are many ways to use technology to tap those insights to make the company more productive.

The second lesson is to think about new audiences and new markets, whether it's the millennial generation, markets overseas or in another country. It's less expensive today to reach new markets that ever before because of the influx of these kinds of Web 2.0 social networking tools.

The third lesson would be to understand who's influencing your brand, not just on Wall Street or in traditional marketing but also online. I can guarantee you that there are hundreds of conversations about your brand, your products, perhaps even the CEO, happening today that businesses know nothing about. Some of those conversations could change their business forever. Really understanding the role social media plays within your company is a business priority.

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