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How Obama Won It With the Web

Both candidates used the Internet to reach voters. But Team Obama mastered the medium early and exploited it to the hilt. Along the way, it changed politics — and perhaps government — forever.

This election year, both campaigns flooded the Web with campaign material, hoping that supporters would pass it on to friends. But the Obama campaign ultimately proved more tech-savvy, leaving the McCain campaign playing catch-up almost from the start. That's due to what Andrew Rasiej, founder of TechPresident.com, calls a "culture of belief in the Internet" among Obama and his staffers. "They leap-frogged the mainstream media by producing content that they knew would get distributed for them once it was uploaded."

It wasn't just YouTube videos, either. Obama's campaign was also smart about segmenting its supporters, crafting different methods of communication for each group. With younger voters, for instance, they made use of text messaging; for older voters, they sent short, concise emails. Early on, the campaign used their supporters' information judiciously—an email or a text every few days, at most—to keep people abreast of the latest news and talking points without the expense of TV ads or direct mailings. But the final days before November 4 saw the Obama campaign sending daily emails and texts exhorting supporters to vote with friends, participate in phone drives, and volunteer at campaign events near the supporter's home. They even offered a contest in which last-minute donors could be selected to attend Obama's election-night party.

To catch up to the Obama campaign's Web front, Republican staffers responded by creating a sort of "war room" of video production, cranking out digital video at a frantic pace and uploading it for supporters to pass around. However, without a larger online strategy, the efficacy of the campaign's effort was questionable, according to Raseij. The campaign may not have done enough to foster an online community, which could severely limited the viral distribution of the content it created.

Both campaigns also used something called online behavioral targeting, but Obama's team proved better at leveraging its effectiveness. When a prospective voter navigated to one of the candidate's sites, a "cookie," or Internet tag, was placed in that user's Web browser. That cookie could identify the types of sites the user visited afterward, helping inform which political ads were served up to the user. Before, candidates had to rely on stereotyping large swaths of voters and making TV spots to suit; this year they've been able to literally formulate an ad campaign for each individual voter. Perhaps because of the long and highly-publicized Democratic primary season, Obama's website simply received more hits, making his online behavioral targeting more effective. As early as July, BarackObama.com was beating JohnMcCain.com in traffic by a ratio of 4:1, and as of early September, that number had only reduced to 2:1, according to Nielsen.

According to Rasiej, the Obama campaign's enthusiasm for the Web belied its financial cost. While the candidate's staffers certainly poured plenty of sweat equity into creating Obama's distinctive site and social network, MyBarackObama.com, many of their efforts were low-overhead strategies that utilized free resources. Using open platforms like Facebook, MySpace and YouTube, they honed how they communicated with young voters, and redoubled their efforts. With online campaigning, Raseij says, "you can see where you get traction, and then reinvest, based on data."

That's right: Obama has his own proprietary social network. Hundreds of thousands of supporters have volunteered their information to the campaign by joining the network on MyBarackObama.com, finding local events, signing up to volunteer, and helping coordinate other efforts to get out the vote. While candidates had used websites in the past, it was mostly as one-way fundraising tools. With a two-way network, Obama not only brought in more money, but developed a more robust and informed base. This will be especially true going forward: According to Rasiej, social capital will be increasingly more valuable than fundraising dollars. "The political power of the future will be a question of how robust and engaged a political entity's network will be," he says, not how much money a candidate has in the bank or how many friends they have in congress. Last week, thousands of Barack Obama's supporters used the candidate's network to invite friends and neighbors to phone-canvassing events, with many volunteers zeroing in on local events using the Obama '08 iPhone application.

That social network helped Obama's campaign collect an unprecedented amount of voluntary information on its would-be voters, allowing them to drum up grassroots participation in the final stretch. Says Raseij, "If you think about the fact that they have cell phone numbers, emails, blog comments, donations and MyBarackObama profiles and so forth, they have multiple levels of data about their supporters. Let's say they then take that data and mash it with voter files, for example. They find someone who visits BarackObama.com every day, has given them $10 a month for the last few months, has offered their mobile phone number, has voted in Democratic primaries for the last 12 years. That's probably someone who‘d be willing to volunteer for them." And out goes an email and text message about volunteering to Joe the Voter, with specific locations near his home or work.

All this effort was especially vital because of the volume of rumor and nonsense that candidates have had to combat online. It was crucial that each campaign generate enough of its own Web material that when prospective voters searched the web for "McCain" or "Obama," they ended up finding more positive, official, on-message links in their search results than negative press. Negative exposure like the recent "Little Known Facts About Sarah Palin" meme can be devastating—and may have been decisive. Search-engine optimization can help, but there's no substitute for making an in-house video or positive article go viral. Team Obama was simply more successful at doing it to their candidate's advantage.

The extent to which the Obama campaign focussed on their online campaigns not only promises to change future elections, but also the President-elect's administration. According to Rasiej, President Obama could keep contact with his constituents regularly, reaching out to them for support of legislation in specific parts of the country, or taking informal referenda on big ideas. At a technology debate held last week by Wired magazine, Reed Hundt, former FCC chairman and Obama technology advisor, said that the forthcoming administration would have a commitment "to have our entire democracy include everyone and through these tools [like Twitter and text messaging] be able to share information in a rapid way and have ideas shared from below." How did Douglas Holtz-Eakin, McCain's senior advisor and surrogate respond? In a move that smacked of the campaign's larger Web initiative, he failed to show up for the technology debate at all.