Lessons From The Trenches

Activating a customer base with digital tools isn't as easy as it looks. As Chris Hughes showed with both Facebook and Obama, detailed execution is at least as important as strategy. Some examples:

Don't set up a network just to exploit it; let it mature.

The Web world may seem instantaneous, but patience remains a virtue. "The best practices in direct mail are different than in email, different still where video is used," says Joe Rospars, who ran the Obama campaign's new-media unit. As Rospars and Hughes built a growing list of online supporters for Obama, the campaign's fund-raisers wanted to hit the group up for cash. Rospars persuaded them to wait until his email team could "create a narrative that let people know they were part of the campaign."

The right tech ain't cheap, but that doesn't mean it won't pay off.

The efficiency of the voter-registration site that Hughes finally got the resources to build — 1 million voters signed up by a handful of part-timers in just a few months — more than paid for the investment. If the short-term everything-for-Iowa mind-set hadn't delayed resources, who knows how many voters the site would have acquired?

If your competition is using a medium, you'd better know how to use it too.

The campaign responded to the uproar created by YouTube videos of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright on the same platform, and tagged its videos the same way. "A person searching for the negative stuff would have found the campaign's response, too," observes Monte Lutz, SVP of digital public affairs for the consulting firm Edelman.

Take customers' online feedback seriously.

When a big group of Obama supporters revolted during the campaign over his vote on wiretapping, the candidate neither reversed his position nor ignored the naysayers. He penned a direct response and posted it online. "People now expect to be able to communicate their concerns with you," Lutz explains. "If you respond, they'll keep coming back to you."

Authenticity is priceless.

"Our research shows that regular employees are more trusted than CEOs," says Lutz. "By letting regular people speak for the Obama campaign authentically, the groundswell they created was also authentic." Adds Matt Cohler, an early Facebook executive who is now a general partner at Benchmark Capital: "This is about trusting your brand and identity to your customers, partners, and the world at large. It does carry risks, sure. But the world is going to do things with your brand, whether or not you participate in the process."

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