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What Startups Can Learn from the Dean and Obama Campaigns

In the spirit of avoiding the things everyone else is already telling you from SXSW, I didn’t go to hear Dave Morin announce Facebook Connect’s availability for iPhone, or Larry Lessig‘s presentation on how to

In the spirit of avoiding the things everyone else is already telling you from SXSW, I didn’t go to hear Dave Morin announce Facebook Connect’s availability for iPhone, or Larry Lessig‘s presentation on how to change Congress. Instead, I went to a panel about “What Startups Can Learn from the Obama and Dean Campaigns.”

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Most of the people on the panel were early users of social media tools, using them for a wide variety of Democratic candidates.  The lone Republican said she was embarrassed by the way her party used social media in the last election.

Here’s what they said that applies to you, or to your company:

Every campaign has to have an opponent. Having an opponent gives you and your stakeholders a reason to try to win and drives you closer to each other. Whether you are winning voters or customers, it’s always about winning.

In order to win, you have to make your customers into your campaign staff. Those unpaid organizers won it for Obama. To do this, you ignore the online/offline divide, and create the illusion of intimacy with your customer by letting your customers meet each other physically.  Think Obama house parties. This is called engagement.

To promote engagement, try to think like a movement: give as much control over to others as you can if they share your vision, and empower them to carry your message. This is almost NEVER done in the corporate world today.


If you are authentic and personal, you can create a mob of screaming evangelists, which is what you need to take your product across the chasm.

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What tools should you use: Video still rules, as does PERSONAL email, rather than newsletters
Localize your online marketing, addressing it right to your prospect or customer,  the way Obama did with all those emails.

All politics is local, and Obama built his brand locally and globally by targeting his online advertising geographically Every banner ad mentioned city and state to which it was targeted. This empowered local voters

These media strategists for political campaigns believe national brands should try to do local targeting; Coke does it on college campuses, but it’s rarely seen otherwise.

The Obama campaign also added social networks throughout the campaign as they became important to voters. so don’t be afraid to experiment. Especially in advertising, the market place moves, and you have to move with it.  Be on the cutting edge and don’t be afraid to move fast and fail hard:-)

Learn anything?

Other major lessons from SxSw:

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AT&T’s Austin network wasn’t ready for the onslaught of so many iPhones. It’s almost impossible to call out, or to use the 3G data services.

Twitter seems to be holding up all right, but I think Brightkite is exploding here, or else every single customer of Brightkite is at SxSW.

The Hilton Hotel blocks every wi-fi card, forcing you to buy its $10/day service. Hospitality FAIL.

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About the author

Francine Hardaway, Ph.D is a serial entrepreneur and seasoned communications strategist. She co-founded Stealthmode Partners, an accelerator and advocate for entrepreneurs in technology and health care, in 1998

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