How Obama’s team continues the digital momentum after the election

President Barack Obama leads a briefing on the ongoing response to Hurricane Sandy, Tim Berners Lee once said – “It’s difficult to imagine the power that you’re going to have when so many different sorts of data are available”. Well there aren’t many people that are more powerful than the President of the United States of America…and as Obama settles into the first month of his second term, it’s time to reflect on one of the most sophisticated, data-driven campaigns in political history and take a look at what his impressive team of digital and analytical experts are up to now. Are they keeping up the momentum? 

Obama’s analytics team were the foundation of his campaign for re-election. Lead by Jim Messina, they created a sophisticated database that combined multiple data sources of potential donors, volunteers and voters with email, postal, telephone, mobile and social contacts. They used polling and fundraising data to build a single view of the voting population that informed their strategies for raising funds, mobilising volunteers and securing votes. At the centre of their get-out-the-vote campaign was a social/email platform called Narwhal, which is estimated to have cost $100m to build and held information on 175m voters.

The election campaign targeted groups like young women, African-Americans and Hispanics – all of whom have a high usage rate when it comes to mobile and social media. According to Nielsen, 3 in 5 women of African-American, Asian-American or Hispanic origin had a smartphone in 2011, compared with 1 in 3 white women.

As the campaign progressed, predictive modelling was used to score people on their likelihood to donate or vote for the Democrats. Channels of communication were optimised, and the type of messaging was tailored to maximise the likelihood of response. Would person ‘X’ be more likely read an email from Vice President Joe Biden or the First Lady? This created huge efficiencies in voter contact strategies, with an improved response rate for less cost in both time and money.

Big data, thus, played a critical role in the Obama 2012 election campaign. When it was officially confirmed Obama had won the election, his team tweeted a picture of Barack and Michelle hugging which became the most re-tweeted image of all time.

So what’s next for the Obama analytics team and Narwhal technology platform? With 24 million followers, Team Obama are now trying to leverage their social media reach to influence the public’s views on policy proposals and on-going political debate. This approach could go some way to counter-punch the Republican majority that has plagued Obama’s reign since first taking office in 2008. Compromise with the Republicans has been near-impossible to achieve, especially on issues related to the economy. For this reason, being able to mobilise widespread public support for Government proposals is more important than ever and Obama appears to be putting his staff and technology to good use.

On Wednesday 28th November, the team reached out to followers on Twitter, Facebook and email to urge Congress to agree on tax hikes and entitlement cuts that would help the country avoid the approaching fiscal cliff.  On Twitter, The President’s team started a hash tag #My2K — referring to the $2,200 that the White House estimates will be saved by middle class families from tax cuts.  Photos were also posted on the Facebook account showing real life middle class families that would benefit from such cuts. A multitude of infographics were created to demonstrate the policy in simple, easy to view snippets which led to sharing on social media networks and blogs.

Some would say that Obama’s early political career working in deprived communities in Chicago educated him on the importance of connecting groups of similar people from within neighbourhoods. What is social media if not the same scenario at scale? By bringing the technology built for campaigning in-house, Obama can continue to use the connectivity he has created to communicate more effectively with many people who can’t be reached anywhere other than through social channels.

Whilst the Narwhal platform that helped the Democrats to win the election can no longer be funded using election donations, the opportunity to integrate the technology into everyday activity is a key factor in maintaining momentum with the public. It is not so much about changing opinion but more about connecting people who think alike and empowering them to speak with a collective voice.

Businesses are going through a similar evolution in recognising the importance of integrating technology (especially around social media) into their existing communications and data management. Having an in-house analytics capability will be a defining feature of success and competitive advantage in the age of big data.

Sam Zindel, senior data modelling analyst at iCrossing.