I have been pouring over statistics associated with Barack Obama’s US presidential campaign. The most comprehensive breakdown I have seen was compiled by Pete Quily. A wave of excitement has broken out across the Internet and short-sighted analysis seems to imply that Obama won the election because he had a larger and more consistent use of digital media than his rival John McCain.

First let’s start with the statistics. While Obama may have had a large online presence and used digital tools to communicate with his supporters on an ongoing basis, one has to note the importance of content. If we are simply going to talk about statistics, then surely Viagra would have won the US general election given how many spam emails people receive about it 😀 I disagree with Richard Delevan’s view that the key statistic to look at from Obama campaign is the number of voters contacted compared to the total contacted by the McCain posse. This figure can’t be looked at in isolation, you have to look at what both politicians represented. Importantly it should also be noted that if we were to break down the demographics, then it would quickly become apparent that digital tools are far more suited for Obama’s supporters than McCain’s. No matter how many times I’ve been contacted by email offering me some form of Viagra or other stimulant, I’ve never taken up the offer. The content didn’t appeal.

We’re going to see a number of politicians try to replicate Obama style campaigns over the next couple of years and fail miserably. Anyone remember any of the woeful YouTube videos from Irish politicians during the last election? A personal audience with Politician X in his kitchen doesn’t cut it. Neither does a random Bebo profile. What should be drawn from Obama’s campaign that it consisted of a integrated communications strategy and encouraged the participation of the general public, as opposed to keeping it confined to the old boys club.

Karlin Lillington had an interesting column on the subject in the Irish Times last week. My Edelman colleague Seamus Mulconry and Simon McGarr offer some good comments in the piece:

“It’s not just the technology on its own that won the election. It’s a means of communication,” says Séamus Mulconry, a consultant with Edelman Communications and former technology specialist with Accenture who also did a stint as head of policy for the Progressive Democrats.

“Politics is a heart, not a head business. Any way you can engage emotionally with people is very powerful. And the web allows you to use music, video and images, and create communities to make that emotional connection.”

New technologies such as video “allow you to break out of soundbites, too”, he says. “Since at least the Nixon campaign, political campaigns have been defined by the tight soundbite. Oratory has been dead in the electronic age, but YouTube brought it back.”

Technology and heavy use of social networking technologies also gave the Obama campaign “a victory over the vast geography of the US”, says solicitor Simon McGarr, who set up the VoteTube.org website during the last Irish general election to showcase political videos and encourage their creation.

“For Obama, the issue was to find people to come into the system and become door-knockers.”

Obama harnessed people who had not in the past joined a political campaign. He connected people, created communities and give them meaningful jobs to do.

Lillington’s summary of Mulconry and McGarr’s analysis sums up why Obama’s campaign was successful – he connected people, created communities and gave them meaningful jobs to do. Fundamental to connecting his supporters was content. That is what Obama represented. He tapped into the societal changes in America and gave those who were not represented in the political system a voice. They didn’t vote simply for Obama, they voted for what he represents – change.

If you step back and take a look at the Internet, what’ll you’ll find is that it has proved very successful for bringing communities with similar interests together. Again what binds these communities is content. Adam Cohen captures this in his book about eBay, ‘The Perfect Store‘:

Collectors are people with a passion, and they seek out other who share their passion. Before the Internet, many collectors were geographically isolated. Someone in a small town with an interest in Depression glass or southern art folk might have trouble finding like-minded people nearby. But on the Internet, thousands of collectors with the same fascination were only a few mouse clicks away

Simply adopting Obama’s tools isn’t going to replicate his success. It is akin to saying that anyone that picks up a paintbrush will be the next Leonardo Da Vinci. The truth is that they have the potential to be the next Da Vinci. However to achieve this potential in a political sense, politicians fundamentally have to find methods to get as many people involved in the political process as possible. By instilling a fascination in the political process among supporters, then the Internet becomes the logical tool to bring this audience together and to activate them.

Strip out all the statistics and the core element you’ll find running throughout the Obama campaign is passion. If you don’t make your supporters passionate then it doesn’t matter how many emails or text messages you send. will.i.am’s series of videos throughout the election campaign encapsulate the feelings Barack Obama instilled in his supporters. I’m slightly surprised at myself for saying it, but ‘It’s A New Day‘ is actually a good song, but more than that it actually represents the thoughts of millions of Americans on 4 November.

One Response to “Obama – Why Content Is More Important Than Statistics”  

  1. 1 Mark Nagurski

    “For Obama, the issue was to find people to come into the system and become door-knockers.”

    Obama harnessed people who had not in the past joined a political campaign. He connected people, created communities and give them meaningful jobs to do.

    I take those as the two key points from the article as quoted – engagement and activation.

    Obama used the Internet to make people active and to continue the conversation in their neighbourhoods. Looking at simple statistics like the number of people contacted is a hang-over from traditional media advertising models – eyeballs win the day.

    Where the Internet can really deliver is in it’s ability to facilitate and encourage the actions of many around a single idea. Content, as you rightly say, is the fuel for that process.

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