Social Media Applied: Lessons from the Obama Presidential Campaign

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As bloggers and website owners, we can get so wrapped up in the world of search engine optimization and social media jargon that we forget to see the forest for the trees. Social media isn’t just a set of tools that site owners can use to boost their online presence – they’re interactive portals that represent a truly incredible shift in the way our culture connects and disseminates information.

As an example of how widespread the impact of these programs are, consider the major role that social media and social networking websites played in the 2008 election of president Barack Obama, who won the popular vote by the largest margin in recent history.

Certainly, there are a number of different elements that came together to result in Obama’s victory, including a political climate that favored new blood versus the old guard, frustration with Republican economic policies and the waning presence of US diplomacy abroad. But besides these political elements, the Obama team brought a new ingredient to the mix – a robust, multi-faceted social media campaign.

And while it certainly wasn’t the sole reason for the success of his candidacy, there’s no arguing with the fact that Obama created a more effective web presence than any other candidate in political history. As you can see, the President’s success gaining followers far outpaced his Republican rival, John McCain’s efforts:

In terms of numbers, the President’s use of new media ended up, “raising over half a billion dollars, registering over 2 million voters, and enabling 3 million phone calls to be made in the final four days of the campaign,” according to online strategist Dan Siroker, who lead the team of engineers, web designers and social networking experts who made this achievement possible.

To see the difference that Obama’s extensive online presence made in terms of fundraising, consider the following chart:

In a speech given at Stanford University on May 8, 2009, Siroker shared his experiences working with the Obama campaign, as well as several of the lessons he and his staff learned from studying, analyzing and ultimately responding to internet data usage. These revelations have plenty of applications website development from a broader business prospective and are absolutely still relevant to business owners today.

The following are the five major lessons Siroker identified in his speech, along with parallels for how these campaign-specific examples can translate to traditional websites:

1) Define Quantifiable Success Metrics

For the Obama campaign, key metrics to track included the clickthrough rate of various advertising methods used to get visitors onto the site, the opt-in rate that converted visitors into email subscribers and the average amount of money each subscriber generated for the campaign.

By setting these metrics early on in the campaign season, Siroker and his team were able to make adjustments based multivariate testing of specific website and follow-up email elements.

Lesson: What gets measured, gets managed. If you haven’t set specific goals and metrics to track within your own website business, how will you know whether you’re on track to succeed or if you need to adjust course? Invest some time in determining which variables contribute most to the success of your website and then implement tests designed to optimize these metrics.

2) Focus on Your Weakest Links

Perhaps the most interesting part of Siroker’s Stanford lecture is the examples he gives of actual experiments run during the campaign that were designed to eliminate weaknesses. In one particularly compelling example, Siroker shares four sets of button text and a combination of six images and videos that were used on the splash page for the Obama website.

After polling the audience on their favorite combinations, Siroker revealed that the most popular choices – of both lecture attendees and members of the Obama staff – were actually the least successful in live tests. By making changes based on their split testing results, campaign strategists were able to increase the number of email subscribers and volunteers by over 40%!

Lesson: When you design, build and run a website, it’s easy to assume that the choices you’ve made are the best possible decisions. But the truth is, you won’t know if your site is performing as well as it could be if you don’t test for and eliminate weaknesses. Split testing is an absolute must when it comes to improving your target metrics.

3) Never Over-Generalize

It’s a very rare situation indeed when you’re targeting and speaking to a single demographic. On most websites – and on President Obama’s campaign websites, for sure – you’re going to be addressing multiple constituencies at once, and all of these people might react to a set of circumstances differently.

For example, in another test run by the Obama campaign staff, five different variations of the “Donate Now” button were tested against one another. The results were surprising:

As you can see, different groups responded to different buttons differently, based on whether they had never signed up, signed up but never donated or previously donated. If the campaign team had simply gone ahead with the first round of testing, instead of breaking the test out across multiple demographics, they would have risked alienating entire groups of potential donors.

Lesson: Test for as many variables and demographics as you can. Once you’ve conducted a few successful tests to eliminate weaknesses, break your testing out across multiple demographics to see if your results hold true across the board.

4) Take Advantage of Your Circumstances

At one point, the Obama campaign was handed a golden opportunity when Sarah Palin, speaking at the Republican National Convention, used the line:

“I guess a small town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities…”

Because the groundwork had already been laid to communicate with potential donors electronically, campaign manager David Plouffe was able to fire off an email to outraged Democrats asking for help fighting out-of-touch politicians and raise over $10 million for the campaign in under 24 hours.

Pretty powerful stuff, right? 🙂

Lesson: You never know when opportunities will come along for your website’s message to click with your readers. Stay up-to-date on industry news and look for opportunities to share your thoughts on current events on your website in order to take advantage of your circumstances.

5) Question Assumptions

In his Stanford lecture, Siroker shares the results of another study that tested the use of a campaign store in terms of bringing in donations. Visitors to Obama’s website were given four different options, two of which involved purchasing items from an online store and two that required visitors to simply make a donation and receive a gift in return.

Yet again, Siroker’s team was surprised to find that the online store – which was assumed to be the better option given peoples’ familiarity and comfort with ecommerce – performed significantly worse than just asking visitors for a donation.

Lesson: No matter how advanced of a website owner you are, you don’t know everything about what your website visitors are thinking and how they’ll respond to different options. Test, test and test some more in order to uncover the truth and achieve maximal success with your website.

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