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How Social Media Won Obama the US Election


“There is only one tool, one platform, one medium that allows the American people to take their government back, and that’s the Internet…”

It’s one of the more famous lines in recent American political campaign history, and it’s bang on the money. Literally, the Internet has changed the way candidates communicate with their electorate, but more than anything, it’s changed the way they raise dough. Interestingly, that quote came not from a candidate, but from a campaign manager. His name was Joe Trippi. You’ve probably never heard of him. He worked for a man called Howard Dean. You may vaguely remember him – in 2004 he was widely tipped to win the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination thanks to his revolutionary embracing of the Internet. He read blogs, organised rallies through and emailed people to organise events. Trawl through news archives from 2004 and you’ll find thousands of articles on how amazing his use of the Internet was. Then he went and screwed it all up by screaming. John Kerry beat him to the post, and America voted for George W. Bush anyway. Game over.

So if Howard Dean had such a revolutionary Internet strategy back in 2004 and managed to raise enough money to become his party’s prime candidate, why does no-one remember him, and what was different about the 2008 race?

Two things. In fact they’re the two handiest things to have in any modern marketing campaign.

  1. Remarkable
  2. Social Media

Obama was a remarkable candidate. No one can argue against that. He is a gifted orator, a Harvard Law School graduate, an inspirational politician, a catalyst for change, loved by the most powerful celebrities in America and, of course, black. Democrats and Republicans both agree that is the most remarkable politician since JFK (not counting the effect Watergate and Monica Lewinsky had on buzz for Nixon and Clinton).

Howard Dean, on the other hand, was a bit of a toolbox. And, while Joe Trippi ran a great online campaign for him, they weren’t operating in a world with 100 million American Facebook and MySpace users.

Fast forward to 2008 and the landscape has changed dramatically. In four years social media takeup, and Internet usage in general has skyrocketed. In 2004 it was a teenage novelty, four years later it has become the main way friends and family communicate online. Barack Obama’s campaign team used social media better than anyone else and it gave them a huge advantage. Here’s how…

Facebook – Treat Friends as Friends and They’ll Like You

  • Number of Obama Supporters on Facebook on election day: 3,000,000
  • Number of McCain supporters on Facebook on election day: 600,000

Yep, for every Facebook supporter McCain had, Obama had five. In the online popularity stakes, there was no contest. However, that in itself wasn’t so much of a big deal. When Hilary Clinton was up against Obama she only had 20% of the friends he did, but the nomination contest went down to the wire. Obama’s real competitive advantage was a man named Chris Hughes. Before he was brought on board the campaign team he’d been busy running Facebook with co-founder, and college room-mate Mark Zuckerburg. With the co-founder of the most popular social networking site in the world on your campaign team, it was going to be hard to lose the popularity contest. Obama ‘got’ Facebook, while his opponent pretended not to care. As McCain’s deputy e-campaign manager put it, “Facebook users aren’t McCain voters anyway.” Which is a load of bollocks really, given that there are 36 million Facebook users in America.

McCain had a Facebook account of course, but in the same way John Howard had a YouTube channel in the 2007 Australian federal election, it was there because he would have looked out-of-touch without one, not because he’s the kind of guy who would have had one. McCain’s team spoke about him on his own profile in the third-person and his updates were lifeless. In fact, he didn’t even bother thanking his Facebook friends for support when he lost. Obama, on the other hand, came across just like one of your other friends would. Messages were signed-off with his first name and before he went and gave his victory speech in public, he sent this personalized note to Facebook fans:

“I want to thank all of you who gave your time, talent, and passion to this campaign. We have a lot of work to do to get our country back on track, and I’ll be in touch soon about what comes next. But I want to be very clear about one thing… All of this happened because of you.”

When Dale Carnegie wrote the world’s best-selling self-help book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, in 1936 (the same year John McCain was born), his number one rule was to ‘become genuinely interested in other people’. You don’t need to be a self-help guru to figure out why Obama had five times as many Facebook friends as McCain. And you don’t need a degree in political science to understand that friends = votes.

My.BarackObama.Com – A Virtual Army and Fundraising Juggernaught

Facebook was the most public social media component of Obama’s campaign, but in terms of overall effectiveness, it will be a small footnote in history. The crux of Obama’s social media marketing strategy, and the main reason he raised so much money, was the custom social network created for the campaign,

A couple of months ago I wrote a piece for Marketing Mag called ‘Does your Company Need a Facebook Page’. It proved quite popular and I can sum up the gist of it with with this quote:

“Social networks exist to facilitate dialogue between passionate people. Their passion might be for a particular product, a cause, a celebrity or a football team, but they’re all in it together and they want to find other like-minded people to share their feelings with. If your business isn’t the kind of organisation that people are passionate (or at least mildy enthused) about, creating a social network around yourself will only serve to highlight that fact. At best, you’ll get a few staff members and cousins join, at worst, you’ll quickly find out no-one actually cares, which can end up looking rather embarrasing. If you honestly can’t envisage your clients or customers starting a Facebook group for your brand all by themselves, you probably shouldn’t have one.”

Applied to your average business, it makes sense. You can’t build a social network around something that people don’t care about because no-one will have anything to say. On the flip side, Obama isn’t your average business. Bush is the least popular president in generations and people were hankering for change. Obama was the most remarkable candidate since Kennedy and, suffice to say, he had a lot of fans. There was no way a custom social network dedicated to Obama was not going to work and hiring the co-founder of Facebook to run it was a stroke of genius. ended up with more than 1,000,000  members, which makes it (as far as I know) the biggest private social network in the world. McCain had nothing like it and Hilary couldn’t come close. Members were passionate and campaign management empowered them to enact the change they wanted to see. was, in no uncertain terms, an army.

Instead of relying on an external tool, like Facebook or MySpace, which was beyond their control, campaign managers used to maintain complete control over the dialogue and craft their messages precisely how they wanted them. They used it as a rallying tool to get supporters excited, a messaging centre to communicate with supporters and allow them to directly contact interested voters on behalf of Obama, a revenue raiser and a planning tool to put local supporters in touch with each other and allow them to set up meetings and arrange events.

Watch this video overview of and you’ll see exactly why it worked so well. It’s probably the best example of a corporate social network the world has ever seen.

Pay particular attention to the fundraising section at 3:22. By getting a million supporters to hassle everyone they know for small amounts of money, they were far more effective in raising huge piles of cash than they would have been if they’d asked a hundred thousand people to donate large amounts. Anyone who’s a fan of Chris Anderson’s long tail theory ( will know exactly why this is such an effective strategy in the social media age.

At one stage in the nomination race Hilary was forced to loan to her own campaign $5 million to try and keep up with Obama’s fundraising. By June 2008 Obama had raised more than three times as much money as John McCain. was, in Barack’s own words “the largest grassroots campaign in history”.

YouTube – You Don’t Need Broadcast Media When You’re this Popular Online

Obama’s use of YouTube was staggeringly successful. Every modern politician has a YouTube Channel (even our very own John Howard had one), but the world had never seen anything like Look at the stats:

  • Subscribers: 141,678
  • Channel Views: 19,865,534
  • Videos Uploaded: 1,823

Those figures sound impressive enough out of context, but compare them to the next most popular celebrities and you’ll see just how popular Obama’s YouTube site was:


  • Subscribers: 46,352
  • Channel Views: 1,790,402
  • Videos Uploaded: 76


  • Subscribers: 28,302
  • Channel Views: 1,180,100
  • Videos Uploaded: 20

While YouTube views aren’t a measure of voter support, they are definitely a measure of popularity. If the American Presidential race is the world’s biggest popularity contest, Obama was definitely the prom queen.

Flickr – Bypass the Press

Obama at HomeAs Stefano Boscutti from Australia’s own SBS put it on his New New Media blog:

“So which news organisation landed one of the biggest photo stories of the year, exclusive behind-the-scenes pictures with the Obama family on election night? None of them. Obama’s personal photographer snapped the photos and uploaded them to Flickr under a Creative Commons license, skipping the media altogether.  The popularity of the photos subsequently crashed the site.  This is what happens when you get the first post-boomer president who actually gets the net.  The future just got brighter.”

Check out Obama’s Flickr stream at and you’ll see literally hundreds of examples of the Obama team using the world’s most popular photo-sharing site in exactly the way it was designed – for giving your friends an insight into your life. By providing that ‘behind the scenes’ footage, it served to humanise Obama, which in turn won friends and influenced people.

Twitter – You don’t Have to Talk Back

Obama’s Twitter account was a great example of how politicians can use this micro-blogging service as a one-way communication channel. Rather than trying to message back the 133,000+ people who follow him, which would have been logistically impossible and ended up hugely impersonal (the antithesis of social media dialogue), Obama’s campaign team used it as a broadcast tool.

The danger of using social media in a campaign is that once you start engaging with one person, everyone else will expect you to be their friend. By being up-front and not engaging anyone in this particular medium, there was no expectation amongst followers that they were going to get any attention. Australian politicians Kevin Rudd ( and Malcolm Turnbull ( might do well to follow Obama’s lead sooner or later, or they’re going to end up with lots of angry followers wondering why no-one writes back to them.

Furthermore, in a sign that Obama took Twitter seriously during the campaign, but doesn’t see it as part of a viable long-term communication strategy for a world leader, Obama stopped tweeting once the election was over. Fittingly, it was with a message to his supporters that neatly sums up why engaging social media (and the people who use it) won him the election:

“We just made history. All of this happened because you gave your time, talent and passion. All of this happened because of you. Thanks 5:34 AM Nov 6th

Truer words were never spoken.

This entry was posted in Case Studies, Social Media and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to How Social Media Won Obama the US Election

  1. Jennifer Williams says:

    Cool blog. A related issue is Obama’s membership in Generation Jones (between the Boomers and Generation X). I’ve seen numerous very credible experts say recently that Obama is part of GenJones; if Obama’s generational identity is of interest to you, click this link…it goes to a page filled with lots of articles and videos of many famous people discussing Obama’s identity as a GenJoneser, and the many implications of this for his Presidency:

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