THE BLOG
12/10/2012 04:08 pm ET Updated Feb 09, 2013

2012 From an International Perspective

It sounds awfully familiar.

In 2008, Barack Obama changed digital campaigning forever. And last month, he did it again. Of course, when it comes to campaigns outside the U.S., the Obama team's approach cannot merely be transplanted whole. Every country is different; each has a unique political culture and many have far lower levels of Internet penetration than the U.S. -- a major hurdle to achieving what Obama for America did online.

But smart campaigns around the world are already picking up on the principles that underpinned the Obama campaign's digital program. And they are adopting some of the Obama team's key tactics -- and adapting them to their own unique political settings and dynamics.

Principles for authentic engagement. While stunning fundraising and engagement numbers have grabbed the majority of post-election headlines, those successes wouldn't have been possible without a foundation of core strategic principles that the campaign relied on. Among these was a genuine determination to offer supporters a meaningful stake in the campaign's success (and an enjoyable experience to boot). "Dinners with Barack" afforded donors at all levels real access to the President -- something the President himself insisted on providing. These events in turn created a rich narrative, told through video and photography, and furthered the campaign's message.

The campaign also made a heavy, up-front investment in digital -- not just in technology, but in the people themselves. Most campaigns won't hire more than 150 digital staffers, but without a human engine to create powerful content, run compelling fundraising programs, and lower barriers for digital engagement, campaigns will find it all but impossible to execute successfully.

So, tactically, just what kind of digital evolution do we expect to see? Just because other campaigns won't be of the same scale, doesn't mean that they won't use Obama for America as a model for their voter registration, activation, fundraising and engagement efforts. And we're seeing this take shape in other parts of the world with campaigns and governments investing the resources to genuinely engage with voters and provide meaningful return that keeps them engaged. From a candidate conducting the first ever Facebook town hall in Latin America, to a mayor creating an online space for citizens to petition his own government.

The rising importance of mobile as a part of more diverse set of communication tools. In 2008, then-candidate Obama announced he was choosing Senator Joe Biden to be his vice presidential running mate via text message -- a bold new step at the time. In 2012, President Obama went a step further in using mobile to empower supporters. Twenty-five percent of the campaign's website traffic came from mobile devices, so it invested in a responsive site design to maximize conversions and content consumption. The campaign's Quick Donate program allowed supporters to donate easily via SMS, mobile email or the site. This raised an estimated $75 million that the campaign wouldn't have received otherwise.

2012 has already seen the fundamental importance of mobile audiences spread to places like Venezuela, where only 40 percent of the population has Internet access but 80 percent has a cellphone. With less restriction on mass communication via mobile -- and a large segment of voters who can only be reached via text -- winning campaigns will focus even more resources on the methods of communication that matter the most.

A more targeted approach to social media. The Obama team used Facebook to tactically communicate with specific blocks of voters. In 2012, they developed a first-of-its-kind Facebook application that merged voter data with lists of supporters' Facebook friends, allowing the campaign to ask supporters to share specific messages with friends who they knew to be undecided, persuadable and/or not yet registered. This use of what is known as "big data" to micro-target voters will be a major part of the future of political campaigns- - in the U.S. and worldwide.

In the U.S. and in most European countries, the culture of Facebook evolved out of traditional uses of the Internet, primarily for sending emails. Many countries with low Internet penetration are seeing access rapidly expanding from mobile devices, changing the calculus for digital communications campaigns. Sometimes this may require elevating SMS over email or focusing on Twitter over Facebook. For example, in this year's presidential election in Venezuela, the candidates had twice as many Twitter followers than Facebook "likes." In Mexico's recent presidential election, candidates relied on Facebook's social graph to reach hard-to-contact pockets of supporters across the country. Smart campaigns will heed the principles underpinning the Obama team's success and focus on delivering authentic, meaningful, locally-tailored experiences that capitalize on the unique value of different social channels.

User acquisition on social media will be relevant for years to come. In 2008, the campaigns were largely focused on user acquisition on social media. With the growth of social media usage, this became less of a priority for the 2012 campaign. There was more emphasis on targeting existing networks with more creative means to engage and activate supporters.

In many countries, social media is an agent for self-empowerment and community organization -- with stakes much higher than the in the U.S. Whether in newly democratic nations transformed by the Arab Spring or in China, where the government's stranglehold on online censorship is slowly loosening, social media is connecting people and giving them agency. These grassroots social media movements, in turn, also represent an unprecedented opportunity for political campaigns to tap into these deeply connected communities that are ready and willing to hear their message and give support. With such a large demand, user acquisition -- specifically on Facebook -- will be a consistent factor of digital campaigns.

Despite many countries' low Internet penetration, Facebook use is almost always extremely high among those with Internet access. For example, only about a quarter of the population is online in Thailand, but fully 97 percent of internet users are on Facebook. With such large numbers already invested in Facebook, campaigns must leverage existing bases of support within these networks, instead of building new networks from scratch.

Rising importance of message impression. The 2012 cycle saw the trend of compelling info-graphics and viral images. Obama for America was very effective at garnering impressions through images and info-graphics; in fact, an election night photo of the President and First Lady embracing quickly became the most "liked" image in the history of Facebook and the most re-tweeted photo on Twitter ever. The campaign also provided supporters with the raw materials to create personally-customized social media content that could be shared with friends on networks like Facebook and Pinterest.

Campaigns must adopt this expanded, more disciplined, and more creative approaches in order to use compelling messages to make an impression beyond Facebook. For example, at his closing rally, Venezuelan opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski recognized this and asked his supporters to text a personal note to ten potential undecided voters, identified by the campaign. These personal touches -- "I'm voting for Capriles because he will reduce crime;" "I'm voting for Capriles for a better future for my family." -- demonstrated a deep understanding of the various forms a message impression can take, beyond image-based messages.

Winning international campaigns will study Obama's precedent-setting victory -- and won't just copy his tactics, but rather use his fundamentals to build a strategy tailored to their race and technologies.

Patrick Faust is the Director of Digital Strategies at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, working with political parties, candidates, governments, NGOs and corporate leaders around the world.

Matthew McGregor directed the digital rapid response unit for Obama for America. He previously served as the Director of Blue State Digital's London office.