The Big Brand Theory – Tips from the Obama Campaign

Read what the man in charge of president's Obama last online campaign and internet donations has to say about the past and the future of social networks, their influence on political campaigns and lessons that can be learned.


Bryan Whitaker is a man from whom you can learn a lot when it comes to political campaigns. He is currently the president of NGP VAN, the leading US IT supplier in the campaign “Obama for America”, meaning he lead the entire online campaign and online fundraising during Obama’s last elections. Whitaker has a long history of participation in campaigns: as a student he was already volunteering for the Democrats, worked with the Unions as well as in the state administration of Ohio, helped organize a political campaign for Democratic candidate John Kerry and in the end organized the technology office of the Democratic National Committee for the reelection of American president Barak Obama.

Ekaterina Walter spoke with Whitaker about the past and the future of social networks, their influence on political campaigns and lessons that can be learned. “My role is to encourage clients to become more sophisticated, data-driven, efficient and to turn the feasibility of costs that occur in the tasks they are completing in order to organize voters and workers in unions as well as activate members within their own organization” says Whitaker, and below we bring you a few of his tips.

Let concrete data entice you

Back in 2008, Whitaker and his colleagues realised that the world of communication is becoming increasingly digital. With the increased use of e-mails, SMS and social networks, Whitaker claims it is necessary to have a global view on individual subjects and to understand what users are doing both offline and online when it comes to political propaganda.

Possibility to approach voters through the VAN network (Voter Activation Network) and other technologies that Whitaker used in his campaigns, were used to create a connection with voters both online and offline instead of the old blind knock methods when volunteers used to go from door to door in order to reach prospective candidates. Furthermore, this method made the campaigns more sophisticated, predictable and located in real time.

Access the social gold mine

„In 2012 we started with targeted shares. During the Obama campaign, we realised that our fans are Facebook friends with about 98% of the US population so we figured it is more significant to provide them with content such as iconographies that can be shared with their friends and family through social networks than to just send them messages through e-mails. In cooperation with Obama’s technical team, Whitaker developed a Facebook application “Obama for America” through which voters were able to share content. Content included iconographic with data on who the economy grew during the Obama administration that could be shared with 5 friends and hence create a digital movement.

Get rid of the urge to control everything

It is important to believe your followers and supporters that they are creating and distributing information that will be shared in order to convince their friends and family to vote a certain way, Whitaker claims.

Identify and use various communication channels

Don’t bask in yesterday’s glory. Just because you used to knock on doors and call by phone doesn’t mean this approach will work this time around. You have to keep asking yourself, what’s coming next, where do people communicate now?

Test everything

Whitaker suggests the use of analysing tools in order to test emails, donation websites and other channels of online communication. Learn in real time and adjust your content and strategy. With limited resources, you want to be sure your investment will be returned many times over.

An example of great and unexpected success is Obama’s Twitter post that, at the time, became the most retweeted post in history – the photo of him hugging the First Lady with a simple text “Four more years”. Whitaker claims that they were all stunned by the reaction this photo created.

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