Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Secret Sauce

(PHOTO: Gray's Papaya hot dog stand, 72nd & Broadway, Manhattan, 11-5-08)

Both Barack Obama and John McCain used the Internet to reach voters this election but Obama mastered the medium early "and exploited it to the hilt," says Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy Forum and co-founder of There's no question: Election 2008 will go down in the books as the first nationwide political contest for social capital.

In an interview today with Cause Global, Rasiej credits Team Obama's "culture of belief in the Internet" for building a movement for change among ordinary citizens energized via social media into a community of engaged, viral marketers for Obama's campaign. The Web strategy, says Rasiej, was critical in helping the Illinois senator win the White House.

(Indeed, an analysis of the vote today by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press says that without a doubt, "the overwhelming backing of younger voters was a critical factor in Obama's victory." Obama drew two-thirds—or 66%—of the vote among those younger than age 30, Pew reports. In addition, Trendrr, an online statistics mashup tool, shows Obama had a clear lead in using social media to connect to his audience, as well as an overall lead in winning the attention of the blogosphere as a whole. On social networks, Trendrr says, Obama held a big lead over McCain, with 844,927 MySpace friends compared with McCain's 219,404. Between November 3 and 4 (election day) alone, Obama gained more than 10,000 new friends, while McCain only gained about 964. On Twitter, says ReadWriteWeb, Obama gained 2,865 new followers between November 3 and 4, for a total of 118,107, while John McCain's Twitter account only had 4,942 followers in total.)

Team Obama also saw an opportunity in exploiting the flagging credibility of mainstream media—again chiefly among younger voters. "[Obama's team] leap-frogged the mainstream media by producing content that they knew would get distributed for them [via social media] once it was uploaded," techPresident's Rasiej said. Especially in the final days before November 4, Obama's campaign sent daily emails and text-messages directly to supporters, urging them to vote with friends, participate in phone drives, and volunteer at campaign events—even offering up a contest in which last-minute donors could be selected to attend Obama's election-night party in Chicago. Says Rasiej:

Going forward, social capital will become increasingly more valuable than fund-raising dollars...The political power of the future will be a question of how robust and engaged a political entity's [social] network will be"—not just how much money a candidate has in the bank or how many friends he/she has in Congress.

A key lesson for cause activists everywhere from the election? Two quick reactions surface among nonprofit leaders this week. The first—be consistent with your message and broadcast it widely and continuously through the use of social media. Second? Create a movement around your cause, not just awareness for it. "Social media build powerful movements—but only when the cause is powerful and moving," says Melissa Berman, President and CEO of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. "Even the most powerful social media can't build a movement if people aren't poised to sign on. What's remarkable about social media is how quickly they can forge the links that create a movement—when the message is right."

Adds Rasiej: "What we really saw here [with Obama's Internet strategy] is the reaction of a new network publicsphere—or, you could argue, a whole new political media ecology, a generational shift that's empowering an entirely new human experience of participatory, civic engagement. It's taking our former notion of civic engagement and redefining it as something that should be continuously very relevant to people's lives."

For more on the lessons for nonprofits in Election 2008, check out Tom Watson's post today at, where he is a consultant and writer. Watson is also the author of the forthcoming CauseWired, a book about the use of social media in advocacy.

Writes Watson: "While there is a temptation among those who track causes and online fundraising to separate political organizing from philanthropy, I think that's a mistake - it's wishing for a division that the audience simply won't tolerate going forward. It's like hoping that a print classified operation will continue to grow during the age of Craigslist. Young people don't separate their causes into neat little boxes labeled politics and charity. They simply respond to what moves them, what their friends recommend, what they believe might change the world.

"...It's no accident that my nonprofit clients are asking about websites like Barack Obama's. The [old] order is rapidly fading."

(Photo by Marcia Stepanek)

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