Blog # 4 – Market Research, Crowdsourcing and Consumers – Online Organizing in Political Campaigns

In 2008, the Barack Obama campaign “built an online juggernaut. With 13 million emails, nearly 4 million donors, 2 million members of the My.BarackObama.com social network, and tens of thousands of engaged activists, Obama’s team broke new ground in using the internet to build a new kind of powerful political machine,” according to this note at techpresident.com .

What were some of the innovations and principles applied by the campaign? Three factors appear to be most important.

Data and Market Research

Understanding the voter and ensuring that this information is available to the campaign team efficiently and effectively is a process that is greatly sped up with the use of online tools. According to Seth Colter Walls, in Neighbor To Neighbor: How Obama Targets Undecideds Block By Block, “all of the information that supporters collect — such as, who is a supporter, who isn’t a supporter — syncs immediately and directly back into the master voter file. That in turn allows staff to really focus in on the people who we have identified as still being persuadable. … In the past the way this would have been done is by relying on field organizers to print out walk lists, get in cars and ferry around volunteers all across an unfamiliar area.”

Bazaars and Cathedrals 

Just as the principle of the bazaar – i.e. crowdsourcing – has been used to develop new IT products through disparate, unremunerated individuals, this concept has also been used in online organizing, with the 2008 Obama campaign allowing volunteers to organize themselves but within a certain set of broad guidelines. According to Zach Exley in “The New Organizers, What’s Really Behind Obama’s Ground Game”, the “”New Organizers” have succeeded in building what many netroots-oriented campaigners have been dreaming about for a decade. Other recent attempts have failed because they were either so “top-down” and/or poorly-managed that they choked volunteer leadership and enthusiasm; or because they were so dogmatically fixated on pure peer-to-peer or “bottom-up” organizing that they rejected basic management, accountability and planning. The architects and builders of the Obama field campaign, on the other hand, have undogmatically mixed timeless traditions and discipline of good organizing with new technologies of decentralization and self-organization.”

Reaching the “Consumer”

“Everywhere we went, we could plug in a zipcode, a list of really excited volunteers would pop up” according to one staffer in the HBS case “Barack Obama: Organizing for America 2.0”. This ability to reach the consumer – the potential voter – quickly, efficiently and in a targeted way defined the online organizing. Chris Hughes, the Obama campaign site manager and co-founder of facebook, explained that “battleground-state volunteers walking their own neighborhoods the weekend before election day could then feed back their data on the last remaining undecideds in something close to real time. According to Hughes, that “info could be re-tabulated within hours. And then volunteers in non-battleground states could receive new phone lists for follow up calls with just the remaining high-target undecideds the Monday before election day.” Additionally, one did not have to be in a battleground state to participate in the activities in a battleground state.

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