Digital & Social Media

How Obama Social-ized Government

How Obama Social-ized Government

TRUE Q&A With Jim Margolis and Greg Pinelo
Veteran political consultants Jim Margolis and Greg Pinelo sat down with TRUE recently to discuss how the Obama campaign’s innovative and aggressive use of social media and analytics not only led to sweeping victories in two campaigns, it is changing the way we govern and persuade.

Q: How did the use of social media change between 2008 Obama campaign and the 2012?

Jim Margolis: If 2008 was the presidential campaign that introduced social into the equation in a massive way, 2012 has to be looked at as the election when analytics came to the fore. We were very focused in how we generally communicated with people through social networks in 2008, how we were able to engage them. By 2012, we had the ability to begin to target in a much more meaningful way the people we wanted and needed to communicate with. By matching data from set-top boxes about what shows people watch or whether they watch commercials with other information collected from door-to-door canvasing, we were able to know that at 2 a.m. on TV Land there was a relatively small group of people watching Gomer Pyle reruns who were very important to us as undecided voters. Now, don’t panic because we set it up through a third party. We don’t actually know your name.

So, yes, we were on CNN and ESPN, but thanks to that information we were also on 50 different cable networks as opposed to the eight obvious ones where the Romney campaign chose to run ads. We were the first campaign ever to be able to do that, and that’s just the beginning.

We then began to experiment with delivering individual commercials to individual set-top boxes, using this same information. So let’s say we have an Obama supporter in one home and an undecided next door. I can send one a ‘get out to vote’ ad because you’re with us; I just need to make sure you vote. Next door I can send an ad on an issue that I think will make you want to vote for us, a persuasion ad. To the Republican in the third house, I’m sending nothing; I don’t want to spend any money on him. To keep it in perspective, out of the $450 million that we spent on advertising, we only spent about $1 million in this way, but by 2016 this will begin to be a factor.

It’s amazing when you think in the 2004 election when John Kerry ran, Facebook was only present on a couple of college campuses and Twitter didn’t exist at all. Today, if Facebook were a country, it would be the third largest in the world. We sent out our first tweet in 2008, and I think it was the last day of the campaign. This year, it was at the heart of much of the communication that took place across the country. So my point is to show just how fast and constant the changes were coming—and are coming. June 27 was the first day that the White House sent out Instagram photos.

Greg Pinelo: That’s another change. Visuals are more and more important—video, info graphics, photos—because we know that’s what gets shared. That was true in 2008, but even more so in 2012. Social media is a key component of how we engage with people and understanding their social network lives is key.

Margolis: The President ended up with 33 million Facebook friends, and those 33 million people touched well over 90 percent of the voting electorate.

Q: How have you been able to use these same techniques to support President Obama’s agenda? Is there a difference in how you reach out to people?

Pinelo: It’s harder, definitely. You build toward an election. There’s a date—well now it’s more like a month with early voting—when it comes to a head and you’ll either win or lose. It’s hard to replicate that kind of drama, passion and excitement when you’re trying to get people engaged on one issue. That said, Organizing for America has really been able to break new ground, using the social and email techniques from the campaign to push the President’s agenda forward. It begins from a tremendous base of people and engagement. But while there are plenty of people who care, the job is finding the ones that will be moved to action on a particular issue—maybe like us on Facebook or write about the issue in a blog or Facebook post, retweet something we send out, then maybe send $5 to support the effort, and if we really engage, go to a meeting or a rally. It’s not that different from a campaign, but it’s different constituencies and you don’t have that same unifying idea of trying to get your candidate elected.

You also don’t have the same kind of money to work with that you have in campaigns. The great advantage of these techniques is your ability to course correct when something isn’t working because the feedback is immediate. You know when an email doesn’t work or it has the wrong subject line and you come up with a new one. You can better avoid wasting your limited resources.

I think gun control—even though we weren’t successful yet—is a good example of how the network was used to actually reach across party lines since the support is across party lines, regardless of how the vote went. Immigration and gay marriage are two more.

OFA is also working to register voters. We have a guy who has moved to Texas and made it his mission to turn it into a blue state. Florida too. There are 900,000 people who have met all the requirements of citizenship and just have to do the paperwork, 600,000 of them are Latino and potential Democratic voters. In both these cases, social networks are how we are reaching out and starting conversations. Social networks are interesting in that way—they’re global and yet very local at the same time. And we are trying to learn better how to use them in those two ways.

Margolis: It doesn’t have to involve getting legislation passed or politics either. OFA is using these engagement techniques to help better educate people about Obamacare. We have a huge problem in this country right now because the majority of people who will be directly affected by the ability to sign up for healthcare insurance may not even know they are eligible, and if they do, probably don’t know how it works or what they have to do. All of the initial registration and process for enrollment begins in September. This isn’t a political issue; it’s about changing people’s lives.

We’re also doing a new project right now with the Center for the Next Generation and Secretary (Hillary) Clinton on early childhood development and the importance of those first five years of life. How do you begin to bring social to bear there, where you have someone like Secretary Clinton who has the capacity to generate a lot of interest and has been a leader in this sector for years? You don’t want to have an intellectual conversation; you want to have the kind of personal, intimate conversations with parents that are possible with social.

Q: I know it’s hard to predict given the fast pace of change—who knows what apps or channels may be available by then—but what kind of innovation would you expect or hope to see in the 2016 election in terms of the use of social and analytics?

Margolis: The thing that won’t change will be the desire, the absolute necessity, to have as personal and meaningful a conversation with people as you possibly can—conversations that are authentic and real and don’t feel in any way like political spin. The more social evolves, the more important that becomes and maybe the harder it is to maintain. As far as technological innovation, I’d go back to analytics and our ability to really target the people with whom we want to start conversations and which conversations we want to have. What we started in 2012 in a very small way should become more influential in 2016.

Pinelo: Texting and mobile in general also have become more important as the Net generations have become old enough to vote. It’s a reflex for them to respond to a text, to sign up for stuff online or on their phones. In 2016, this will definitely be even more important. The social issues also resonate with the younger generation like gay marriage—they don’t see even why this is an issue, why there should be any question but to allow gay marriage. That generation is passionate about social justice and the environment, and social networks and texting are how they communicate. That will affect governing as well as the 2016 race.

Q: Do you believe that the success the campaign had energizing and involving people, even people who never voted before, was a result of the social network you created?

Margolis: Clients or potential clients sometimes say to us, “Gee, we want you to come in and do what you did for Obama for us.” Well, you can’t do an Obama for anybody who walks through the door, no matter how big the checkbook is. That was an historic moment in 2008, and there was an excitement and energy around that campaign that we couldn’t even replicate in 2012, even though arguably it was maybe a more important election. There was an historic nature of what was taking place with the potential for the first African-American president and it touched people. It was something that we hadn’t seen before, and we may not see again for a long time—unless for the first woman president. That kind of campaign allows you to be part of something bigger than yourself, and Hillary Clinton has the opportunity potentially if she decides to run, to light that same match. In other words, the message does in fact still matter.

Homepage photo credit: Getty Images


About the author

Jim Margolis, pictured above with the president, served as a senior advisor to Barack Obama in both his 2008 and 2012 campaigns for president, taking a lead role in developing advertising and directing the strategy as a member of Obama’s core strategic team. He is a senior partner at GMMB, part of the FleishmanHillard family of companies. He currently represents more Democratic senators, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, than any other consultant in the U.S.

Greg Pinelo was a key member of the Obama for America media team in both 2008 and 2012. A partner at GMMB, he is an award-winning strategist in branding, advertising and strategic communications for a diverse group of corporations, nonprofits, national associations and political clients. Pinelo is a sought-after political consultant, as well as a leading expert in communications on behalf of unions.