Presidential Campaign

The new normal: digital defines presidential campaigns

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Nine years ago, the media and technology landscape was almost unrecognizable from what we’re used to today. People still tuned into the evening news at 6:30, Facebook was only a year and a half out of .edu beta, Twitter had 50,000 users and YouTube had just been acquired by Google.

Nine years ago, no one was posting selfies on Instagram because not only did Instagram not exist, but neither did the iPhone. Smartphones were only called Blackberries and were used by just 4% of mobile users. Early adopters, technophiles, and college students were using social media to share photos and snippets of their lives with friends and family, beginning to test the waters of the changing media landscape.

{mosads}But using social media for political activism, whether by individuals or campaigns — with a couple notable and important exceptions — wasn’t a standard practice.

Over the last nine years, the technology and media landscape has evolved from the simple, channel-based, broadcast-oriented model that first rose with TV in the 1950s — where publishers, companies, and campaigns use media companies to reach audiences — to a multi-channel, networked environment where everyone — individuals or organizations — is a creator, sharer, and consumer of content. We’re listening as much as talking in a massively interconnected global conversation.  

Innovation Born of Necessity

On February 10, 2007, a little-known senator with a funny name from Illinois announced he was running for president amongst a crowded, competitive field filled with candidates who were well-known, established political mainstays.

We’ve heard the mythology of how the Obama campaign changed the face of national political campaigns, but few people understand that it came about primarily out of necessity. We were going to lose a traditional primary; a traditional primary electorate was going to vote for a traditional primary candidate, and that wasn’t the then-senator from Illinois with the funny name.  

If we were to have a chance, we needed to change who was participating in the process. We needed to expand who was going to participate in the process — both activists and voters — and that demanded different ways of inviting people into the process. We didn’t have time or capacity to build our own technologies; but we knew that community organizing wasn’t going to scale to a national community without it.

Under David Plouffe’s meticulous leadership and Joe Rospars’ digital genius, new digital tools and social media networks became our path to scale. We became opportunistic consumers of technology, trying anything and everything to deepen our connection to the community, to empower people to connect with their neighbors more easily, and to create a new model for data-driven community organizing.

Social media platforms, like Twitter and Facebook, were not only additional channels to deliver messages, but paths to organically reach our supporters and to empower them to engage into their own untapped networks. Empowering and harnessing a community of American voters’ and directing them to ways they could help was the only way we were going to win.

Time to Build

When you’re trying to win a primary every week, you have a short horizon. In 2012, we had the great gift of incumbency: time. We had time to examine the tools we’d relied on and to build our own technologies to match the new landscape greeting us.

Between 2008 and 2012, the communications technology landscape dramatically shifted from mostly early adopters to being mainstream. Smartphones were now nearly half of all mobile phones. Facebook was a ubiquitous part of almost a billion lives. Twitter had become the mechanism for real-time news and response.

Memes were popping up almost immediately after each perceived political gaffe or dig — from “Binders full of women” to “The Big Bird fiasco” to the 47% video that began as a private conversation and became one of the defining themes of the election. And with the rise of cloud computing, not only did our capacity to build systems increase, our ability to store and analyze data were vastly expanded, as well.  

The 2012 election cycle was as much about the rise and integration of analytics into decision making as it was about creating technologies. Our ability to create, consume, analyze, and report on data was driven by an unparalleled team led by Dan Wagner.

They were able to leverage new data science techniques to challenge and change conventional wisdom from instinct to fact across nearly every facet of the campaign. Armed with this data, we were able to find competitive advantages in expected places and greater efficiency in everything we did.

Expanding Expectations of a Digital Presidency

From the first days of transition in 2008, President Obama’s administration embraced the same commitment to community engagement, storytelling, and empowerment through technology that imbued our campaigns.

Embracing internet-based pop culture in real-time, President Obama changed the perception of a sitting president from that of the ivory tower bully-pulpit to one of an accessible public servant. Communicating directly with citizens where they are already having conversations has become a new normal.  

He has played into the popular “Thanks Obama” meme the Republican Party created to blame him for all perceived political blunders by using the phrase in his Buzzfeed-produced viral video to promote his new healthcare plan.

To increase transparency and engage directly with his constituents, he participated in an AMA session on social aggregator website Reddit, attended interactive marketing and music festival SXSW which formed the basis for the new White House innovation event SXSL (South by South Lawn), and built the White house digital office which launched their own petition platform, We the People.

He has appeared on comedian Zach Galifianakis’ internet show Between Two Ferns and done his part to encourage young voters to get registered (and turn out) to vote with his 5 Things That Are Harder Than Registering to Vote.

A New Normal

The 2016 cycle has been categorized by unprecedented unpredictability, not as much from the perspective of technology disruption, but a whole-scale shift in the norms of campaign communications. In some ways Donald Trump’s “fire, ready, aim (maybe)” strategy is the epitome of the short-term mentality that dominates so much social media engagement.

And whether we want to admit it or not, it is a strategy, and it has allowed him to dominate coverage and constantly set the terms of argument throughout the primary in particular. Many have lambasted the rise of stream-based and short-form content for destroying the necessary nuance required for complex policy and political discourse. But blaming a platform for our inability to draw and maintain attention is an abdication of responsibility.  

From 2008 to today, we’ve evolved from trying to engage and build communities through any technology we could find to deep technical innovation in engineering and analytics to greater scale, efficiency, and relevance by personalizing experiences and technology tools for the people and users they serve. And it is that personalization, that focus on the people at the center of our thinking, that drives both engagement and innovation at its best.

What we’ve learned over the last 9 years is to focus more on building relationships with the communities we lead and inspire, where listening is as important as talking, where we focus more on how technologies tools and digital experiences create opportunities for participation than on the underlying technologies themselves.

Twitter may be where we start conversations and where we do real-time response, but it should not be the sum total of our relationships. Ultimately, if we are to embrace this kind of innovation after election day, when the real work of change and progress gets done, it is this kind of focus that has to prevail.

Our focus cannot be on a desire to innovate for the novelty of the technology, but rather must encapsulate an unshakeable belief that we can be and do better, with technology serving that progress.

Slaby is Head of Mission for Timshel. One of the foremost technology and digital strategists in the world, A leader of President Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns, Michael was the 2012 campaign’s Chief Integration and Innovation Officer, overseeing the effective integration of technology, digital strategy, and analytics.


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