Obama, Then and Now: Lessons Learned in Online Advocacy and Fundraising (Part I)

Christine Woods - 12.11.09

One of the quotes I read that describes President Barack Obama’s online strategy was this:

 “Real change comes from the bottom up…and there’s no more powerful tool for grass-roots organizing than the Internet.”

Boy…was he right. After his success, everyone wanted to know how he did it. In this two-part post, I wanted to explore a few key strategies that (now Mr. President) Obama used both during and after his campaign and how nonprofit can easily adopt to take their online strategy to the next level.


1. Start with an effective website


Barack Obama’s website was redesigned twice during the course of his campaign. From the very beginning, it was a huge priority, and a lot of time, research and effort went into its development. By the second time around, the result was a clean, streamlined design that was visually appealing and featured a simple navigation that inspires action. It wasn’t too text-heavy; but rather concise content that is clear and to the point, and always fresh. There was even a mobile version of the site to launched increase access to campaign information on the go.

The results:

  • The website had more unique visitors than any other candidate
  • Peaked to almost 9M in the weeks before and after the election


Obama tips for an effective website:

  • Consider a redesign – If you can’t remember the last time your website was redesigned, then it’s been too long!
  • Restructure your navigation – Navigation moves the audience…it should be easy to understand and easy to use.
  • Clean up your content – Use bulleted lists and short, concise content to communicate your point.
  • Start monitoring web traffic – Find out what areas of your website are valuable (or more importantly, NOT valuable) to visitors.
  • Optimize your website for search engines – What good is your website, if no one can find it?


2. Leverage the power of multimedia

Barack Obama’s campaign literally embraced every form of multimedia available. There was BarackTV (a library of video clips of Obama and his supporters), a YouTube channel, and Podcast on iTunes. The campaign regularly sent out text messages to supporters and even offered “Obama Ringtones” for download. The emphasis of these elements as part of the web strategy allowed the campaign to take advantage of the viral nature of multimedia material (remember “Obama Girl”?) and as a result, made a huge impact.


The results:

  • Collected more than a million cell phone numbers
  • Had over 1,821 videos on his YouTube channel over the course of 2 years
  • More than18.4 million views and 115,000 subscribers by November 4th
  • Famous speech during the campaign, “A More Perfect Union”, had over 6 million views

Obama tips for leveraging multimedia:

  • Try using multimedia instead in addition to text to tell your story – Images, audio, and video can captivate an audience and tell your story like words never could.
  • Leverage free resources available – Services like Vimeo, YouTube, and MyPodcast.com are free resources that can be embedded into your website
  • Solicit the help of your supporters – Try holding contests allowing your supporters to take on the production of video or other multimedia
  • Start small – Don’t have the resources for video? Start with still images or audio files and build from there.
  • Make your multimedia viral – Offer tools that allow your supporters to “tell a friend” or post to their websites, blogs, and Facebook pages. Allow viewers to easily share videos with others (i.e. YouTube).


3. Make email marketing work for you


During 2008 alone, I must have received hundreds of emails from Barack Obama’s campaign…and so did millions of others. The Obama team made an effort to collect emails at every opportunity. Over the course of the campaign, more than 1 billion emails were sent, about 7,000 different messages targeted to specific audiences. These emails were short and sweet, timely, relevant, and always included some sort of call to action. What really stood out about these messages was the fact that they were so personal and conversational; some of even them incorporated stories. They all made me feel like Obama himself took the time out to personally send an email just to me.


The results:

  • More than 13 million email addresses captured during the campaign
  • Two-thirds of the money they raised online is in direct response to an email solicitation

Obama tips for “small” fundraising:

  • Start with a plan – Create a year-long ecommunications calendar that compliments your offline communications
  • Give your subscribers a choice – Allow them to choose things like what topics they are interested in and how often they want to receive communication
  • Make your e-communications personal – Do this by targeting emails to specific audiences and including details that respect the recipient’s history.
  • Keep email content short and sweet – People are too busy these days to read through long emails. Get to the point and get to it fast.
  • Test and measure results – Testing and measuring results is the only way you will be able to know if your email marketing strategy is making an impact at all.


4. Ask for smaller donations and get a big impact



President Obama used email as a primary way to solicit first-time supporters. Most email solicitations asked supporters for $25 or less. Many solicitations featured deadlines asking for “just $5 more”. Often, supporters were asked to contribute multiple times.

The results:

  • Of the 6.5 million online donations, 6 million were $100 or less
  • Average online donation given of $80
  • The average online donor gave more than once during the course of the campaign

Obama tips for “small” fundraising:

  • Leverage low-cost solicitation methods – Email is a great way to
  • Ask new donors for smaller amounts – Asking for smaller donation amounts is a great way to get people on the hook for their first donation, without scaring them off.
  • Make donors feel like every dollar counts – Who says a dollar or five dollars can’t make a difference? Make sure your supporters know even a little bit can make an impact.
  • Inform supporters of deadlines and fundraising goals – Deadlines and goals are a great way to let supporters know that for just a small amount, they can help push your efforts over the edge.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask again – Since you are asking so such smaller amounts, why not ask more often than you would typically?


5. Embrace Virtual Fundraising



We have all heard of the traditional walk-a-thon model of fundraising. Taking a page out of the nonprofit fundraising handbook, the Obama team created “virtual” fundraising campaigns, or the “non-walk-a-thon”. Thousands of his supporters were able to raise millions of dollars without ever having to walk an inch. They created personal fundraising pages on the www.barackobama.com website, set a fundraising goal, and then sent emails to their family and friends asking them to support their efforts.


The results:

  • More than 70,000 people created fundraising pages
  • 30 million dollars was raised through viral fundraising alone


Obama tips for viral fundraising:

  • Educate your supporters – Let people know that this is even an option. They may be more willing to embrace the idea than you think
  • Make it easy – Provide resources, best practices, or even online tools to help your supporters in their fundraising efforts. The easier you make it, the more successful they will be.
  • Make it interesting – Encourage the spirit of competition by allowing your supporters to create teams.
  • Add a personal touch – Allow participants celebrate a milestone like a birthday or graduation or pay tribute to a loved one
  • Monitor progress and reward success – Let’s face it, people love being rewarded. Milestones, contests and prizes for dollars raised are all good ways to keep them encouraged.

Want more? Stay tuned for my next post on the things President Obama is doing now to keep his supporters engaged and continue the momentum.


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