David Plouffe explains social media in the Obama campaign at Convergence 2009

David Plouffe, President Barack Obama’s point man on social media talked to a packed house at Convergence 2009 at the new Vancouver Convention Centre. Plouffe’s innovative strategy not only got Obama elected but also managed to raise the largest amount og campaign funding in election history.

But how did he do it? Plouffe pointed out that the very beginning of the campaign they were the biggest of underdogs. Most people who run for the presidency spend decades getting ready for their run, he said, and by contrast Obama and his team had their first serious discussion in 2006.

At the core of the decision to run was a belief that the campaign should be grass-roots and based on technology. Even though they were going up against one of the strongest candidates the Democrats had ever fielded in the form of Hillary Clinton, their belief was “put thought into the strategy and maybe it won’t work, but it’s our only path.” You’ve got to have a strategy, and put time into it, and if you do that you’ll only have to adjust tactics.

Fund raising was another daunting task. Plouffe said they were facing one of the best fund raising apprati in the history of the US, so the Obama campaign worked on a nationwide fund-raising campaign based on social media. By using their social networking site they were able to bring those who had contributed already into the fold and they would in turn start fundraising. By the end of the campaign, they had raised 3/4 of a billion dollars, almost all of it through grass-roots methods.

Everyone raises money online, Plouffe said, but the difference as not only scale but composition. People held fund-raising house parties and other informal gatherings, and half of the 4 million people who gave money had never done so before.

The consequent financial muscle allowed the campaign to compete in states where they wouldn’t have had a chance using traditional methods, and it also allowed them to dictate the campaign against John McCain.

Plouffe said that the people they appealed to live their lives through technology, and their politics should be no different, so they made it as easy as possible for people to raise money online if that’s how they wanted to do so.

The campaign was also able to sustain itself with minimal staff because volunteers were organizing themselve through social media. This was a phenomenon that had never been done before in American politics.

If the campaign had not had those grass-roots supporters, Plouffe said, they would not have won the presidency.
And the other big change was that the campaign changed the electorate by bringing in younger voters. The challenges were many, including getting young people to go to old, traditional Democratic caucuses and participate when they’d never  done so before.
Information technology was a huge driver in getting people to register to vote, and by looking at the composition of who was voting early, the campaign was able to further hone their tactics. By using technology to inform people (amongst other things, an iPhone app) on how to get out to vote, they were able to get a sizable turnout that had never voted before. And because of technology, their volunteers were able to multiply the voter registration effect by doing it themselves for free.

At some points, the message was being sent out to a network of people who rivalled if not exceeded that of peple atching the nightly news. Additionally, the campaign found that using video also really helped spread the message, something they didn’t know at the start of the campaign, Plouffe said.

and most importantly, Plouffe stressed that they built their campaign on what they actually believed. They believed in the strength of their supporters, to the point that they even pushed things by asking for more and more out of them, traditionally a no-no for non-profit fundraising.

And now that Obama is elected, keeping the conversation going is still important, Plouffe said. Conversation is being played out on the devices we all use, and will just become more so. People aren’t talking about what they get through the media but rather what they get from each other, and by bypassing traditional media and reaching people directly, the campaign (and Obama’s administration) are able to speak to people instead of at them through the media.

The real drivers were “old school”, Plouffe said. Twitter wasn’t even around when they started in 2006, and the main driver was email and the internet, with other social media following suit. In eight years, that will “seem like Jurassic Park,” but it worked, he said.

The tactics and the technology are available to all, Plouffe said. What isn’t available is the passion behind a common cause. This win was only possible because Obama inspired millions to do something they’d never done before whether it was voting or raising funds. The tech made it possible, but it was the passion that drove it all.