An Inside Look at Obama’s Grassroots Marketing

This year’s primaries have been some of the most exciting in living memory. There’s been new thinking, bold new political approaches and bold new marketing practices. Barack Obama’s campaign has been extraordinary for a number of reasons, ranging from the radical use of new media tools to the use of social networking to further his reach. Following is an apolitical summary of five innovative ways the campaign has used messaging and media to help create Obama’s grassroots movement:
1. Leveraging the power of inspiration

If you want your audience to love you, wear your T-shirt and forgive your weaknesses, then connect with them on a level beyond the rational benefits/details. The voter’s long journey to the voting booth may twist and turn on those rational policy points, but selecting the candidate inside the booth is often a split-second, emotional decision — in much the same way that consumers make product choices on the shelves.
Obama’s campaign has laid out a clear set of inspiring values — hope, action, change — that weaves consistently through all forms of communication. The rest is commentary. And the campaign has been very good at seamlessly translating these values directly into simple slogans designed to elicit the same responses. Phrases like “Change we can believe in” and “Yes, we can” are examples of phrases that epitomize the Obama brand values and speak positively to the subconscious in a way that would make NLP (Neuro-linguistic Programming) practitioners proud.
2. Bottom-up brand management

The Obama brand is led from the bottom up, not the top down. The campaign has a social-networking site with powerful, instant peer-to-peer communication. With features like “create your own event” and “create your own Obama group,” the campaign has created a self-organizing system. Obama HQ provides the tools for these people to meet, organize, fund-raise and canvass voters, but does not dictate the content or intervene with the peer groups. The chat rooms and events on, such as “Jazz Brunch for Obama Fundraiser,” “Anime Fans for Obama” and “Barack the Kitchen Club,” show the eclectic and organic nature of the organization. I’m sure if I set up a “Twisty Balloon Animals for Obama Fundraiser” this would be uploaded unedited to the site. This creates grassroots ownership and makes campaigners less like foot soldiers and more like the passionate minuteman of the American Revolution. If you want to show up to proverbially fight for Obama with a pitchfork and a homemade uniform, all you have to do is sign up and you’re in.
This campaign’s user-generated brand culture also has a halo effect, spawning independent grassroots Obama campaigns and communities online. For example, the “Yes We Can” viral video created by and cYclops has achieved nearly 6 million hits on YouTube without any seeding or media funding. The video, a personal project created by and first posted on his blog, dipdive, has broken viral ratings. Mark Jurkovac, CEO of cYclops and executive producer of the video, recalls that as soon as it went viral “we got calls from all sorts of groups saying they wanted to do their version of the ‘Yes We Can’ and so we decided to create an online community for this kind of content.” A Web site,, was created and has since become a social community for Obama user-generated content, a sort of pro-Obama YouTube. The Web site allows voters to upload their photographs to create a video installation set to the music.
Though Obama is credited as the CEO of Inspiration, no one involved in these projects has spoken to or worked directly with the official Obama campaign. As a self-organizing community, hopeactchange continues to generate new viral content.
3. Continuous activation through ‘SMART’ objectives

Marketing 101 instructs that to achieve goals, objectives must be “Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic and Timed.” It seems that all internal Obama peer-to-peer campaign initiatives follow this dictum. There are no woolly entreaties to “donate your time to the cause.” Initiatives give a specific goal and date (e.g., “1.5 million calls by Tuesday”) and make them actionable and realistic through easy-to-use online tools (e.g., “click on this button and make 20 calls from this list”) and results are posted in real time. Momentum is maintained by a new internal action objective that greets registered users on the home page and in targeted emails.
4. Social networking infused with healthy competition

The Obama Web site’s social-networking tools are infused with healthy peer-to-peer competition that helps to drive traffic. Matching peer donations, viewable personal fundraising pages and shared postings of peers with the highest calling rates are examples of how the campaign harnesses friendly peer-to-peer competition. The Web site’s point scoring system awards actions on level of commitment and usefulness to the cause. These points are not redeemable, but help users understand their level of action in the movement and to set personal goals.
5. Pop-up stores to galvanize online/offline activities

The Obama campaign has overcome its lack of infrastructure in key areas by utilizing what in marketing-speak we call a pop-up store — a temporary distribution channel/brand experience set up in a vacant retail space. For example, my local Obama campaign HQ was an old movie rental shop. It was rebranded in Obama campaign livery and began distributing campaign material and running phone banks despite still having the original “We Got Movies” neon sign over the door. These pop-up stores on the ground are combined with the Web site’s powerful Mapquest-style location tool so peer groups could find each other and local events, as well as find their new campaign HQ. The result is a holistic integration of a real-world grassroots meeting place for the virtual, online groups and activities. Arguably it is this fusion of the online and offline activation that enables the campaign to harness the power of its grassroots fan base.
Regardless of who wins the nomination, this election will be historic for many reasons, including the Obama campaign’s marketing techniques. For the first time, the democratic power of the Internet has truly been harnessed in a presidential election campaign.

Ilana Bryant is global chief strategic officer at StrawberryFrog.