President Obama’s Digital Team Shares the Secret to Its Success

By Jennifer Moire 

For the first time, members of President Obama’s digital team are sharing some of the secrets behind their groundbreaking strategy, including how they happened upon the now-famous photo that was used in the most Tweeted and shared Facebook post in history.

A member of the usually tight-lipped crew gave her first extensive interview to the Daily Beast today in which she discussed the iconic photo, the election night strategy, and how a team of four oversaw all social media accounts—including more niche platforms such as Tumblr, Pinterest and Spotify—on behalf of president, First Lady and Vice President Joe Biden.

The piece centers on Laura Olin, a 31-year old digital campaign operative who oversaw the digital team and started her Election Day at 4 a.m.

For a campaign that prided itself on mining data to select everything from subject lines for emails to Twitter and Facebook content, you might be surprised to hear that the selection of the photo featuring the president hugging Michelle was a last-minute call by Olin, knowing only that people loved seeing the president and First Lady together.  The photo, which was snapped over the summer in Iowa, posted at 11:15 p.m. CT with the caption “Four more years,” and went on to break records, garnering 816,000 re-tweets to date and more than 4.5 million Facebook likes.

Here are a few more lessons from the Obama digital team that other strategists might benefit from:

  • All decisions were made by the team, not the White House, which enabled them to react quickly to events in the news cycle. When they knew something big was going to happen, the digital staffers would work to spread the messages in the voices established for each of the accounts.  Joe Biden commented on a lot of veteran’s issues and middle class families, while Michelle spoke out on Facebook and Twitter about women’s issues and education.
  • A lot of thought went into how each platform was used.  For example, Facebook was ideal for targeting posts to voters of a specific age or demographic, while Tumblr made sense with younger voters.
  • The digital staff tested different scenarios in the lead-up to Election Day. Half of the team focused on breaking events, using Facebook to alert users to changes in polling place locations and other get out the vote messages, while the other half devoted their time to planning.
  • Even the seasoned campaign team were terrified of making grammatical errors, like the Romney campaign did when they launched an iPhone app that invited users to snap photos of themselves in “Amercia,” which led to days of snickering for the Republicans. Olin attributes their success in this regard to choosing the best people who were also rigorous fact-checkers.

The campaign is winding down in Chicago, and Olin says the focus has turned to coordinating messages for the president that reaffirm his commitment to the middle class, just as negotiations surrounding the “fiscal cliff” get underway.

As for advice for Olin’s counterparts in the Republican party?

If I were them I would get better at talking to people like people. I’m sure there are people, young Republicans, out there that get it. The party, she adds, needs to be brave enough to just let people who know their shit do what they do.

Do you think the Obama campaign can serve as a model for digital strategists in other industries?