First Mover: Joe Rospars

Obama's former chief digital strategist on what the former candidate and Lady Gaga have in common


Age 31

Ongoing gig Founding partner and creative director at Blue State Digital

Old gig Chief digital strategist on the Obama campaign

How’re you keeping busy now that the election is over?

We’re focused on applying the lessons from the campaign—strategically, organizationally and otherwise. We work with nonprofits, charitable organizations, institutions like museums, alumni associations for universities and brands to help them develop a deeper relationship with the people who are most important to them. That’s your brand enthusiasts, your donors and volunteers. So when you look at the Obama campaign or our program with the Green Bay Packers, organizing Packers fans who don’t live in Green Bay, or working with the Born This Way Foundation of Lady Gaga, the work is very similar.

What lessons from this past election cycle are you bringing to bear for brand clients?

Presidential campaigns are an opportunity to start from scratch organizationally. So the organizational learning around adapting to opportunity in real time, without the kind of institutional baggage that a big brand or a big charity has, really stretches the mind and provides a lot of insight. That’s one part. The other is just to make everything much more social in a way that drives ROI.

What about mobile?

If more than 30 percent of your people are opening your email on mobile devices, that has a lot of implications, and there are a lot of brands and organizations that are still a little bit in denial about how many people and how frequently people are interacting with them on a mobile device. There’s a tendency to feel like the private sector is moving the fastest on this kind of thing, but when you look at different advocacy groups or charities—and our work bridges advocacy groups and charities and brands—it’s more about the leadership of an organization being nimble and serious about addressing the challenges and opportunities than it is about the sector they’re in.

In a broader sense, what’s the future of digital politics?

It’s not inevitable that campaigns are going to continue to do great groundbreaking work in digital. My hope is that our side is able to maintain its advantage because the Romney campaign was the campaign of raising big money and hoping you could sort of obliterate your opponent on television, whereas we’re focused on genuinely building a grassroots campaign with volunteers and people giving $5 and $10 at a time. So to the extent that the Republicans continue to not take that seriously and not necessarily take the digital piece required to do it seriously, that’s good for us. Our campaign was a moment in time to prove that in a post-Citizens United, Karl Rove-Crossroads world, you still can build a grassroots campaign from the bottom up. That wasn’t inevitable in the spring and summer of 2011. The notion of a grassroots campaign not just being able to win but win decisively was an important thing for our democracy.

What’s the next election going to be about, from a technology perspective?

There’s still a lot of real fundamental work to be done on a campaign to have a single set of data to be able to communicate to people the way they want to be communicated with. If you’re starting from scratch and you have to build a voter file and tools and figure out how to send an email, that’s not a good thing.

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