Harnessing people power


9 Nov 2008

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Intelligent use of the new social media was central to the success of Barack Obama’s bid for the US presidency, according to Martin Thomas and David Brain, the authors of Crowd Surfing. They spoke to Business & Leadership the morning after the election, when they were in Dublin to address the Marketing Institute’s 29th National Conference this week.

“When Obama was going for the democratic nomination, he was the underdog; he didn’t have a huge budget, and he relied very heavily on social media to mobilise people,” said Thomas, a consultant and former head of global communications planning at Mediaedge. “And he truly did mobilise people, people who had never voted before. It was a movement. I saw people on TV last night who had hitch-hiked to Chicago to be there for his acceptance speech. He managed to create a movement that I don’t think could have been created by conventional media – you just wouldn’t get that kind of involvement or engagement.”

Brain, European CEO of Edelman, pointed to Obama’s early fundraising success online. “I think he got an amazing legitimisation from the way he raised funds – millions of people paying 5, 10, 20 dollars. A million people putting in 20 dollars carried a lot more legitimacy than 20 people putting up a million dollars.

“That said, it is interesting to see what he did with that money later on,” Brain conceded, referring to the millions spent on TV advertising in the latter days of the campaign.

“Once the stakes were raised and he was then fighting for the presidency, and the money started coming in, the balance shifted. So they kept doing the social media stuff, but he became more dependent on traditional media. At that stage, he had mobilised people. It was more a case of keeping the movement going, rather than starting from scratch with TV,” Thomas added.

The key to Obama’s successful leverage of social media and online can be attributed in part to those with whom he associated. “He surrounded himself with the best social media guys available, the heads of Facebook, the heads of Google – all these guys were part of his campaign, so he got the best advice when it came to understanding how you embrace this media,” said Thomas.

Throughout the world, politicians are trying to get themselves involved in this form of communications, he continued. “You’ll see in the UK, David Cameron is trying to embrace these things. I think most politicians have kind of half got it. They kind of think, ‘What a great way to reach people’, but they have maybe not quite realised it’s a two-way process, so they are still using it in quite a traditional way. They’re maybe not recognising it’s a whole different set of behaviours.”

Read the full-length interview on businessandleadership.com