The Secret to Obama’s Social Media Success? The Campaign was one step behind.

by cv harquail on November 5, 2008

Obama Campaign Social Media Strategy Authentic Everybody’s talking about how Obama’s campaign has revolutionized politics , due in large part to the way that the Campaign employed social media. But as much as it’s true that the Obama Campaign was one step ahead of McCain (and anyone else) in using social media, it was also one step behind just about every social media consultant’s best action plan.

The Obama Campaign took one giant step back from where social networks usually start, by focusing on "you".

The Campaign understood the fundamental social need that we all share — the need to be seen for "who we are". This need is otherwise known as the need for authenticity. Before anyone gets involved in social media, whether to be an influencer, to become a node, to create a community or to call others to action, he or she needs to be recognized by others. And being recognized depends on being able to show "who you are".

aboaut you Social networks begin with "who you are".

A social network begins when a few people display who they are. They say "Here I am" and "This is who I am." Once a person has displayed his or her identity, others respond by recognizing them, affirming who they are, and making a connection. Only after these connections are made can individuals use a network to promote ideas, call others to action, and create the community that is the foundation for a social movement.

[Think about how any of the social networks that you participate in started.For example, how did you get started on LinkedIn? If you’re like most people, the first thing you did was create a profile– you announced who you were, and made that public. Before you could link to anyone else, join any groups, or pose any questions, you had to identify yourself.]


The best, most organic social networks are created when people have a chance to show an important part of who they are, especially when that part of their identity is either hidden or not valued. Take, for example, the quirky little BriteBlueDot movement. Begun in 2006 by two liberals in the Red state of Alabama, the BriteBlueDot movement gave liberals a chance to show themselves with a positive symbol. Individuals displayed a BriteBlueDot sticker to tell the general public "Hey, I’m a liberal!"

Liberals in red states used the symbol not only to claim who they were, but also to affirm that being a liberal was a good thing. Says one BriteBlueDot person "The minute I saw it, all I could think of was ‘That’s me’." Says another, when I see a BriteBlueDot, "it reassures me that I’m not alone, that it’s okay to be a Democrat."

A funny thing happens when you announce publicly ‘who you are’. Other people come up to you and say "Yeah, I’m one of those too." When folks stuck blue dots on their cars to ‘come out’ as liberals, they invited others to come up and say "I’m a liberal too." From that mutual recognition, each was able to affirm the other, a connection was created, and a network was begun.

Over at the Obama Campaign, they created online tactics that encouraged and validated our desire to display "who we are" so that we can be known. The main website, at, is ostensibly about signing up so that "you" can be a campaign organizer. By assuming that you are a supporter and that you want to get involved, the website affirms "who you are" before you even get started!

But wait, there’s more. The website also invites users to display who they are. You’re not there just to add your name to a data base of volunteers; you also have the opportunity to create a personal profile, share your story on your blog, list all of your campaign activities as you complete them, get in touch with your neighbors, add a photograph, and more. With any or all of these tools, you get to show people "who you are", making it possible for you to be recognized and affirmed by others . At heart, the website is all about coming out as a supporter, and meeting other people who understand ‘who you are’ and what you value.

Affirming "who you are" leads you towards being authentic.

I have been thinking a lot about the role of affirmation and authenticity in the Obama Campaign, after the responses that I got (many offline) to my post Obama’s Website Made Me Cry. Apparently, I was not the only person who was touched to discover another supporter, somewhere out there, who shared my values.

And, I had another weird epiphany when Brock called my on my cellphone to ask when, again, was the grand opening party for the nearby Obama Campaign office? I didn’t know who Brock was. But I had phoned him (as part of the ‘neighbor to neighbor’ feature on Obama’s website) to tell him how he could volunteer to canvas in our community. Since I had identified myself to him as an Obama supporter with that phone call, he’d used caller i.d. and reverse dialed me. He assumed that I would know what was going on, and so Brock was returning the connection. My friends, that’s how social networks get made.

Before you can "link up and go" …

Lots of social media consultants, and lots of business academics, will tell you that being influential is all about making connections and participating in the community. Just link up and you’re off, they suggest.

But they skip an important first step for creating a social network. They skip the step that BriteBlueDot and the Obama Campaign each got, and got so right. Before people can connect, they have to have a way to show who they are. They can show who they are through a profile on a website, a photo used as a gravatar, or a BriteBlueDot sticker on their bumper. But whatever it is, the starting point is the ability to tell others "who you are", so that through connection you can be yourself.

Influence flows from connection, connection flows from affirmation, and affirmation is possible only when you can show "who you are". Before we influence, connect or affirm, we have to take a step back. We have to go back to the place where we invite each other to share who we are". That’s the very first step, where it all begins.

In the beginning of a social network, it’s all about "you ", so that in the end, it’s all about us.

And that’s Obama’s secret.


Some more insights: Check out Paul Greenberg’s 2007 post: Social Networks don’t DO grassroots, they are grassroots… or this Obama vs McCain website analysis or Lynn Sweet’s article at the Chicago Sun-Times .

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