Unhappy critics may well look askance at Barack Obama's performance as Commander-in-Chief. As campaigner-in-chief, however, this President is demonstrably without peer. His "Obama for America" fundraising, analytics and "get out the vote" operation was a masterpiece of agile electoral innovation and entrepreneurship. Partisans from both sides of the aisle believe it transformed presidential politics.
They're right. But, actually, they're thinking too small. The Obama campaign's techniques, tools and technologies deserve detailed and dedicated attention from every organization that takes data-driven decisions seriously. There's not a brand manager, health care administrator, CMO or CIO who wouldn't benefit big-time from benchmarking their own operations to this campaign's. It was that good.
By far the best synthesis and summary of the digital keys to the campaign's success is Engage DC's Inside the Cave. I've seldom read a briefing so artfully — and accessibly — capturing the critical success factors that turn innovative tools into successful outcomes. Although superbly presented as a case study in campaign organization and technology, its essential lessons go way beyond the mechanics of procuring donors, donations and votes. This is what investing to control your destiny looks like.
The campaign had an outward facing "Digital" component addressing email, social media and fundraising, as well as "Technology" and "Analytics" departments focused on making campaign processes and purchases more efficient. The organization was dedicated to the proposition that it would not just use tools and analytics to get better, it would use them to learn how to get better — and act accordingly. Ego and experience were subordinated to measurable results.
"We basically found our guts were worthless," observed a senior member of the campaign's email team, on the fact that nobody on the team could reliably predict which emails would perform best. The campaign committed itself to a relentless regimen of experimentation, test and test again. The team "regularly tested" as many as 18 variations on subject line and email copy. ("Hey" was the most successful subject line of the campaign based on email opens.)
This emphasis on test extended through every phase of the operation. The campaign ran what it called a "Game Day" exercise testing its abilities to respond to possible worst case scenarios of technical failure and surprise. These drills, which coincidentally ran the week before Hurricane Sandy, allowed the DevOps (for Development Operations) team to keep the campaign's systems running while learning how to perform rapid disaster recovery response.
"We knew what to do," said Harper Reed, the campaign's Chief Technology Officer. "We had a runbook that said if this happens, you do this, this and this." While practice doesn't necessarily mean perfect, it made a significant difference in organizational and operational effectiveness and esprit. (By painful contrast, the Romney campaign's experience with its Orca operational system offers a painful case study of what can happen when experimentation and stress-tests are managerially marginalized.)
Whether doing extensive A/B testing on its donation pages or deploying a clever mobile app, "Quick Donate" (which allowed for/facilitated "drunk donating"), the campaign's technologists and analysts constantly sought to create virtuous cycles of better outcomes leading to better data leading to great efficiencies. I was particularly impressed by how rigorously and relentlessly the analytics teams modeled their "markets," i.e., the voters and electorate. According to Inside the Cave, the analysts ran 66,000 simulations each night to project who was winning every battleground state, based on dynamic models based on voter contact data. Of course, the analysts were using Facebook and Twitter data, as well.
All these near-real-time "market" data helped determine resource allocation. The campaign developed impressive tools to better optimize the efficiencies and effectiveness of both their digital and traditional media buys. Innovative tools allowed out-of-state volunteers to make calls to swing state undecideds. Indeed, the campaign created a sweet suite of apps and services supporting its "sales force" — i.e., the "get out the vote" volunteers — who would successfully move the needle on election day.
Yes, there were integration problems and issues. Campaign field director Jeremy Bird observed that, "we never got to a point where a field staffer thought it made more sense to text someone than to call them." But these were frustrations borne of failed effort, not ignorance or intent. I must point out that, even if Obama had lost, the operational innovation and effectiveness of his campaign would still evoke admiration and emulation. No other national campaign has gotten more measurable value from technology, data and analytics in less time than this one.
The briefing's What's Next: 2016 is as insightfully useful for today's CEO as tomorrow's presidential candidate. Each one of its three big themes — Better Social Targeting, Real Time Analytics Overtakes Polling and True Digital Integration — would likely deserve their own internal task force inside every Fortune 1000 firm.
While it may seem odd to look to a (largely volunteer) presidential campaign for digital/analytical/operational inspiration, (look at Sasha Issenberg's excellent The Victory Lab for historical context), the fact is that I know of very few business organizations that have gotten comparable value for money and effort from their own innovation investments.
Until the actual "Obama for America" codebase is freely available (and this is the subject of intense debate), if you want a blueprint, map or resource for your own organization's digital marketing aspirations, read, reread and then circulate Inside the Cave. It will provoke the internal conversation and debate your business likely needs.