Staying on Message

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately on the 2008 Obama campaign, especially with respect to its use of social media. It’s particularly interesting in light of the 2012 campaign. Is pretty clear that the data-driven campaign that was run in 2012 was not a new thing. Large portions of it had been tried in 2008 and discovered to be useful. For instance, the 2008 splash page for Obama’s web site was tested in many different variations and continued to change right up until the last month of the campaign. The design was entirely informed by the success of signing people up (with email or mobile phones that could receive text messages) and not by what looked best or what the design group thought would be most effective.

(It must have been frustrating to be a designer at this inflection point. Prior to this you were the king of how things looked, but now you’re entirely responsive to the data.)

I’ll probably talk about a lot of things from this campaign, but here I want to talk about how hard staying on message is for a campaign. Several times, the campaign manager in 2008 emphasized how important it was that the whole campaign be talking about the same thing at the same time. Here’s an example:

The discipline to develop best practices and stick to them is what often separates a mediocre online program from a truly great one. This includes the discipline required to ONLY send content that you know your supporters will value, instead of sending out the press release from your communications department. It also includes the discipline to adhere to a consistent brand, including look and feel, and message narrative. It means, in short, the discipline to stay ON message. OFA executed every aspect of its new media program – and the entire campaign – with impeccable discipline.
David Plouffe, Campaign Manager, described this philosophy as “a belief in alignment. What does that mean?… It meant that you had to be firing off all cylinders… On a day when Barack Obama was in, let’s say, Toledo, Ohio … if his speech that day was about energy… we’d make sure our volunteers that day were talking to the voters in Toledo about energy and that we had advertising on that focused on energy and that our Internet advertising in that market was focused on energy. Because if Barack Obama’s talking about energy, but … our volunteer knocked on someone’s door and talked about health care and the TV ad is about tax cuts and the website’s about Iraq, people are going to wonder ‘What’s going on here?’… That alignment is really hard, though. We had to step back every day and make sure: Are we in alignment?”

I want to emphasize that this is really, really hard. I’ve been doing some work for the Ryan Meili campaign for Saskatchewan NDP Leader and yesterday was a classic example of why this is difficult. Yesterday the campaign released a major policy document on labour and we were pushing it on social media, but at the same time there was a news article on how successful the campaign had been in getting donations last month (spoiler: we rocked) and news about the University of Saskatchewan shutting down a valuable satellite campus. Both of those other two issues were of huge interest to our supporters and galvanized the social media team. Both of those other issues deserved attention from the campaign as well, but talking about them would take away from the primary message of the day.

Now, the Meili Campaign is grassroots based, so we couldn’t tell people not to talk about the other issues (and it would have been wrong), so people associated with the campaign did start talking about these other issues, but I’m still not sure that was a good idea. As we move forward, I’m wondering just how successful staying on message can be in this kind of campaign… and also how desirable.

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