Friday, February 17, 2012

Obama, Facebook And The Power Of Friendship: The 2012 Data Election

Facebook and a unified computer database that gathers and refines information on millions of potential voters is at the forefront of campaign technology – and could be the key to an Obama win.

Barack Obama's re-election team are building a vast digital data operation that for the first time combines a unified database on millions of Americans with the power of Facebook to target individual voters to a degree never achieved before.

Digital analysts predict this will be the first election cycle in which Facebook could become a dominant political force. The social media giant has grown exponentially since the last presidential election, rendering it for the first time a major campaigning tool that has the potential to transform friendship into a political weapon.

Facebook is also being seen as a source of invaluable data on voters. The re-election team, Obama for America, will be inviting its supporters to log on to the campaign website via Facebook, thus allowing the campaign to access their personal data and add it to the central data store – the largest, most detailed and potentially most powerful in the history of political campaigns. If 2008 was all about social media, 2012 is destined to become the "data election".

"Facebook is now ubiquitous," says Dan Siroker, a former Google digital analyst who joined Obama's campaign in 2008 and now runs his own San Francisco-based analytics consultancy, Optimizely. "Whichever candidate uses Facebook the most effectively could win the war."

For the past nine months a crack team of some of America's top data wonks has occupied an entire floor of the Prudential building in Chicago devising a digital campaign from the bottom up. The team draws much of its style and inspiration from the corporate sector, with its driving ambition to create a vote-garnering machine that is smooth, unobtrusive and ruthlessly efficient.

Already more than 100 geeks, some recruited at top-flight university job fairs including Stanford, are assembled in the Prudential drawn from an array of disciplines: statisticians, predictive modellers, data mining experts, mathematicians, software engineers, bloggers, internet advertising experts and online organizers.

At the core is a single beating heart – a unified computer database that gathers and refines information on millions of committed and potential Obama voters. The database will allow staff and volunteers at all levels of the campaign – from the top strategists answering directly to Obama's campaign manager Jim Messina to the lowliest canvasser on the doorsteps of Ohio – to unlock knowledge about individual voters and use it to target personalized messages that they hope will mobilize voters where it counts most.

Every time an individual volunteers to help out – for instance by offering to host a fundraising party for the president – he or she will be asked to log onto the re-election website with their Facebook credentials. That in turn will engage Facebook Connect, the digital interface that shares a user's personal information with a third party.

Consciously or otherwise, the individual volunteer will be injecting all the information they store publicly on their Facebook page – home location, date of birth, interests and, crucially, network of friends – directly into the central Obama database.

"If you log in with Facebook, now the campaign has connected you with all your relationships," a digital campaign organizer who has worked on behalf of Obama says.

The potential benefits of the strategy can already be felt. The Obama campaign this year has attracted about 1.3 million donors, 98% of whom have contributed $250 or less – that's more than double the number at the same stage in 2008. At this rate, Obama is also well on the way towards staging the world's first billion-dollar campaign.

Under its motto "Bigger, better, 2012", the Chicago team intends between now and election day in November to create a campaign powerhouse which will allow fundraisers, advertisers and state and local organizers to draw from the same data source.

Joe Rospars, the campaign's chief digital strategist, told a seminar at the Guardian-sponsored Social Media Week that the aim was to create technology that encourages voters to get involved, in tune with Obama's emphasis on community organizing.

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Read more about this subject at our companion blog: Political Campaigns in the Digital Age

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