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Lessons for UK from US digital campaign experts

Posted on 19/04/2013

Members of the team behind Obama’s successful 2012 re-election bid joined other technology experts at King’s College London this week to share insights into the US Presidential campaign that revolutionised political campaigning in a digital age. They assessed the power of social media and its impact not only on electoral politics, but also on civil society, commerce and government.

Pictured from right-to-left: Jen O'Malley Dillon, Vincent Feltesse and Mark Pack during Plenary 1
At the event ‘Contested Spaces: The Third Quadrennial Global Internet and Politics Conference’, hosted by the King’s Policy Institute and supported by ebay, the minds behind Obama’s electoral victory said digital was at the forefront of the Democrat bid, not an afterthought, and influenced every aspect of the campaign.
Jen O’Malley Dillon, Obama’s former Deputy Campaign Manager, said: ‘We set out to ensure that digital communications was a top priority of the campaign. We built the structure and ensured we had the resources to enable it sit at the senior table with all the other strategic decisions we were making as a campaign. We looked at digital communications not just in terms of rapid response or social media networking, but as a tool for organising and engaging people with the campaign. We sought to incorporate digital into all the programmes, projects and efforts the campaign was prioritising.’
In lively debate, key figures from the worlds of political campaigning, business, technology policymaking and academia reflected on the strategies behind the latest US election campaign and looked to what the UK might be able to take from their success.

Ian Spencer from digital campaigns agency Red Edge, who has compared the Republicans' effort in the sphere to that of the Obama campaign, said: ‘Looking at the Obama campaign from the other side, one of the things we were impressed by on a daily basis was their dedication to constantly trying out something new. That commitment to trial and error, very smart gambles, paid huge dividends. Seeing them relentlessly test their donation pages for example. You could tell that when they released a new element in the digital sphere a lot of thought had gone into it, but it was still flexible enough to adapt for the future.’
In a day of debate and presentations opinion formers, staff and students got involved with the discussion. Underlining the importance of digital campaigning in the UK, panellist Mark Pack, Associate Director at Blue Rubicon, said: ‘With 80, 000 potential voters in a typical British constituency there’s a fundamental communications problem of too many voters and not enough time.’ Speaking in his session, Dr James Boys, from the Department of Middle East & Mediterranean Studies at King’s, said: ‘The internet can elevate a gifted candidate – it won’t save a poor one.’
Jen O’Malley Dillon said the key was to create lots of opportunities, visual and non-visual, for content that people can share. ‘So much of the digital space is, I believe, personal. While we spent a great deal of time communicating about policy, about events and engaging people at the tactical level, people were able to get to know Barack Obama through Twitter and through facebook. So for example. that picture of the President and the First Lady embracing was real. They hadn’t seen each other for a few days on the campaign trail and it resulted in a genuine moment that captured who they are.’
She said that was a key principle to remember and a learning point for others. ‘There is always risk in showing a personal side and being fun and creative, but people want to know their politicians and that’s what that picture was all about.’
The discussions between panellists and audience members covered far-ranging aspects of digital campaigning in the present and the future, from the enhancement of voter contact-databases and data to enable targeted communications, to the role of digital in political uprisings. In his session, Dr Paolo Gerbaudo, Lecturer in Digital Culture and Society at King’s, spoke of the role of social media in Egypt when the murder of Khaled Said by two policemen generated protests, a facebook page against torture and the subsequent Egyptian revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak.
Speaking about the community organising structure behind President Obama’s campaign, Jen O’Malley Dillon said this had played a crucial part in his success, driven by the character of the President and what he stood for.
Of some of the challenges in digital campaigning, she conceded maintaining relationships with the supporter base post-election was testing, especially with the ‘churn’ of digital channels and the rise and fall of their popularity.
King’s academics, Professor Nick Butler (Director of King’s Policy Institute), Dr Greg Austin (War Studies) and Dr Thomas Rid (War Studies) contributed as panellists in the sessions. Others taking part included representatives from the BBC, Demos and facebook.
Concluding, Red Edge’s Ian Spencer said: ‘Politics is about going where people are and talking to them on their terms and people are online and people are discussing things online – so you’d better be there.’

The Internet & Social Media: What can UK politics learn from the success of ‘Obama 2012’? Listen to our podcast with Jen O’Malley Dillon and the co-founders of conservative digital strategy group Red Edge, Ian Spencer and Bret Jacobson.

Notes to editors

For further media information please contact Anna Mitchell, PR Manager (Arts & Sciences), on or 020 7848 3092.
Re-watch the live recording of the conference:
For further information about King's visit our 'King's in Brief' page.

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