Reading Review: Delany

Again and again, the theme of three-dimensionality rings true in our readings.

In another era, as Delany points out, Obama might have fought a valiant battle, but almost certainly would have been defeated in his bid for the White House. It used to be that citizens were not involved in the political process in any way beyond voting–that they were only seen as targets to be convinced. But in the Digital Age, a relatively unknown, seemingly underqualified candidate like Obama can win the presidency–he can be elevated to a status formerly enjoyed only by politicians who had established fan bases that had been targeted through one-dimensional broadcasts. That was back when the most valuable resource of a political campaign was money. Now, the most valuable resource, as Delany notes, is time. Time is money, in that individual citizens whose enthusiasm can be translated into direct action will be giving their personal time to making a campaign that they believe in more profitable.

There are a few key quotables in Delany’s “Learning from Obama.” Here is the most memorable one for me–short and sweet and true: “In many ways, the story of Obama’s campaign was the story of his supporters” (quoted in-essay from a Wired article).  When Delany talks about Obama’s interactions with his supporters, the words “nurtured” and “relationship” are often used, and for good reason. Delany describes the Obama campaign as a masterclass in not just recruiting people, but in making people care–because they feel that they are cared about. These warm feelings of goodwill and ubuntu can’t be overstated, as they flat-out translated into millions more votes for Obama than he would have had otherwise. How did the campaign convince so many ordinary, workaday citizens to invest so much energy–so much time–into making sure Obama was elected? The general principles are applicable not just to politicians proper, but to anyone–from grassroots activists to corporate marketers–who want to squeeze the most value from supporters.

Start early. Build to scale. Make concrete goals. Create easily accessible spaces, in the real world and the digital world, for dialogue. Make emails direct and informal. Innovate only when necessary, and incrementally refine models in a replicable way after testing. Don’t just ask for money. These are all great ideas, their effects amplified when used in tandem, but they are nothing especially not-obvious. The first kicker, I feel, was the Obama campaign’s idea to give supporters “tiers of engagement.” Supporters didn’t have to be all-in or all-out–they could be as invested or not-invested as they liked, because their very participation meant they were invested in some way that was positive for Obama. The splash to Obama’s website asked you, front and center, for your email address. More likely than not, you’d give it. Emails from the campaign trail asked for money in creative ways, and didn’t ask huge amounts from people who hadn’t given much in the past.

The second kicker’s the big one: three-dimensionality. For the first time in American politics, a campaign trusted its supporters on a massive, reins-off scale to replicate the campaign’s message. For the first time ever, a campaign fundamentally banked on the on- and offline social networks people have. Granted, this still is a risky strategy. A game of telephone played through the Internet can be scary for any candidate: innocuous videos can go viral and cause damage when taken out of context (see: “HYAAAHHH!”), messages can be mangled, quotes hyperanalyzed. The audience, as Delany says, can snatch the spotlight from the actors. But if each person is given the right tools and the right training, this sort of risk can be mitigated. Volunteers can be coached into propagating a message exactly how a campaign wants them to–and if they don’t, they can be fired. It’s worth trusting supporters to do this, because a message’s power is even more powerful when it’s shared between friends.

Although TV is still king of advertising–it reaches “the uncommitted and uninvolved” better than any other medium–it’s worth noting that all TV adverts now tell people to go to a website. Politicians are beginning to realize that three-dimensionality is the key to recruiting.

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