This year's US presidential campaign is delivering a lot of firsts: the first black candidate into the final stretch, the first race where online videos of full speeches are overshadowing 5-second soundbites on network TV, and the first race where mobile marketing may become a decisive factor.
Obama's use of email and mobile marketing is tied to his very successful effort to bring out the youth vote. In the knowledge that US elections are swung by a small number of marginal voters, his campain team have brought hundreds of thousands -- perhaps millions -- of new voters onto the electoral rolls through a combination of grassroots registration drives and viral marketing using all the newfangled
Web 2.0 Web 1.0 tricks. (I haven't seen widgets and mashups yet, but effective use of online marketing and social networking). Obama now has 1.5 million supporters on Facebook (vs McCain's 250k) as can be seen in the extraordinary graph on the right.
Obama isn't the first to use digital media in a campaign; Howard Dean is credited with pioneering use of the Web and online technologies in 2004. But in terms of scale, the Obama campaign is pushing the limits. Three million people supposedly received the much-hyped text message announcing Obama's choice for Vice President 10 days ago. But rumour has it that the same number or more did not receive the SMS they signed up for due to technical glitches.
Even though the VP announcement leaked to the media before the texts went out, the strategy worked a charm, as most people were asleep when CNN got the scoop at 1am, and woke up the next morning to find Obama's text message or email. As a list-building exercise, the text ploy was brilliant -- millions signed up on Obama's website to receive the text, not only confirming their email addresses but also providing their mobile numbers and zip codes to the Obama campaign. How much is a cleansed, geo-targetable email/mobile marketing list of several million Americans worth? If it helps bring out a few hundred thousand additional voters on election day, incalculable. In a recent post, Om Malik describes some of the ways the campaign could use highly targeted geographical marketing in the coming months.
Team Obama has not been shy in spending money on cutting-edge technology. They bought CRM tools from RightNow Technologies for managing email responses and its website FAQs. To manage internal communications and coordination, they are supposedly using a collaboration/wiki platform from Central Desktop. For the SMS campaign, they gambled on two small companies: technology provider Distributive Networks (16 employees) and venture-backed SMS aggregator SinglePoint.
As the campaign enters its final phase, the Obama camp should think carefully about over-use of these new channels. Just like corporate marketeers have discovered, it's a fine line between an effective volume of digital communication and an annoying volley of spam that turns consumers off. Since the VP announcement, the Obama campaign has been bombarding its supporters with daily emails linking to videos of speeches from the Democratic National Convention, and soliciting donations. They would be wise to cool it a bit to avoid turning existing supporters or independents off before election day.