ben_self1Ben Self, the man credited with delivering  an unprecedented digital deluge of support for newly minted President Barack Obama, is visting Australia to share his experiences with others in the industry.

Matt Cashmore (Lonely Planet’s Innovation Ecosystem Manager and all round awesome guy) and I attended a lunch with Ben this week in Melbourne, facilitated by the Internet Industry Association of Australia (IIA). An MIT graduate and logistician, Ben talked to us about the now world famous campaign from his firm Blue State Digital.

The campaign, which involved a sophisticated data management makeover and drew widely on the power of social media, was instrumental to Obama’s victory and a game changer for 21st century politics.

Though Community Management isn’t officially his thing, getting people fired up is. His story offers valuable lessons for user engagement, and here’s some I walked away with.

It’s about me

The creation of MyBarackObama was a touchstone in Self’s campaign. By re-contextualising the message of his client to resonate on a personal level with individuals, Obama’s cause became a cultural and social text rich for re-purposing  This is a golden lesson that all community custodians learn (and should playback to their employers). It’s not about you, it’s about the Community.

If you’re asking someone to take an action, the message has to be relevant to social orbit of that community member. What do I care if you’ve released a new product? Does it help me do what I want to do while I’m on your website? Have you made any progress on that feature we’ve been asking for? Why should I invest my time to do this thing you need?


MyObama gave agency to users. It provided tools to enable every imaginable level of engagement. Whether a member wanted to have updates emailed to them, be set up to give money regularly, step up and organise a rally, door-knock in their neighbourhood, or produce a campaign video, a rich suite of tools (and humans to support them) were available.

The community construct lets people decide how involved they wanted to be, and supports them in that choice. The community architects allowed members to define themselves and their relationship to Obama and created content and function that informed that relationship.

If you’re a community member, this feels good. This feels like winning. This is addictive.

Stay in touch. Often.

Community managers know you often need to get out of the way of your members and let them do their thing. But reminding people you’re there on a regular basis is essential if you have goals you’re working toward with your community (including keeping the lights on and making money).

If you were on Obama’s mailing list you were contacted almost daily. Messages were personal, respectful, authentic and purposeful. They didn’t whitewash bad news. They weren’t marketing messages or press releases. They were an invitation to a conversation.

Talking to your community on a consistent basis reminds them you’re dedicated to showing up, with them in mind.

When times are tough, this becomes even more important. Absence will be open to interpretation. If you don’t tell them what’s going on, they’ll start guessing. Conspiracy theories, trolls and troublemakers thrive when the parental unit is too busy to pay attention.

Loss of control is not bad, just different

For organisations accustomed to tightly managing their universe, the notion of prying open the hood to let a community of invisible web users see into your world, let alone talk back to you on your own turf, is deeply confronting. As Ben explained, Obama’s decision to support FISA, a bill unpopular with many in his base (due to it’s immunity protection for telecoms complicit in Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program), generated an outpouring of critcism from his supporters. Tens of thousands organised against the move on Obama’s own website.

Because the campaign had actively forged a welcoming hub for their constituency, the dissent was both visible and manageable. Obama could respond directly to those protesting his decision, in his own way and in his own time.

By handing over control to his community, Obama is saying two things. One, we are confident in ourselves and you. Two, we like you speaking up, we’ll listen and respond as best we can.

If the campaign hadn’t cultivated an empowered community, or worse still, moderated the complaints away, they would have lost control of the debate, and fallen into the trap of following controversy around the web to other communities. By deepening member investment, setting high expectations for engagement and interaction, and owning the problem, Obama and Ben were able to champion the chaos, mitigate risk and steer focus back to the reason everyone was there to begin with.

As organisations are learning (sometimes the hard way), conversations about you and your work are already playing out online. They won’t all make you happy. The control you’re fighting for is only perceived. Join the conversation, encourage and support a community around it, and you’re out in front.

When the rule is an obstacle, write a new rule

Sometimes it’s good – incredibly important even – to swim against the tide. Innovating your way through and around resource challenges, competing priorities, stakeholder demands and day to day micro-crises is stock and trade for the community manager. Shaking things up might make all the difference when the conventions you’re surrounded with aren’t letting you reach your goals.

Obama and his team honestly sized up the obstacles they faced. They lacked the network of established donors other candidates enjoyed. They would have to get creative to beat instutitional muscle. Understanding how shared experience can move mountains from his work as a Community Organiser, Obama gave Ben the job of gathering a mass of funds through social technologies which until then, had been considered an afterthought, a novelty or a distraction.

By talking to and with people often excluded from a community of elites and by focusing on small victories, the campaign achieved a mind-blowing ROI.

A conventional tactic in incentivising donations is to awe the individual with the gravitas of the giant. For every dollar you give, X corporation will match and double it. Instead, Ben and team took cues from Community.

Small donors were asked to mobilise and inspire larger donors. Individual donors were connected to potential donors and invited to make their case for Obama. The newcomer would agree to pledge if they were persuaded. The voice of the guy that stepped up to give five dollars was rendered as or more important than the voice of a fundraising executive emailing an uberlist of potential givers. The power of simple dialogue was understood, and maximised.

Building bridges to go further and in new directions

Young, small town, rural, grass roots, minority – these groupings are usually marginalised in the political game. Using social media tools and the force of community Ben was able to cohese disparate groups, collapse historical boundaries and degrees of separation – between individuals, and between those individuals and an estranged political process. Mountains were moved.

The importance of extending community offline was recognised and exploited. Obama supporters were constantly alerted to campaign events in their vicinity and drafted to hold their own events. These analogue gatherings affirmed online connections as people hooked up with virtual peers. Reassembling online, the bonds were more palpable than ever.


Yes We Can

Deeply embedded in the pop-psyche, Obama’s catchcry was inclusive and a community bottom line. Optimism and hope reigned supreme. The exhuberance and vision of Ben and his colleagues is a reminder that, though the odds may be daunting and you’re the resident pinata, your world can be a force for change.



2 thoughts on “Ben Self: lessons in community

  1. Brilliant and comprehensive take-aways from the MyBO campaign Venessa!

    I think the loss of control component is especially valuable as this is definitely an area that increases the level of hesitation so many companies have about tackling socia media.

    Thanks for sharing this 🙂

  2. Absolutely Alison. It’s learning that ‘loss’ of control is actually an incorrect assessment. It’s simply a different way to manage your interaction with customers (and I believe, a superior model).

    Thanks for reading!

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