The web has been part of politics for some time. During the 2004 presidential campaign, Democratic Gov. of Vermont Howard Dean made effective use of Meetup, Inc. to organize meetings and used his website to gather donations. Almost all of the campaigns also started blogs in 2004, and many of their supporters created specific issue blogs. During the current election cycle, online campaigning has become a defacto requirement. Some candidates, such as erstwhile Massachusetts governor and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, have even employed tools such as salesforce. com to manage the donation process. The presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., has gone a step further and uses Web 2.0 tools to further engage its participants in campaign work and to better understand the issues that are important to voters.
In the beginning of 2007, as the Obama campaign began to receive tens of thousands of emails, the organization needed a way to respond to the dramatically increasing influx of communication. It approached the on-demand service, RightNow Technologies, for CRM help. RightNow positions itself as a CRM tool from the customer’s perspective, while many other CRM vendors design their tools from the salesperson’s perspective—a philosophy that happens to jibe well with the themes of the Obama campaign.
Colin Jones, the RightNow project manager for the Obama effort, said that RightNow constructed two tools for the campaign. The first was an email response system, Invite Barack, developed in 2 weeks to handle nonmedia requests for Sen. Obama or members of his campaign to attend local events. Users fill out an online form that goes to a work queue with a team assigned to properly acknowledge and respond. In addition, the system allows the campaign to monitor trends in requests such as location, requesting organizations, outcomes, and so on.
The more comprehensive of the RightNow initiatives is the Obama Answer Center, in which visitors can search and browse through answers to frequently asked questions about the candidate. The site uses the standard RightNow template for answer centers, so it will be familiar to users who have visited answer centers at, for instance, the Environmental Protection Agency, Electronic Arts, and Nikon. Users can search questions by category and keyword, browse the most popular answers, and submit questions that haven’t yet been answered.
Because the system captures all the actions and inputs of people who participate, the Obama campaign is able to use web analytics to sort the most popular keywords and questions by region to better understand the concerns of people in different parts of the country. This allows for more targeted ads and other messaging, but more importantly it provides another perspective on the issues that are important to voters. The campaign can also examine the questions that have been rated most effective and least effective in order to improve the quality of the answers.
The Obama campaign has invested in many other web efforts. Central Desktop helped the campaign build a precinct captain website that recruited, trained, and gave tools to thousands of volunteers in California and Texas. The My Barack Obama site allows supporters to build their own profiles and connect with local supporters, find or create a local or national group, create a personal fundraising page, find events or plan their own, and record their campaign experiences on their own blogs. The collection of Web 2.0 technologies being employed by the Obama campaign comprise a template for what political campaigning may look like in the future at all levels of government. Obama’s campaign has thus far shown that the web can enable greater participation in the political process and, hopefully, the process of government.
Sen. Barack Obama may be the first U.S. president to use CRM technology as a tool to encourage constituent feedback and participation, if his campaign’s efforts along those lines are any indication. Of course, that’s assuming he wins — and his staffers are hoping CRM will help accomplish that feat.
Much ink has been spilled about what, exactly, has been the secret of Barack Obama’s overwhelming success. There is no denying his charisma or the appeal of his message, but a behind-the-scenes look at how his political machine operates — namely, how it empowers its people on the ground to operate — is worth a look as well.
In his latest, he looks specifically at Obama’s implementation of RightNow Technologies’ CRM software.
Obama’s RightNow Initiative
“RightNow constructed two tools for the campaign,” Ives writes. “One tool they implemented was an email response system, Invite Barack, in two weeks to handle non-(news) media requests for Barack or members of his campaign to attend local events. There is an online form to fill out which gets into a work cue with a team assigned to properly acknowledge and respond to the request. This helped streamline non-media requests to ensure nothing got lost, all requesters were acknowledged, and responded to quickly. In addition, the system allows the campaign to monitor trends in requests such as location, requesting organizations, outcomes, etc.”
The more comprehensive of the RightNow (Nasdaq: RNOW) initiatives, though, is the Obama Answer Center, says Ives.
“When you come to the Answer Center the first question is, ‘What is the Answer Center and how does it work?’ The campaign can then adjust the next questions depending on the topics of most interest. For example, when I looked the next question was ‘Has Senator Obama released his tax returns?’ Clicking on this you go to a format used for all questions. This happens to be the standard RightNow template for answer centers so many people remark that they have seen this format before in such places as Environmental Protection Agency, Electronic Arts, and Nikon, [and they] understand it,” he explains.
“There is first the answer. In this case, there is also a link to his actual tax returns,” Ives continues. “There is also the section, ‘Users who viewed this answer have also viewed.’ And you see a series of related questions to encourage more exploration. Once you view a question, you also see your previously viewed questions. You can search questions by category and key word and browse the most popular answers. Because the system captures all the actions and inputs of people who participate, The Obama campaign can use web analytics to sort the most popular key words, questions, etc. by region to better understand the concerns of people in different parts of the country. This allows for more targeted ads and other messaging, but more importantly it provides another window into the issues voters feel are important.”
The Tech Edge
Ives supports Obama politically, he told CRM Buyer, but that is not the reason he is writing about his campaign’s use of technology.
“As far as I know,” he commented, “the only other presidential candidate to use CRM technology in the race was Mitt Romney.” However, Romney’s deployment of Salesforce.com (NYSE: CRM) did not match Obama’s outreach to voters and campaign staff, he added.
“What is unique is that he is giving his volunteers tools to use themselves,” Ives said. According to Ives, talk on the campaign trail is that should Obama win the presidency he would continue to communicate with constituents through the Web.
It would be difficult to match Obama’s level of tech outreach, David E. Johnson, CEO of the political consultancy Strategic Vision, told CRM Buyer.
“Obama is doing everything right in the tech world, while Hillary is playing catch up,” he observed.
That assessment is not based on Clinton’s ignorance of the wonders of Web 2.0 technologies, Johnson was quick to add. Rather, it is her campaign staff’s failure to recognize they would be running a different race than they are right now.
McCain, for his part, is woefully behind both Clinton and Obama, Johnson said, adding that budget — or lack thereof — is the culprit in his case. “McCain still has limited resources, and so a strong and interactive Web presence is far down the list.”
Brent Leary, cofounder and partner of CRM Essentials and author of Brent’s CRM Blog, and Paul Greenberg, author of CRM at the Speed of Light, are crafting a series of videos to talk about “what’s going in the space, what we like, who we like and even who (and what) we don’t like,” Leary writes in his blog.
“Yup, we’ll call folks out when we have to. Plus we’ll have the occasional guest on for interrogation purposes. And if you know either of us, you know the opinions won’t be lacking,” he promises.
Until then, for those in the industry — both of you — who don’t know Greenberg, you can watch him in “CRM and the Social Customer,” a video developed by social networking platform Neighborhood America. It highlights comments Greenberg and others made at its executive summit in January.