A friend of a friend: How Obama used Facebook to turn out voters

We all know that social networks can be a crucial arena for engaging your supporters and developing new relationships, but for a sense of scale look no further than the 2012 presidential campaigns. Both campaigns made extensive use of social networks like Spotify, Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr, and, of course, the giants Facebook and Twitter.

One major problem for the campaigns in the closing weeks of the race: 18-29 year-old voters are very difficult to reach by phone, and making sure that very specific audience actually voted was a critical campaign element, especially for the Obama campaign. Their solution: aggressively, intelligently, and strategically using Facebook to identify supporters, keep them engaged, and then – during the GOTV (“get out the vote”) efforts in the final weeks – reminding them to actually vote.

Because of their early and sustained efforts identifying supporters through Facebook, 85% of the campaign’s GOTV 18-29 year-old targets were friends of friends of Barack Obama on Facebook. Obama for American Digital Director Teddy Goff explains, “We had about seven million instances of people contacting about five million people, all of their friends who they knew … these were people we had to reach, and couldn’t reach otherwise.”

And note the importance of very clearly identifying the audience. Even though Facebook users span a wide range of demographics, different demographics use the network differently. This was a strategy targeted for a very specific demographic. This not-so-little detail highlights a common problem in exhortations for nonprofits to use social networks more aggressively. The first step should always be defining the goal, and the second step – always – understanding the mechanisms of change enough to clearly and specifically define the audiences you need to influence. Then you can figure out if and how social networks matter, and how to use them effectively if they do.

But there is clearly a growing chance that social networks will matter, and if your target audience for a given campaign includes 18-29 year-olds in the United States, then social networks may well be critical part of your strategy.

Jacob Smith is the co-author of The Nimble Nonprofit: An Unconventional Guide to Sustaining and Growing Your Nonprofit, the former mayor of Golden, Colorado, and a nonprofit consultant.

Leave a Reply