Obama digital guru says it can work for Labour

Good piece in the Guardian today talking to Thomas Gensemer who was behind Barack Obama’s groundbreaking digital campaign.

Gensemer is in town to launch an office of his agency Blue State Digital, which was recently appointed by a group fighting the British National Party’s attempt to win seats in the European parliament elections this June.

Gensemer reckons he has some lessons for Gordon Brown and Labour having recruited 13.5m supporters and raised $500m for the Obama campaign via barackobama.com.

He told the paper that it isn’t about the technology, but that the real questions are: “What are your goals, and how can you use technology to achieve them? Our biggest sales pitch is that we couple the services along with the technology. A lot of our competition just sells technology, and the types of organisation and causes that we like to work with, if I go in and sell them really powerful technology, it doesn’t do them any good, because they don’t have the wherewithal to make sense of it.”

He says he wants to demystify online campaigning and argues that organisations can build very quickly if they do the messaging right.

We’ve seen that a lot recently with the anti-Israeli protests. I don’t agree with these groups, but it has been interesting how these grass roots groups have used social media to organise very effectively.

Gensemer is right when he says that any campaign, be it the Democrats or Labour, has to nurture active supporters, rather than passive donors. It has to be about the grass roots, down to what the CLPs and wards are doing as much as anything.

Labour and Labour activists have already made a start with a couple of sites, which we’ve written about here. With the launch of Derek Draper’s LabourList.org and the Party’s Labourspace.com.

There’s also been digital agency Tangent One appointing former Labour Party head of corporate comms, Paul Simpson, to manage its Labour Party account and Labour turning to Twitter and Facebook to keep in touch with constituents with a The new campaign that allows MPs to upload communication targeted at their constituents on Facebook, Twitter and through email.

Launching all of this is fine, but Labour like any party has to work hard to ensure that it gets the simple stuff right (Gensemer relates a story about people asked to email in their views – but four days and 78,000 emails later nothing had been read) and ensuring that social media becomes part of the DNA rather than window dressing. It is also essential, Gensemer says, that it is not about gimmicks, which is always a danger when new things (like Twitter) suddenly emerge and the bandwagon is boarded.

“They have focused too much on gimmicks and what they can sell to the press. Now Labour MPs are using Twitter, but the political capital that went into getting a couple of MPs to Twitter probably wasn’t worth it. Prescott’s petition on the bankers has 15,000 signatures, but what are they asking people to do? You could have asked for different things that would create a greater sense of engagement. None of this is a technology challenge; it’s an organisational challenge, being willing to communicate with people.”

Gensemer tells the paper he is convinced that the social media digital approach can work even in the much less geographically disparate UK.

And then he gets to what he is really here for: to win the Labour Party digital election campaign for Blue State Digital having already set out their stall with work on Jon Cruddas’s bid in 2006-07 for the Labour deputy leadership and Ken Livingstone’s unsuccessful re-election bid last year for London mayor.

“We’re very eager, and I think it would work equally well here. I don’t think they’re going to raise a half a billion dollars, but it certainly would raise far more money than it costs and you could make a big difference. As our work with Jon Cruddas and Ken Livingstone shows, if you ask people to do things they will do it, in similar numbers that we see in the States.”


  • http://www.roymurphy.com Roy Murphy

    Valuable information from a digital guru, or cleverly placed agency pitch? Either way the subject raises a couple of important points. Consumer or voter engagement is definitely not about the latest technology, gimmick or fad but it is about utliising digital tools to increase awareness and a feeling of involvement. The obama example worked brilliantly because the technology didn’t overtake the message of the public doing something that would make a difference. As marketeers we have a responsibility to offer our customers/clients/business the best advice whatever shiny new gadget is tgeting all the attention. Secondly Gordon Brown is going to need a completely different strategy to get re-elected than obama did. He needs to start with improving his personal reputation. Perhaps we can help http://www.halpernprm.co.uk

  • Gordon Macmillan

    Roy you make a really good point about the technology not overtaking the message.

    It’s a bit of both pitch wise. The guy has a few tips to impart and Labour will need all the help it can come re-election whether Blue State Digital are the people to do it or not I guess remains to be seen.

  • Ben Norton

    Hugh – like the article. If you haven’t already consumed it I heartily recommend a book titled @The Human Element’ by David Boyle….. (don’t be concerned, I promise I am not his literary agent…)