Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Yes, We Can! The Networking Lessons Business Can Learn from Obama's Election Success

“Yes we can! Yes we can! Yes we can!”

It was 4 o’clock in the morning in the UK. I had finally moved from my lounge into bed but still the TV wouldn’t go off. The result of the US Presidential election had now been known for hours, but the magic Electoral College figure of 270 hadn’t been reached yet. At 4am, as the polls in California closed, it was. All of the major networks made their projections and Barack Obama was declared President-elect of the United States.

“Yes we can! Yes we can! Yes we can!”

The chant was the same wherever the TV cameras panned. People celebrated an electoral victory in a way I’ve never seen before in my lifetime. Certainly not in a way that I remember. The only mass celebrations that compare surrounded the fall of the Berlin Wall and of Communism in 1989 and 1990, but that was to celebrate the end of a system, not the election of one man as part of a democratic cycle.

“Yes we can! Yes we can! Yes we can!

The chant that underpinned Barack Obama’s election campaign and that greeted his victory represents a new approach to politics. It is an approach that has received wide comment about its inclusiveness and interaction, with use of collective pronouns, such as ‘we’ and ‘us’, rather than the emphasis on the individual, ‘me’ and ‘you’, that went before.

And it’s a chant that could have been heard more and more in business over the last decade, as we have recognised the importance of working together, helping each other collectively to achieve individual goals. It’s not a new idea; John Donne famously expressed the idea of man’s interconnectedness in Meditation XVII some 400 years ago:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

Networking, or put another way, working together to help each other, has grown as a serious business tool for companies of all sizes over the last few years. Despite this, it is still looked upon with disdain by many people; dismissed as the refuge of the manipulative, the desperate and the ‘small fry’.

Perhaps it is now time to look at networking a different way. A close look at Barack Obama’s election campaign reveals that some of the key tactics his team used to overcome the historic strength of ‘old money’ in the States are among the central tenets of a good networking strategy in business. His ability to turn ‘me’ into ‘we’ and ‘I’ into ‘you’ formed the basis of his two major successes against the odds, overcoming Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Primaries and John McCain in the Presidential election.

If it’s good enough for the President-elect of the United States, could it possibly be good enough for the rest of us?

What was it that Obama’s campaign did that made the difference? Much of the focus both in the lead up to and since the election has been on the significance of the colour of his skin. Equally as notable, however, has been the way in which a Senator previously little known outside his home State was able to overcome some of the great names of US Politics, the dominance of the dynasties and the clout of the corporations.

And he didn’t do this on his own.

Credibility through profile and relationships

The first thing that Obama’s campaign recognised was that they had to find a new approach to building his profile and supporter base, one that wouldn’t rely on the importance of large donors and the political heritage enjoyed by his opponents. Instead, David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager and David Axelrod, his key strategist, focused on building mass support and the task of generating unprecedented amounts of funding from individual donors.

Adam Beck joined the campaign team in the Pennsylvania Democratic Party and was quickly introduced to this new approach.

“We were adamant about ensuring this was a campaign that was driven from the "bottom up," said Beck, “empowering volunteers and relying on the strength of the efforts of millions of them rather than old-school political tactics.”

Much has been made of Barack Obama’s use of social networking, tapping into the power of the ‘Facebook Generation’ and the reach of electronic media to build a wide supporter base quickly. On my blog in March 2007 I highlighted the launch of the ‘MyBarackObama.com’ website and how it had influenced parties in the UK, with a more visible use of networking both online and offline by both Labour and the Conservative Parties. The success of MyBarackObama has probably exceeded even his campaign team’s greatest expectations, with around 1 million people joining the site.

It’s not just on their own website that the Obama campaign has embraced social media. On the Home Page of MyBarackObama there is a list of Obama’s presence on sixteen other networks, from household names such as Facebook and LinkedIn to niche and community sites such as Faithbase and My Batanga. There’s even an Obama application for Apple’s iPhone!

The extent of the Obama campaign’s networking was designed to raise his profile quickly and powerfully. Voting figures show that 66% of voters aged under 30 supported Obama, compared to 32% favouring John McCain. This is nearly four times the size of John F Kennedy’s advantage in this voting group in 1960*. One attendee at Obama’s victory rally in Chicago’s Grant Park commented that 75% of the crowd was aged below 40.

This appeal to young people is a natural result of using the technology of which they are the heaviest users. Obama’s appeal, however, didn’t stop there. What his embracing of social media created was a momentum, one which helped him build his visibility and credibility across demographic boundaries.

The profile created by social media brought Obama into the centre of the Democratic nomination process and his profile continued to soar as the numbers grew. Simply relying on a numbers game wouldn’t be enough, however, to secure the nomination and win the Presidency. Obama needed greater support than that, he needed finance and he needed a mass movement to drive his campaign forward.

The true power of MyBarackObama.com and the mass movement it inspired is not the numbers involved, but how involved they really were. Obama gave them ownership of the campaign. His use of language forces the message home, “Yes we can”. The quote from Barack Obama at the top of his website says, “I’m asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington…I’m asking you to believe in yours.”

The site didn’t just ask people to sign up, as if they were putting their name to a petition. It invited people to post blogs, to run events in their area, to contact undecided voters in their area. Sections on the site were written specifically for different communities, from Jewish Americans to Latinos, from Sportsmen to Seniors. There is even a section for Republican voters! The message stays consistent throughout, get involved and make this happen.

The sort of support that makes an impact comes from deep relationships, not superficial contact and Obama’s campaign team recognised the importance of this. The campaign raised about $700 million, from more than 3 million contributors, a quite stunning amount.

Connecting is not enough. In business it is important not to just grow a wide network, building visibility and getting your name widely known. It is also important to create depth. The lessons from Barack Obama’s campaign about involving people, developing a rapport, addressing their concerns and inspiring their loyalty are important for business people who want to thrive in today’s economy.

It’s not about ‘me’ anymore; it’s about ‘us’. People who use networking effectively in business focus not just on the numbers to build their profile but their relationships with those people. They concentrate on the other person and understand their perspective. Much is made of the need to give before you receive in business and rightly so. Quite simply, if you want people’s support, you have to earn it, not demand it.

Obama created a wide support base by reaching out and offering people ownership of his success. The way his result was celebrated was a clear reflection of this. How much do you encourage people to celebrate your business successes with you and how much do you make people feel it’s about them as much as it is about you? Numbers in your network can make a difference but only if you can make them count.

On Message

A lot of mud was thrown during both the Democratic nomination and Presidential election campaigns. Much of it at Obama. From the early concerns over his Church’s Pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright and his ‘God Damn America’ comments, to accusations of wanting to introduce socialism at the end of the campaign, various attempts were made to knock his progress off course. One of Obama’s biggest successes was overcoming each challenge, ignoring each accusation and keeping a clear message in the minds of the electorate.

The value of a clear, consistent message cannot be underestimated; in politics or in business. While others panicked and changed course, Barack Obama focused on simple, concise words and didn’t alter course.

The Chicago Tribune commented,

“McCain would zigzag from experience to maverick to tested and halfway back. Obama pounded the same drum: Change. Change. Change.

“He used the word 19 times when he clinched the Democratic nomination in June in Minneapolis, 15 times when he accepted the party's nod two months later in Denver, 19 times when he spoke in Canton, Ohio.”

Even when an opportunity arose that could distract the campaign, they didn’t allow it to. When Sarah Palin won the nomination as John McCain’s running mate, the Obama campaign knew that there were opportunities to be had by attacking her. They refused to change course though.

"Having campaigned for two years and having been counted out so many times, we're practiced at those kind of moments," said David Axelrod. "I don't think there's ever been a sense of panic around here."

The message remained positive while others sniped around him. People quite simply got to understand what Obama stood for.

Obama also succeeded in adapting the message depending on who he was addressing. While the core message might stay the same, the interests of that particular group became a key part of that message. In this way he was building deeper relationships with each community and giving them a personal reason to support him, as we discussed earlier.

It can be too easy sometimes to change our message with the wind, try to squeeze as much information in as possible or to criticise our competition. The trouble is that none of these approaches are effective. We need to leave a clear, positive message in people’s minds in a way that offers them clarity. It’s vital that people understand us, our business and our needs in the same way that the American electorate understand what Barack Obama stands for.

In British politics there has been a lot of criticism recently about the Conservative Party’s message. People claim that they have no real policies; that it’s all about appearance and not substance.

That’s not necessarily the case. Where the Conservatives have failed is to plant a strong message in the mind of the British people, so that the electorate recognise what they stand for and how it’s relevant to them.

Business people need to take the same approach. Whether we want people to buy from us, recommend and refer us or support us in another way, it is down to us to communicate in a way that provokes action. That means our message needs to be simple and consistent.

There’s no point in wasting breath in criticising competitors or complaining, people will support someone they can believe in, and will prefer to engage with a positive person.

Ensure that you have a strong, concise message that encourages action. Keep repeating it so that people remember it. Ask your advocates to do simple, specific tasks. Focus on helping people understand what help they can offer, not describing your whole business and life story with it.

It can be tempting to include as much as possible when talking to other people about your business. There is a fear that if you miss something out, that might be the nugget that will win the business or get the connection you desire. The real danger though is of overwhelming people with information, giving people too much to remember and not allowing them to truly grasp what you do.

As Joseph Priestley, the man who discovered Oxygen, said, “The more elaborate our means of communication, the less we communicate.”

The more specific the message, the easier it is to understand. Barack Obama proved that in his campaign. He didn’t talk about the minutiae of every element of each of his policies. He gave the headlines. More than that, he talked about the policies he knew would resonate most strongly with his electorate, and kept his focus there.

The Power of Endorsement

It wasn’t just the message that Obama focused on, it was the media for those messages as well. From the Democratic primaries, where he won the backing of Ted and Caroline Kennedy, through the early stages of the Presidential campaign where so much weight was put on the backing of Bill and Hillary Clinton, to the closing stages where Colin Powell came out in his favour, Obama was fully cognisant of the importance of the right endorsements from the right people at the right time.

Those endorsements made a huge difference to the campaign, giving Obama the credibility his experience didn’t offer him. A great example of this was when he was asked in the Presidential Debates who he would invite into his cabinet to help overcome the economic crisis. Obama immediately talked about involving Warren Buffett, the richest man in the world. The power of association with one of the World’s most successful investors and businessmen would have immediately allayed some fears about his ability to cope with the impending recession.
The real power of Obama’s use of endorsements lay not in with whom he associated himself, but how he timed and targeted those endorsements to perfection. If Colin Powell had backed Obama early in the campaign, or even during the Primaries, would it have had the same impact as his statement in the closing weeks?

Hillary and Bill Clinton’s support was key to winning over the ‘Hillary Democrats’ after a robust Primary campaign. Colin Powell’s support was perfectly timed to capture the attention of wavering Republicans.

It wasn’t just the big names who backed Obama which made the difference. In fact, it could be argued that the opposite was true. Going back to Obama’s use of social networking, the inclusiveness of his campaign and his use of ‘we’ and ‘us’ instead of ‘me’ and ‘you’, his millions of supporters and their involvement played a major role in turning the wind in his favour.

Big name endorsements helped to build credibility and reassure people. Ultimately, however, people are influenced by those they consider to be their peers. Barack Obama and his campaign team understood this. They didn’t just ask for money or for votes. They gave people ownership of their campaign. They gave them a message suited to them, tailored to fit individual perspectives.

They then asked their supporters to spread the word. Out of all of the innovations of the Obama campaign, the most notable to me was a simple request to his supporters. Under the ‘Neighbor to Neighbor’ scheme, Obama supporters were given everything they needed to call potential voters in their local areas and encourage them to come out and vote for Obama. It was even reported that people were asked to call people with a similar sounding surname, as the recipient of the call would feel more comfortable talking to someone from a similar background.

Many businesses recognise the value of endorsement. But how effectively is it used as a business tool? For testimonials, referrals and endorsements to be of true value they need to be thought through, timed and targeted.

When asking for testimonials, too many businesses accept platitudes praising their character, delivery or the ease of working with them. Potential clients aren’t necessarily interested in these things. They want to know the problems you resolve and the outcome of using you. Not what a pleasure you are to deal with.

It has become standard practice to ask for referrals at the end of a meeting. “Are you happy with what I have done?” “Would you be willing to refer me to someone else?” “Can you think of five people you can refer me to?”

Those questions are far too broad and unlikely to produce the best results. Requests for referrals should be timed for when the other person is solely focused on helping you, not at the end of a meeting about something else. They should be thought through in advance, focusing on who that person is likely to know and associate with, not just a general “anyone who needs my help”. It would be far more effective to ask an accountant to referrals to solicitors, for example, because you know they associate with them, than to be general in your request.

When you target a new market, who would your prospective customers listen to and respect? Whose endorsement will lend credibility to your claims in that area? Barack Obama has proved the power in politics of association with the key influencers to a particular demographic. It is no different in business.

Barack Obama’s election campaign will be recorded as historic for a number of reasons. One of the less celebrated, but possibly most important, will be the way he has broken the mould of political power. It is hard to envisage a campaign being run without social networking playing a key role. The victors are the ones who will keep their message clear and concise and endorsements will be used in a far more focused way than they ever have been before.

Politics may have changed but business has been moving in this direction for some time. It is now time for everyone to catch up and focus on the ‘we’ culture.

Can we be successful in business if we adopt Obama’s approach? Yes we can.

* Source – The Times of India

1 comment:

  1. Andy, excellent analysis and really interesting. Amazing how social networking is impacting the world.

    I completely agree with your point about a clear, consistent and simple message. Sounds really easy but is very hard to do. That's why it's so powerful