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Winning the Youth Vote for Obama: A Conversation With Jonathan Kopp by Susan Mach

Social networking and digital information technologies helped spark the massive increase in youth participation that led to President Barack Obama’s victory in November. During the U.S. presidential campaign, Jonathan Kopp, now global director at Ketchum Digital, was a partner with SS+K, the integrated communication agency that managed Obama’s youth communication efforts. Kopp talks about how youth communication helped make history.

Congratulations on your role in President Obama’s win.
We were working with the perfect candidate. He was young, charismatic and personified change. The Obama “brand” – if you will -- was set early, far in advance of his 2007 announcement. His campaign was disciplined and consistent, never defensive. His message and vision were clear, and he never wavered. The challenge was pushing this positioning out to voters, literally every minute of every day, for 21 months, through the most aggressive, measured and successful social media strategy ever seen in politics, or in consumer brand marketing for that matter.

What did your research tell you about young voters?
The numbers of registered young voters—the campaign defined them as ages 18 to 35—have been going up since 2000. George W. Bush turned out not to be a compassionate conservative. We knew that voter discontent was starting to mount over issues like the war in Iraq, which was spiralling out of control. Obama ran at a time when 89 percent of Americans believed the country (United States) was on the wrong track.

We did lots of research. Public frustration was high. People wanted change.
We knew young people were latently leaning toward Obama, but we also knew President Obama would have to earn their respect to win their votes.

One way to lose them would be to over-market to them. Young people are savvy to the ways of marketing. They can embrace a brand, but only as long as they can trust it.

Young people don’t want to be a candidate’s or marketer’s tool. So it was important for us to downplay the branding and lay out the facts, and give them the chance to discover it on their own. For Obama to win them, we had to get them to register to vote—or in cases in which people had moved away -- we had to get them to re-register. Young people don’t want to hear about voter registration from the candidate who needs their votes. Instead, voter registration is more about civic duty. So the voter registration message could not come from the candidate. It would be presumptuous.

So we dialed down the Obama branding. The voter registration Web site——was neutral. The word “change” was an allusion to Obama, but the purpose of the site was to make registering to vote quick and easy.

And to motivate action, we linked registration to the issues frustrating U.S. citizens: Iraq, gas prices, health care, etc. We made a simple connection: register if you want to make a difference on the issues. We didn’t tell young people “you’re angry.” Our tagline was: “Don’t get mad. Get registered.”

So young people don’t want to hear from marketers or even the candidate?
Right. They cut through the spin. That’s why social media are critical. Young people want to hear it from their friends. They’re looking for the information, the tools and the opportunities to be laid out there for them so they themselves can discover it on their terms and their time.

Were you promoting more than an idea?
Yes. The Obama campaign was pragmatic in its communication, whether it was buying a T-shirt, donating $10, making phone calls, or registering to vote. It was always about action. As a result, they channelled broad goodwill into a movement—and increased supporters’ emotional investment in Obama’s candidacy. Consumers had a tangible way to register their interest.

How did you keep the conversation with young voters going?
When we did engage supporters, our approach was always pragmatic and efficient. We asked for specific actions. For example, capturing data on was critical. Once we knew who they were—by capturing their e-mail address and their telephone numbers—we moved them eventually to become evangelists who helped us find others.

What about the use of compelling images to mobilise young voters?
We created a distinctive look and feel for promoting Our advertising and marketing was set in the voice and imagery of youth peer-to-peer conversation, featuring young street artists and headlines that were testimonials of actual young people’s frustrations with the status quo. For example, “I registered because the economy stinks. Or “I’m voting because I refuse to be a bystander.” These headlines had a user-generated authenticity.

We also created digital, interactive billboards, covering 30 cities in the last 10 nights of the campaign. We hit urban areas in battleground states where a lot of young people lived. We trained a spotlight on the side of a building. We lit up a huge text message: “I’m voting because….” Young people would respond. We then showed their text messages on the interactive billboard. It was like a beacon in the sky, and people were drawn to the light. They sent texts explaining their own reasons for voting. It was simple. It gave people something meaningful to do. It sparked peer-to-peer conversation. It gave our street teams a chance to hand out materials and information. It enabled us to capture data.

How did your strategy balance the need for overall message consistency from the top—the Obama campaign—with highly specific peer-to-peer conversations?
The campaign knew the difference between conversations among voters, which had to be respected, and the campaign-to-voter conversation, which had to be controlled and directed from the top. The campaign earned voters’ trust by respecting peer-to-peer conversation and making sure not to interrupt it or interject the Obama brand inappropriately. We had to strike a balance.
We gave people the tools, info and opportunities. They mobilised. We earned their trust. Meanwhile, we learned to live with contradictions: tight control from the top vs. an “open source” approach from the bottom.

You’ve said the “most valuable players” of the campaign were the Web site and, or MyBo.
The Web site offered useful, up-to-the-minute, top-down content, such as speeches, position papers, news releases, volunteer opportunities and training videos in text, audio and video. MyBo was a social networking, community organising engine that communicated ideas and connected people peer-to-peer, based on their interests and locations. MyBo also facilitated action, both online and off. It made it fun and easy for supporters to take real-world actions to help the candidate—making phone calls, housing fundraisers or donating money.

How did the campaign reach a group that’s so mobile?
Text messaging was a critical element, and the campaign’s database ballooned when it announced that the vice president choice would be announced via text messaging. Even the short code (62262) was a strategic piece of communication: It spelled O-B-A-M-A on the cell phone’s alphanumeric keypad.

Do you think technology has changed the world?
Digital is just that, a technology. It’s only an enabler. What will matter in the digital age is the ability to influence the conversation with sharp insights about our audience and in thoughtful communication strategies. What will matter is a core of consistent messages that can be crafted into a compelling story. The media we use to convey that story should never be limited to either digital or traditional media. The real magic happens when we deliver the message consistently both online and offline. Using either online or offline exclusively is not enough. Online social networks mobilise people,.

Do you think youth movements like the ones that helped make Barack Obama President of the United States are likely to continue?
I think it’s too early to say. Certainly the opportunity is there. We’ll have to wait and see. We must continue to expand our skill set and knowledge. I am optimistic and confident that we’ve learned from the Obama experience. There’s an opportunity to spike that openness. The American people have been invited into—actually, back into—the conversation.

To view examples of urban interactive billboards in the Obama campaign, visit:

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