Harper Reed and the Big Data-Driven Obama Campaign Success Story

In Big Data, Data & Analytics, Featured on App, Marketing and Sales, Social media by Vaughn Highfield

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Besides that title making him sound like the main protagonist in an exceptionally boring knock-off Harry Potter book, the impressively ginger-bearded and bespectacled tech genius Harper Reed describes himself as "probably one of the coolest guys ever."Despite that, he self-deprecatingly mentions that he looks a little bit like a "tramp" compared to the sharp-suited folk he worked with during the 2012 Presidential re-election campaign.

Indeed, at Europe's Customer Festival, his choice of jeans, green loafers and a hoodie made him stand out from the crowd. If anything he looked more prepared to go to a Mastodon gig than host one of the most engaging, interesting and insightful presentations on Big Data at the conference.

Speaking rather candidly on his views around big data and its insights, Harper provided some insight into how he filled the role of Chief Technology Officer for the 2012 Obama for America re-election campaign. It certainly wasn't an easy task, especially due to the 18 month time constraint placed upon them due to the election. But, thanks to intuitive bespoke technology, an excellent outreach campaign and some wonderful social media savvy – all tied up in Big Data prowess – the campaign was a total success.

It was so much of a success that its influences were felt over the Atlantic here in Britain. Those who were tapped into the world of social media could feel Harper's successful methods resonate through Twitter and Facebook, along with the internet in general.

But how did he manage to help shape such a successful campaign? And how did Big Data help in all of this?

First things first, the most poignant point of his presentation that needs to be heard is that Harper thinks that Big Data is "bullshit".

What was once a daunting and big chunk of information, an overwhelming amount really – is now no more. Now there's software that can easily handle all that data, sort it, measure it and practically let you get whatever you want out of it. So why is Big Data still called Big Data if it's not big in any way? It's really just data.

The Big that everyone should now be concerned with isn't the volume of the data, nor the insight it gives, but the answers we can gain from it. Your customers are asking you big questions, and you can deliver big answers to those just by seeing what the data suggests is happening.

Big Data helped them raise $700m in donations thanks to mass email campaigns that were honest with the reader. It offered up an average donation based on what their donation history suggested. This meant that nobody should have ever felt put out by the minimum amount because it's what they've always donated. Should the campaign resonate with them, you can donate more. They even made it extremely simple so that all you do is click to donate and the money is taken. No need to enter forms or go through payment processors. It was all utterly seamless.

In fact, they obtained so much data to contact and got a huge Facebook page going, all because of a very simple technique of offering everybody something in return for their information. Anyone who gave them their email address and connected on Facebook would then be sent a bumper sticker. In America this worked wonders, largely due to their love of bumper stickers. In an extremely short time they already had a millions of people connected and their emails on file.

Obama for America's tech crusade also made use of data by micro targeting the population through social media. One highly-successful approach came in the form of using data acquired through those who connected on Facebook. Looking at who was most often tagged in photos and liking statuses, emails were then sent out to people, reminding them to get ‘x' or ‘y' to vote on election day. It did this because it was all about making influencers, influence others.

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The same could be seen on Twitter where those deemed as influential, and who also followed the President's Twitter, were followed back and direct messaged. They were asked to remind their followers about the election. It worked, with many responses being positive and surprising, talking about their interaction and how it'll soon be time to vote.

This isn't the only way data was used though. Micro targeting is all well and good, but – as Harper said – you can't just target your customer, sometimes you have to listen to know what they want.

With this in mind, they put boots on the ground and headed out onto the streets to knock on doors of democrats and find out what really mattered to them. They wasted no time in trying to convert republicans, instead it was a focused endeavour to increase turnout, not to change opinion.

Through their bespoke CRM software known as Dashboard, the 4 million volunteers could enter in all of the information they picked up on their journey, meaning that later communication with these voters would target their specific interests. If one person was concerned mostly about their local community and what Obama could do to help, then that'd be the major subject of her contact.

They would still reach out by phone too, ensuring that they had the right people talking to correct audience. Their data suggested that veterans trusted veterans, so they got them to call one another to help increase contributions. It all made sense really.

Data helped the Obama for America campaign make every single dollar matter. Cost may have not been the biggest issue, thanks to an ever increasing ceiling to spend, but it was all about making every cent count.

In doing so that also meant not fearing spending in this area. Thanks to data, you know exactly if something is working or not, so – just like an engineer would try something and then fix it and try again – you do the same thing here. Test an idea, if the data says it doesn't work, then stop and fix it and try again. You have to prepare for failure, so when you do fail, you aren't knocked back – you can just get up and do it right the next time.

It's telling that during the entire re-election campaign Harper and his tech team were always in the boardroom for meetings. They'd sit in with the President, the Vice President, First Secretary etc., anybody and everybody. They were at the forefront and dealing with things on a board level, not shunned aside or reporting to someone who didn't understand the technology. Because of this, everybody knew the results from the off. They knew what was working and they knew how to shape other aspects of their business to reflect what the data was telling them.

So, what's the takeaway here? The tl;dr?:

  • Put technology on par – or in front of – most other aspects of your business. Make sure the team are there reporting directly to the top level about exactly what's happening
  • Don't be afraid of failure and adapting your strategy
  • Look for answers in your data, don't ask questions with it
  • Customers won't give you information for free, they want something of worth in return, so reward them


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