By Michael Vizard
When the campaign to re-elect U.S. President Barack Obama got under way, campaign chairman David Axelrod was certain that social media would play a much bigger role in the 2012 election than it did in 2008. Axelrod didn’t know a lot about social media, but he recognized that near-ubiquitous access to Facebook, Twitter and smartphones were changing the way people became informed about events and issues. His insight led to the realization that the campaign needed a CTO who was well versed in the ways of the Web, which led to appointment of Harper Reed, formerly CTO of Threadless.com, an online community for artists based in Chicago, as CTO of the Obama for America presidential campaign.
The first thing Reed says he recognized the campaign needed was a team of engineers who were not only Web savvy, but who would be highly committed to quickly building applications, using iterative methodologies that would give the campaign the agility to respond instantly to almost any event or issue. That decision meant one of the first people Reed hired was Jason Kunesh to be the campaign’s dedicated lead for managing user experience.
What set the Obama campaign apart from that of Republican challenger Mitt Romney was a commitment to building social media applications that helped the campaign quickly target campaign messages to specific constituencies, but just as importantly helped staffers get out the vote on Election Day. Given the margin of victory for President Obama in many key battleground states, it is clear the campaign’s social media applications were a key component of that success.
“We pretty much used the Ladders of Engagement approach as our organizing principle for building software,” says Kunesh.
In fact, Reed says the one thing that really set the Obama campaign apart from the Romney campaign is that on Election Day, campaign staffers were working with applications that had iteratively evolved with a lot of feedback from the campaign staff. In contrast, the Romney campaign used a more traditional approach to developing applications that relied heavily on outside IT consultants and resulted in a set of applications, known as Orca, which the Romney campaign staff didn’t see until election day. With little to no familiarity with the applications or much guidance in the way of user feedback, the Romney social media effort met with predictable results, says Reed.
In contrast, the agile development approach taken by Obama for America put the IT focus of the campaign on the user experience from the very beginning. “When you work from a specification, the application is never going to be right,” says Reed. “To succeed with people with little in the way of technology skills, like campaign staffers, you need to be very iterative.” That approach, says Reed, allows IT organizations to collect a lot of feedback and quickly produce new versions of the software.