Skip to content

How to use social media for non-profits – Obama style

April 24, 2009

So this is it. My two-week vacation in Europe. I will get to see my family in Poland and then spend a week sightseeing in Italy w/ my dad. Sweet.
However, for now I am stuck for the next four hours at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany sitting at Starbucks and drinking a severely overpriced latte and paying for my internet access. At least the armchair is somewhat comfy, but I digress.

I wanted to share with you my thoughts after reading Marketing Sherpa’s special report titled “The Obama Playbook: How Digital Marketing & Social Media Won the Election” (must have a membership to download it). It’s a chalk full of ideas, all 27 pages of it.
I am about to embark on my next social media campaign at work promoting a philanthropic literacy-related cause and reading this white paper really helped to confirm my strategy.
Are you trying to tap the power of social media for your non-profit organization? Read on.

Many claim that without the power of Obama’s online and mobile campaigning we might have ended up with a different president in the White House today. While this is a pretty strong statement, nobody can deny that Obama’s staff went above and beyond in terms of utilizing every digital and social media channel at their disposal. It was definitely a well oiled machine able to respond quickly and tailor Obama’s message according to the type of audience occupying each channel. Here are some tips worth repeating:

Know the Channel and its Users

On My Space Obama’s staff ended up developing a dedicated video channel soon after it had discovered that My Space audience liked to view and forward video content to their friends. The result: 720 video channel subscribers and over 480 video views just through this channel alone.
On Facebook the strategy was different and included daily short messages (notes) to leverage the power of the news feed functionality placing Obama’s message center stage on profiles of all of his proponents.

Develop Original Content

Throughout all 200 social sites Obama targeted during his presidential campaign, the emphasis was always on developing original content to highly targeted groups of users. How? Instead of having just one MySpace profile, Obama’s team developed 57 including a separate profile for each US state (e.g. “Oregon for Obama”) and additional ones for selected social groups incl. “Students for Obama” (10K friends), “Women for Obama” (12K friends) .

Don’t make your social channel messaging a mirror image of your main website

A common mistake Goodstein (Obama’s social media campaign manager) pointed out was making your social media channel’s messaging a direct copy of your main website’s content. Don’t. These sites must be different. Ok, I know what you are thinking: “How am I going to write copy for two channels if I don’t have time for updating my main website?” The answer is not that complicated: make every effort to have your supporters contribute as much content, images & video and possible and make these content pieces fully sharable. Encourage content creation though Q&A forums, opinion polls, content commenting and rating. This of course will not eliminate consistent content postings on your part, but it will substantially decrease the amount and frequency of that content.

Let others carry your message

Want to take your social media efforts to the next level? Make it super easy for your supporters to pass your messages to their friends to create viral spread and recruit others for your cause. How? 1) By developing social network badges, small visual promos your supporters could display on their social network profile pages and alert others of your cause. 2) By making it extra easy to share your content virally which includes emailing it, tweeting about it, or adding it to social bookmarking sites such as Delicious or Digg. Finally 3) – don’t be afraid of your supporters creating content themselves even if it is not residing on your social media channel. This includes creating new profile pages such as the one on Facebook titled “I Have More Foreign Policy Experience than Sarah Palin.” (over 251 friends) that Obama’s supporters (not Obama’s staff) created shortly after McCain made his VP pick. Remember, the more the merrier and yes, there is no such thing as fully controlling your message on social media so unless the message is wrong and damaging to your course, embrace these efforts and encourage your supporters to create more.

Invest in Facebook applications (if you can)

While developing Facebook applications might require hiring (or asking for 🙂 ) an outside help, don’t discard that idea too soon. Obama’s team invested in developing an application that allowed users to instantly find and get involved with their local campaign offices. Another application developed by Obama supporters enabled users to send Obama-themed virtual gifts to other Facebook users. Cheesy, maybe, but really effective.

Look Beyond Facebook and My Space

While creating a profile on Facebook and in most cases on MySpace is a must, reach out to users on specialty social networks if your campaign message resonates with their audience. These include,, (for baby boomers) (for Americans with disabilities) and

Promote events though searchable online calendars

If your cause involves promoting an event/events consider looking into online event databases such as, and These websites allow users to search for upcoming events based on their location and in most instances are free.

Make good use of your videos

YouTube is no longer just for teenagers who upload their home made video masterpieces hoping for instant fame. Why should you? Because You Tube provides you with a free way to host your videos and if you attach correct keywords to your videos others can find them easily which can add a significant number of new supporters to your cause. Obama ended up uploading over 1800 videos on his YouTube channel. Even if you have just a handful of videos developing a channel on YouTube is well worth your time since you can ask your supporters to rate, comment and respond to your videos with their own relevant video content (e.g. a fan-made cell phone video from your event).

Don’t have videos? Well, you must have photos.

If you don’t take photos of your events you are missing a great opportunity. Visual content such as videos and photos is highly viral and can greatly humanize your cause. Consider starting a Flickr channel and upload images to it in real time right from your event floor. Make sure you display feeds from your flickr stream to all your other channels incl. Facebook, your main website and blogs. Alert your users of new content through Twitter or Facebook status update. In addition, create a Flickr group and/or join exiting groups that are relevant to your cause to gain larger exposure on Flickr for your content.

Tweet, tweet, tweet…

Consider keeping your supporters up to date though twitter updates. Word of caution though: Don’t set up a Twitter account unless you can commit resources to providing regular updates & creating a dialog. This channel is very effective, but also resource intensive. Think about that ahead of time.

Tie it all together.

So now you have several profiles on various social media channels. Bring it all together by displaying links to all of them on your main website. Remember to also cross-link your content. E.g. display your Twitter stream on your Facebook page or Flickr stream on your main website, etc.

Other Resources

CONSTANT CONTACT – Since I concentrated on social media don’t forget that more traditional online communication channels such as email campaigns are no longer worth your time. Email, especially to highly targeted audiences continues to yield high results. There is a great (and inexpensive) program that allows you to keep all your email addresses in one place and create effective branded email messages that can be tracked. Go to for more info.

SCRIBD – don’t just offer your documents online. Make sure the content can be easily shared through email, social bookmarking sites or embedding them on third party sites (by providing an embed code). Check out for more info.

USTREAM – originally this service was established to connect overseas soldiers w/ their families back home. What can it do for you? It can be used to live stream your events at a push of a button and even add a live chat to make it more interactive. You don’t need a satellite truck or an army of videographers. Just one video operator with a mobile, landline or Wi-Fi Internet connection will do. Check it out on

Obama’s results:

  • 200 social sites with profiles
  • A database of 13 million email addresses
  • 22 million posts to independent web sites and blogs
  • 2.9 million mobile tel. numbers of uses who opted to receive mobile updates

It might be hard (wink, wink) for you to top these results, but even if you can engage in just a fraction of activities Obama staff supported it will pay off.

Please share with me any other tips you might have for a successful social media campaign for your non-profit organization Obama-style.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: