Social media strategy: inside Obama's online campaign

Social media expert Rahaf Harfoush talks about how she and her team helped to build Barack Obama's digital campaign.

Barack Obama is being hailed as the most  tech-savvy U.S. president-elect to date, based on his heavy use of new media and social networking. His digital campaign, however, was far from a one-man show.

One of the people working behind the scenes was Rahaf Harfoush, a Canadian self-proclaimed innovation and new media strategist. She recently completed a three-month assignment as part of Barack Obama's new media team, working on at his headquarters in Chicago.

Harfoush, 24, did her business degree at the University of Western Ontario. Already, her clients span a list of impressive names, ranging from British Telecom, Unilever,  and InnoSpa to the McMichael Art Gallery of Ontario.

Last week, we caught up with Harfoush during a Rotman School of Management session in Toronto, entitled Applying Barack Obama's Social Media Strategy to Your Brand's Communications Needs. Here are some excerpts from an interview before the session.

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Rahaf Harfoush, new media strategist and a member of Barack Obama's digital campaign team. How did you come to call yourself a social media strategist?

Rahaf Harfoush: Well, the funny thing about social media is that it's so new that there are all these crazy titles out there. I've come across "social media ninja," "programming herder," "community evangelist." There are all types of nicknames. I guess it was the easiest way to describe what I did — which is not just the tactical, which is part of it, but also to reflect the strategy involved in terms of incorporating social media within a company's communication strategy or branding strategy or recruitment or retention strategy.

I find that a lot of times the strategist part is overlooked in favour of people who have a particular knowledge of an application like, "I really know Facebook." But not a lot of thought goes into how this (Facebook) is going to fit into the corporate vision and messaging and positioning. How were you involved in the Obama campaign?

Harfoush: I went down as a volunteer for the campaign for three months. It was unbelievable to be right there at national headquarters in Chicago.

Video:Rahaf Harfoush on what it was like working on the Obama Campaign. Explain more about

Harfoush: It was the social network that we built, and that was the main tool that the grassroots organizers used to mobilize and blog and share information with each other. I did a lot of things in that space — everything from language auditing, making sure the instructions were easy to understand, making sure that the tools were working, monitoring the community and conversations, you know, because there were some people that would go on and say vile things. So you moderated then?

Harfoush: It was self-moderated, so if any members of our community saw something that was offensive they flagged it. And we were pretty laid back about it, the only things that were ever removed were racist remarks. Other than that, it was if you had an opinion [then] as long as you were respectful you could pretty much say whatever you want. What do you say to people who complain that online users are mostly angry and post a lot of negative comments.

The internet's a microcosm of the population around the world. You're going to have your jerks that are jerks offline and online, so, yes, you're always going to have the hecklers and the people that just want to cause trouble. That's fine, but to say that we're not going to go down this road because of the small minority of people seems a little bit ridiculous to me when the benefits are so much. For every one angry person there are 10 or 15 genuine people that actually want to help, because, "surprise," they care about your brand and they want you to make a better product. But do you think those 10 or 15 genuine people talk as much as the heckler?

It depends on the situation. They [jerks] can be more vocal, but it doesn't negate the value that those certain communities have. You can tell right away if someone is making a point that's constructive criticism or if someone's just being a troll.

If you're being a troll, you might make a lot of noise, but most people that read your comments are going to be, like, you're just spewing nonsense. If you have constructive criticism and you're saying, "This is my experience with brand X, this is what they could have done better, this is how I felt about it," that to me is a point of discussion that then you can use to come back and fix that. Could Obama have been as successful without the site?

Harfoush: It wasn't about new media; it was about the fact that the campaign gave new media the opportunity to become an integrated part of the communications campaign of a political campaign.

I think it helped us to access a lot of people by giving them to tools to organize, to create events, to connect with each others and giving them everything that they needed, so that when they went off-line they were fully equipped — be it canvassing to talk[ing] to their neighbours.

'Everything that we did was to connect people, because it was a movement that was fundamentally about people.'

[Through the site] they had talking points to pass onto their families, videos, events in their area that were happening, community outreach programs in their state. Everything that we did was to connect people, because it was a movement that was fundamentally about people.

And so I think that site was a very powerful conduit for channeling all that energy. But the other part of that is that he [Obama] is an incredible speaker, he is an incredible person, and that energy and vision, and his personality and calmness, drew a lot of people in as well .… You could have had all the same things in place and if it would have been someone else I'm not sure how it would have been. Is it viable that a Canadian politician could do the same thing?

Harfoush: I'm not sure. Barack Obama was a community organizer, he knew how to motivate people, he had experience going out and connecting. And if a politician wants to do the same type of thing, he's going to have to go and build those relationships.

The technology didn't negate the fact that those relationships were being built based on the efforts of volunteers and people that were coming together. It helped, it was easy, it was convenient you could exchange information at the speed of light. So, it's vision first, technology second.

Harfoush: Absolutely.

Once you have that [vision], then social media can be used as a tool to execute. Without that, it's just a website. I mean, in the last Canadian election a lot of the politicians were on Twitter, but very few of them were using it correctly. How do you use Twitter correctly?

Harfoush: There's no off-the-shelf solution. Are you going to use Twitter to just blast one-way messages or are you going to talk to them, are you going to answer their questions. What are you trying to do?

'I think social media is by its definition social. It's about people talking; it's all about conversation, sharing our vision.'

A wrong way would be to come online and not really spend the time having conversations with people, just to continually blast one way messages all the time and then not be a part of the community. Only talk about messages that relate to you, never submit interesting information, never help anybody out, never answer anybody's questions, just be all about you all the time.

Which is kind of funny, because it takes a new medium [Twitter] and it uses an old strategy, which is a one-way communication broadcast. Twitter is all about conversations — I've met friends on Twitter; I've had incredible conversations. I've gotten help on Twitter, because the community is willing to nurture and to support you. If you come online and you're just like yapping, yapping, yapping, yapping, well no one is going to want to hear what you want to say. It's about authentic conversations, really. Whether you're a politician, marketer or a journalist, would you say being involved in the conversation is a common theme in social media across the board?

Harfoush: Absolutely. I think social media is by its definition social. It's about people talking; it's all about conversation, sharing our vision. Seeing what other people have to say about it and talking about it and creating something new. As a journalist, I think it's an incredible resource.

I know I get most of my news from Twitter now. I heard about the terror attack in India on Twitter first, I heard about the propane explosion in Toronto on Twitter first .…

It would be helpful as a politician — what are people talking about, what do Canadians care about. As a company, [it would be helpful] to be able to do reputation management and customer service, like Comcast is doing customer service and Starbucks is doing customer service on Twitter now. Obviously, there are some that resist the idea of an online conversation. What needs to be in place for these things to be accepted and used?

Harfoush: Just a sense of curiosity. I don't want to say that it's a generational thing, because I've come across a lot of people both old and young who have been very open to trying these new ways. I think it's being able to adapt, it's being open to new possibilities.

The funny thing is it's a defensive mechanism now, saying, "I don't want to know what people are saying about my brand because it's bad."

The thing is that those conversations are happening whether or not you're there or not. So isn't it better to at least know what people are saying and be able to engage them and talk to them and create valuable relationships, than it is to just close your mind and have something explode in your face that you could have easily prevented? A lot of content sites are giving readers a place to comment now. Do all brands and sites have the same rules in terms of asking for feedback?

Feedback is great. Again it depends on the strategy behind it. So are people commenting, and their comments are going to get posted, and no one's reading them or moderating. And not just moderating in terms of seeing what people can and can't say, but moderating in terms of guiding the discussion along. So, what's the purpose? If there's a conversation, there's certain message boards that have really good discussions that happen on them and people keep coming back for those discussions and then there are message boards that are just really static and the comments don't really add any value.

It depends on the type of conversation you want, what you want to do with that audience. And also look at whether or not a message board is the best way of soliciting feedback. Maybe it's best to blog a post in response or record a short video and then you get all the videos and play feedback. It all depends on how you want to communicate and how you want people to interact with your brand, so it takes effort. And I feel like every strategy needs to be unique, because every brand is unique. Going back to the journalism space, you have also done work on Now Public and other citizen journalism sites. What about delivering so-called real facts? Is it jeopardized when using social media and have a lot of contributors?

What I've noticed is that people's relationship with information has changed. On the internet, you don't need to get it from one source .… I don't ever get a news story from one source anymore.

Harfoush: Video response — Rahaf Harfoush on triangulating the truth. At just 24, how does your age affect what you do and what you know?

Harfoush: A lot of times, I'm dealing with people that are a lot older. I come in [to a company] and I'm asked to go in at a pretty high level, and a lot of them are from a different generation — a lot of boomers and older gen-Xers.

The ones who bring me in are very open, but when you are young I feel you have to work doubly as hard in terms of building a track record of implementation, of really knowing what you're talking about and presenting the type of image that build confidence .… With technology. you can be very young and have a lot of experience, so it's a matter of projecting a certain image.

My title [social media strategist] helped carve a niche. I didn't want to have something that's too wacky, where it would seem like I'm crazy and do weird internet things [laughs]. Getting back to Obama, share some more stories.

Harfoush: People were amazing, they did a lot with it. There was an Obama pumpkin carving group [they carved Obama’s face in pumpkins or one of the campaign messages such as HOPE] and a Dungeons and Dragons group. People would get together in their basements and call voters. [Note: Undecided voters lists and question forms were provided on]. All the campaign issues and stances could be downloaded to your iPod so that you could carry it with you. And with the click of a button you could donate. [The majority of Obama's campaign funding came from small, individual donors.]

[Many supporters also made video.  Watch here