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Daily Download: Lasting Legacies of Obama’s 2012 Digital Campaign Strategy

January 16, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Even with campaign season over, politicians continue to use the data collected online during the 2012 election. Daily Download's Lauren Ashburn and Howard Kurtz look back at the 2012 election with Harper Reed, former chief technology officer for Obama for America, who managed digital strategy for President Obama's re-election.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next, we wrap up our regular look at the impact of social media on election-year politics.

As we approach the inauguration of President Obama, our Daily Download team, Lauren Ashburn and Howard Kurtz, talk to the man who designed the winning side’s digital strategy.

LAUREN ASHBURN: Joining us is Harper Reed, a high-tech executive who served as chief technology officer for President Obama’s reelection campaign.

Welcome, Harper.

HARPER REED, former Obama Campaign Chief Technology Officer: Hello.

LAUREN ASHBURN, Daily-Download.com: Hello.

We spent a year talking about the role of social media in the campaign. How important were Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to the campaign?

HARPER REED: Well, it was — it’s really interesting to look at 2008 vs. 2012, because, in 2008, a lot of these things were just starting.

HOWARD KURTZ, Newsweek/CNN: They were new toys.

HARPER REED: They were new toys.

They weren’t — people weren’t using them. And how I like to say it is, like, my mom wasn’t using them, you know? And as more people use these, as more people — America starts using these, they’re incredibly important, as you can imagine.

HOWARD KURTZ: And are they important because when you get friends, followers on Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr, amplifying the campaign’s message, is that better than hearing it from a politician?

HARPER REED: I think it’s more genuine.

Like, if I share to you and we’re friends on Facebook, then you kind of listen to what I’m saying a little bit than if someone who’s very far away shares to you.

We see that — I think it’s the same thing as it always has been, which is it’s more — it’s much easier for me to hand you a pamphlet or it’s much easier for me to send you a postcard than it is for a giant organization.

Now we’re just able to have it be like re-shared or re-tweeted or followed or…

HOWARD KURTZ: At the speed of light, of course.

LAUREN ASHBURN: Right. Right.

HARPER REED: Yes, very quickly.

LAUREN ASHBURN: Can that kind of online communication work once the dramatic narrative of the campaign is over? Can you use it to build interest around other things?

HOWARD KURTZ: Like the inauguration that is coming up?

HARPER REED: I think so. I think — I think it’s happening.

We’re seeing a lot of people talking about this. We’re seeing a lot of graphics shared. I know there were some cool fiscal cliff graphics that were shared, as well as just infographics about all sorts of interesting things.

HOWARD KURTZ: OK, but…

LAUREN ASHBURN: You can say cool and fiscal cliff in the same sentence.

HARPER REED: This may be the first time that anyone has ever those two things together.

(LAUGHTER)

HARPER REED: But when you are talking about infographics, some of those are very attractive. They really are compelling.

HOWARD KURTZ: Right. But the fiscal cliff, for example, is complicated, whereas a presidential campaign ultimately is a binary choice. Either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama was going to win that election, and that perhaps that makes it easier to reach out through social media?

HARPER REED: Well, I have to say that I don’t think I can answer any questions on the fiscal cliff.

(LAUGHTER)

HOWARD KURTZ: We won’t ask any.

HARPER REED: But it’s definitely easier when you have such a binary choice.

And I think we will see many organizations following that. When it’s such a binary choice, it’s very easy to say here are the reasons why. Here’s 10 points why not.

LAUREN ASHBURN: One professor, Daniel Kreiss, said that the amount of political data that the campaigns collect is creepy.

Do you agree with that?

(LAUGHTER)

HOWARD KURTZ: That’s a technical term.

HARPER REED: That is a technical term.

And, you know, I don’t — I don’t necessarily know if it’s creepy. One of the things that I thought was really exciting about the campaign is a lot of the data that was gathered was given to us by the users or by the volunteers, so it’s self-reported.

An example of this is, when you go to log into BarackObama.com, let’s say you’re going to contribute or you’re going to volunteer, you click log in with Facebook. And then we say, hey, do you mind if we take this data? And then you say yes. And then, once we get that data, we’re getting the data from the people who are giving it to us.

HOWARD KURTZ: But then — and other campaigns do this — the Romney campaign did this.

HARPER REED: Yes.

HOWARD KURTZ: You know so much about the people, who they like, who their friends are, that you can serve up ads targeted to them. And that does start to feel a little uncomfortable for the consumer.

HARPER REED: I think it can.

But what I like to — the example I like to use is when we — we basically built what amounted to an ad-tech company, but instead of targeting ads on the Internet — of course, we did that — we really maximized the targeting that’s physical to make sure that when you go knock on a door, you’re knocking on the right door.

And so that, I think, is — I would rather have it that way. I don’t think that’s creepy, because what that means is we’re not wasting anyone’s time.

LAUREN ASHBURN: An online petition from “Star Wars” fans to the White House to begin building a Death Star brought a very tongue-in-cheek response from the White House, which said — quote — “The administration doesn’t support blowing up planets.”

HARPER REED: I think that’s fair.

(LAUGHTER)

HOWARD KURTZ: You endorse that.

HARPER REED: I was pro both the petition and the response.

(LAUGHTER)

LAUREN ASHBURN: But what that brings is up that…

HOWARD KURTZ: The role of humor.

LAUREN ASHBURN: … on — the role of humor on social media, and that you can use humor in a way that you can’t when you’re talking to a reporter.

HARPER REED: You know, I think that’s — I don’t know how to answer that and I don’t know if I have an answer, but it’s too bad that you can’t use that in talking to a reporter, because the humor that was done on the Barack Obama campaign’s Tumblr and all of those things is just — I loved it.

HOWARD KURTZ: But it could be off-message. All right, finally, you go through this intense campaign, you get thousands of e-mails a day.

HARPER REED: Yes.

HOWARD KURTZ: And then you unplugged.

HARPER REED: Yes.

HOWARD KURTZ: You had no Internet for a week.

HARPER REED: Yes.

HOWARD KURTZ: What did learn from that experience, Harper?

HARPER REED: Well, I set out — I realized I was addicted to e-mail. I think we all have that, where I was at dinner with my wife and I was just — I was like, just a second.

LAUREN ASHBURN: What are you talking about? I don’t know. I don’t know what you mean.

HARPER REED: And so I realized that we went from getting thousands of e-mails to, all of a sudden, like 10. And it was a little bit — I think there’s a lot of ego in technology. And so it’s a little bit like I was like, aren’t I important? What happened? What happened?

HOWARD KURTZ: So you decided to completely opt out?

HARPER REED: Well, I wanted to do is, I wanted to just put a distance between that part of my life and what was coming up next, because I figured it’s going to ramp up again, but I wanted to have this little tiny bit of time where I could just read.

LAUREN ASHBURN: Tell our viewers, what was the best thing you read when you unplugged?

HARPER REED: I read this book called “Stalingrad: 1941 to 1943.”

And, as you can imagine, it wasn’t really a very happy story, but it was an amazing story to read about just the strife and how long it lasted. It was not, let’s say, relaxing.

HOWARD KURTZ: Not like reading a Twitter post at 140 characters.

HARPER REED: No. No. But I don’t have any opportunity to read like a 1,000-page book…

LAUREN ASHBURN: And you probably won’t again.

HARPER REED: No, no. Well, I hope.

LAUREN ASHBURN: Thank you for joining us, Harper Reed.

HARPER REED: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: In two weeks, Lauren Ashburn and Howard Kurtz will begin a new series of conversations about information, trends and important voices in social media and technology, involving not just politics, but the culture we live in.