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Election 2010: web lessons from Obama

By Anna Doble

Updated on 11 March 2010 As our politicians limber up for Britain's first truly online election, what are the golden rules of web campaigning and will they really win our votes?

The websites of Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives.

While it may seem British politicians were initially slow to harness the power of the internet, there is no doubt they are now hungry to spread their message online.

Barack Obama's 2008 US presidential campaign is widely held as the blueprint for this new chapter because it opened up the possibilities of political canvassing. So what went so right?

Engaging the audience
Obama's team largely used email, YouTube and the website to galvanise support. It was quick, direct and user-friendly. It made taking part easy.

The main parties in Britain lack the star power of an Obama, but their websites have certainly borrowed heavily from the look and feel of the president's campaign homepage.

David Cameron's face stares out from a YouTube window on the Tory site and his party has launched its own iPhone app, before Labour.

Pro-Cameron blogger Iain Dale (@iaindale) recently told Channel 4 News: "The Conservatives have been ahead in most areas of internet campaigning, but the other two parties are catching up.

" is a partial copy of, where people can fundraise, organise events and campaigning."

(Joe Rospars - Blue State Digital, founding partner and creative director)

Power to the people
Most politicians have acknowledge the power of Twitter, the UK's social networking tool de jour. It gives the impression of MPs being accessible.

Labour media campaign spokesperson Kerry McCarthy (@Kerry4MP) is an avid tweeter, sending messages around the clock. Crucially for politicians like her, it allows an informal dialogue, away from the "official party line".

Twitter also provides the chance to talk to constituents about local issues. And for voters, it is considerably easier than writing a letter.

But is this enough? Joe Rospars (@rospars) is creative director at Blue State Digital, the company that orchestrated Obama's 2008 campaign. Rospars was Obama's principal digital strategist.

In the UK he is currently working with anti-BNP group Hope Not Hate, voting reform campaigners Power2010 and the Manchester United Supporters Trust, the fan group opposed to the club's US ownership. He will be in Britain for all of April and part of May, but has not let slip any party allegiance.

Speaking to Channel 4 News Mr Rospars explained how a simple tweak to an old campaign model proved to be a game-changing shift in the US.

His team came up with the idea of counting donations not in dollars but in people, writ large on MyBarack's homepage. It was a decisive reshuffling of the power balance between voters, donors and politicians.

It meant money could not buy influence. A five dollar supporter was as valuable as a voter with $10,000 to spare. An invite to "dinner with Barack" became an overnight sensation, because it was open to all.

Obama's website generated a whopping $500m USD.

(Crowds of Obama supporters at a campaign rally in Columbus - Getty Images)

There is no point faking it. The Obama campaign revealed that engaging with "real people" is not about spin.

The success in the US was that voters themselves were the election. They got out and spread the word, not as bit-part players, but as the main event. Nothing spoke louder than the now-famous images of vast crowds awaiting Obama at Democrat rallies, and later the victory celebrations.

Joe Rospars said the best thing UK politicians can do in the coming weeks is "get out of London", be that digitally or in person.

He also told Channel 4 News that, during the '08 campaign, Obama had freqently discussed the prospect of losing. He explained this was because, win or lose, the future president wanted to "leave the democratic process better off".

(Does have the Blue State Digital touch?)

Twitter questions answered
Do you feel that voting methods will change as technology advances (eg SMS, email, Tweeting) in elections?
Joe Rospars: Obviously there are practical issues... protecting the sanctity of democracy and so on, but there is no reason why things cannot change. In the US, for example, people have pushed for a national holiday on polling day.

hilaryjanegray: How does working for a political campaign compare with other digital marketing? and particularly that with MUST?
JR: It feels like a campaign! It's about picking up on the mood of the moment, like Beckham wearing the green and gold scarf.... That felt like the time when Sarah Palin (John McCain's running mate in 2008) started attacking grassroots volunteers in a speech. I hadn't even intended to send out an email that night, but everyone started talking about it and suddenly it was a new topic in the campaign.

Coneee: is email still the killer campaigning app? Do they still think Twitter is trivial?
JR: Whatever the method of communication is, so long as it is both pro-active and reactive it works. Twitter's openness makes it very powerful.

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