Page last updated at 10:01 GMT, Thursday, 6 November 2008

Online lessons for UK in Obama win

By Torin Douglas
Media correspondent, BBC News

Barack Obama
An online strategy underpinned the knocking on doors for support

The internet is widely accepted to have played a huge part in the election of Barack Obama. Now one of Obama's web team is setting up business in the UK. Could the same thing happen in the UK?

If you did not look at Barack Obama's website in the run-up to the US election, you might like to do so now before the excitement dies down.

Not only will it tell you much about the man who is going to be president, it will also tell you much about how he did it.

There is now a big "thank you" on the home page, above the latest blogs and the link to Barack TV, where the commercials and other video footage can be found.

It is presented as a thank you from the president-elect himself, at the moment of victory.

"I want to be very clear about one thing," he says. "All of this happened because of you. Thank you, Barack."

It also happened because of the internet, according to Thomas Gensemer.

He is the founder of Blue State Digital, the strategy and software company which spearheaded Obama's online strategy - and he says the knocking on doors, donations and talking to family and friends were all underpinned by the web.

From day one, if someone signed up on the website - we're talking millions of people - the mandate was that, if they offered to volunteer, within three days a personal e-mail or phone call would go from the campaign staff to these people

Thomas Gensemer, Blue State Digital

Particularly the donations. Obama raised record sums - over $600m (376m) altogether, $150m (94m) in September alone - from more than 2.5m individuals, many giving small but regular sums.

That is many more donors than in previous elections and the "grassroots giving" has been boosted by fund-raising events promoted on the web.

"There've been nearly a quarter of a million individual events such as house parties and debate-watching parties," said Gensemer.

"So I, as someone who will host people in my house or knock on doors, am more likely to give more money, more times, this way than if I were just asked for money."

Online activism

I caught up with Gensemer for Radio 4's The World Tonight just before the election. He was on a visit to London, where he is about to set up an office.

He is hoping to win business from political and lobbying groups, companies and trade unions - and he believes the Obama campaign has shown what can be achieved when the web is harnessed to its full potential.

"From the day Obama announced his candidacy in Springfield in spring of '07, we encouraged people to come online and set up their own activism centres - invite their neighbours, campus communities and so on," he said.

"From day one, if someone signed up on the website - we're talking millions of people - the mandate was that, if they offered to volunteer, within three days a personal e-mail or phone call would go from the campaign staff to these people."

Obama's election rivals, John McCain and Hilary Clinton, both harnessed new media - Clinton launched her campaign on her blog.

But Obama's team went much further - whether showing him on YouTube personally calling prospective voters, or encouraging people to download campaign materials and music or put up their own videos supporting the campaign.

British version

"You can download everything from posters to stick up on your front window through to badges to stick on your Facebook profile," said Chris Reed, head of digital at the corporate communications firm Fishburn Hedges.

A waiting US voter using a laptop
Many US voters sought information using the internet

"You can sign up for videos, for music - all the sort of media that is being actively shared by people online, all there for the taking, the personalising and the passing on."

So how will techniques like this affect British politics?

In some ways, the main parties are well advanced. Conservative bloggers such as Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes have led the way, as David Cameron did with his webCameron.

Within hours of Obama's victory, there was video of the Conservative leader on YouTube, congratulating him.

Labour too is developing its web strategy, through a digital company called Tangent.

Its executive director Greg Jackson says there are big differences between the US and Britain - not least, that Americans know exactly when their elections will be held and can plan two years ahead.

Youth mobilised

He says online campaigning needs that long-term planning.

"I think the second big difference is that in the US you have a single candidate about whom everything can revolve" he says.

"In the UK you have 650 local candidates and so it's not as easy to build that grassroots campaign that you have in the US."

And what about all the knocking campaign ads they have in the United States? With so many people now watching videos on the web, unregulated, could such ads take off in the UK?

Ivor Gaber is professor of political campaigning and reporting at City University in London. He thinks they could - and that does not entirely worry him.

"It does, in the sense that unregulated 'attack' ads will diminish the quality of our democracy" he says.

"On the other hand, it doesn't worry me because we've seen in the UK over the years a process of political disengagement particularly from young people - and if they are more comfortable accessing political information online, then this is one way to re-engage them.

"This could be the way that we get the younger voter interested in politics again."

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