Discover: How did you go from tech guru to political transformer?
Harper Reed: I had done some volunteer work for Obama in 2008 and I was very much a supporter of the president. A decision was made by the Obama campaign to reach outside of their talent pool and comfort zone, and to hire people who were better at this than they were. So when Michael Slaby [the campaign’s chief innovation and integration officer] recruited me, it just seemed like a tremendous opportunity to work on the presidential campaign and to have that experience. Transforming politics wasn’t what was important.
D: Was it the technology itself then that was transformative?
HR: I think the real innovation was the team, not the technology, and the decision to bring people in-house from outside of politics. Previous campaigns had mostly outsourced technology to political vendors like Blue State Digital, a tech company that cut its teeth on Howard Dean’s [failed presidential] campaign in 2004. In contrast, we brought people in from Google, from Facebook, from Twitter and from companies all around Chicago. We didn’t want inventors or visionaries or anyone who was going to make things complicated. We just wanted people to come in, work their hardest, not require us to train them, and to aggressively execute.
D: In 2008, the Obama campaign’s use of social media and online tracking tools expanded the Democratic Party’s voter data information base by at least tenfold. But much of this information was siloed in separate databases or used a patchwork of software programs that weren’t compatible with each other, which made it difficult to access, integrate and leverage the data. When you got involved, how did you break down these barriers?
HR: We spent a lot of time figuring out how to integrate databases that were all over the place. We needed to create a single software platform that would integrate and unify massive amounts of data that had been accumulated since the 2008 campaign — up to hundreds of millions of pieces of data from previous campaigns, from political canvassers, from the Democratic Party’s databases on registered voters, from what people posted on their Facebook pages, or how they responded to email solicitations — so that we could easily access and use this information to target voters.
We looked at what we could achieve pretty quickly, from a software perspective, using programs we were already familiar with and which we knew people would use, because we didn’t have much time — only 18 months from the time I was hired until the election.
We also wanted to use the technology as a force multiplier, in other words, as a tool that made it easier for people to [volunteer and] get involved in the campaign and made it easier for people to vote and made the entire process more efficient. In 2008, I wanted to be involved, but I didn’t know how, and when I did volunteer, I spent most of my time [in a field office] manually entering voter information on spreadsheets.
This was important but tedious and inefficient. I wanted to solve that problem and make sure that if you wanted to get involved, that you could do it easily, and the only thing you would need is Internet access. We also wanted to find a way to talk to every person and make sure every person votes — and that includes all 200 million Americans who are eligible to vote.
D: Could you walk me through how you helped to create a grassroots effort that mobilized nearly a million volunteers?
HR: We developed our product called Dashboard, which was a software tool that was designed to be a virtual campaign office to help volunteers communicate and collaborate through emails and interacting online. It was our attempt to take an offline field office and merge it online. This software portal automated recruitment and outreach to campaign volunteers, which is what made possible the deep penetration of the campaign. People could volunteer online and be connected with their neighborhood team based on where they lived.
The Dashboard technology allowed us to empower people to easily get involved in the campaign. Maybe they were in a rural area and couldn’t participate through the normal channels. The only thing they needed was Internet access. We were able to give equal access [and equal ability] to participate in the campaign to my mom in Colorado, to a blue-collar worker in Virginia, to a white-collar worker in Florida. It even allowed a guy in a hospital to participate in the campaign without leaving his hospital bed.
D: Dashboard had several menu options, like “my team,” “my messages,” “resources,” “numbers” or “events.” So people could just log on, click on what they needed, and then get their personalized instructions at home rather than volunteering at a campaign field office.
HR: The Call Tool [an app that’s part of Dashboard], for example, allowed thousands of volunteers to do phone canvassing from their home and pull up lists of people to call and a script that said, “Hey, call Linda. This is her number. This is where she lives. Here’s a script to read when you get on the phone.” And I like to think all of these people with iPads or Android devices or cell phones were able to use this and interact with it without leaving their house.
[During the campaign], there was this picture of [U.S. Rep.] Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) using her iPad to use the Call Tool. And she can do that on a bus. She has a lot of technology in her hands. She can use lists [to make calls], and she can do this without leaving her house and having to go somewhere.
Dashboard also handled some of the metrics of the grassroots part of the campaign by tracking activities like phone calls to voters, voter registration or canvassing. The software allowed volunteers to quantify their work, to track how much they’ve done, to see if they’re hitting their goals and to share best practices, tips and tricks. Then, they were able to participate, like call Nevada or knock on doors in Colorado. It was an attempt on our side to create a gateway to allow people to get into the offline world because you are much more productive if you actually go out. Dashboard was about empowering that community.
It also had a social networking application, sort of like Facebook, so that people could connect with other people in their neighborhood teams or their team leaders, and interact, like soliciting rides to events, that type of thing. The goal here was to allow people to organize in their neighborhoods where they are most comfortable, and work and meet with their peers and their neighbors.
I live in an urban community, and I don’t know my neighbors. Even though I built it, I would join in, and I saw people from the neighborhood, people I saw on the train, and you feel better when you know you’re not alone. And having all these people around, you’re able to say, “Oh, my neighbor over here across the street is also working on the campaign and helping out.” That’s really neat. We were able to get more people involved, to get out the vote, to get people out to go knock on doors.
D: The campaign also microtargeted voters by firing off emails or posting messages on Facebook that were shaped to appeal to their particular interests or causes using tracking software, similar to ones used by online retailers to craft ads. Is that how you were able to tailor political messaging to such a degree?
HR: The most important thing we did was listen. People forget to listen. We would watch and see what is important for people. What are people talking about right now? You don’t need a software platform to do this. You can just watch what your friends are doing.
D: But you were watching what millions of your friends were doing.
Yeah, there’s a scale here. But even if you’re talking about your regional Planned Parenthood, they would have a regional page, and they can see the activity and people’s updates, which would give them a pretty good idea of what’s happening and enable them to respond.
D: But when people donated to BarackObama.com, the campaign asked to harvest some of their Facebook data, which meant you had the names at least of their Facebook friends. Or you knew if they responded to Facebook postings or targeted email solicitations about specific issues. Every time someone “liked” Planned Parenthood on Facebook, it registered with the Obama campaign. How was this information used?
HR: We also did it on Twitter, on Tumblr and even on Pinterest. We didn’t know everything you were doing on Facebook. But if you shared something or uploaded a picture and tagged it as public, we could look to see what it says.
We knew if someone was interested in health care or reproductive rights based on an Internet interaction on Facebook or a response to an email. Essentially, we used the technology to make sure you’re the right person to receive a particular message. Then we’d ask people if they wanted to share this message. We’d look through his or her friends and ask, “Who are the most important people for us to share this with?” And from there, we would share with these people, which continually built our base. So if you were sharing something from the campaign, it would register on Facebook.
And with the content creation, and the postings, we tried to measure things. When you post this, what kind of clicks do you get? On Tumblr, how many re-blogs, or on Twitter, how many retweets? So if you go to our Facebook page
, you can see the response to postings. One that got posted about an hour ago already has 54,000 likes, and 3,000 people shared it. This way, we know which messages are the most effective.