Campaign Web sites have a way of looking a lot like each other - lots of red, white, and blue, with a prominent "Donate Now" button on the home page. So what makes barackobama.com special? It's a big question, since without it and the grassroots movement the campaign organized around it, it's unlikely that Barack Obama, an African American Senator still in the middle of his first term, would be brushing past Hillary Clinton and reaching for the presidency.
As I write this, Senator Clinton has yet to surrender to what all the pundits and professional vote counters say is an inevitable, if narrow, defeat. But Obama has come a long way in what he himself often characterizes as an "improbable quest," and his Web site has played a large role in getting people involved in the campaign.
For the record, I run a broward4obama.com Web site for grassroots supporters in Broward County, Fla.; BlueBroward.org, an organizing Web site for local Democratic Clubs and allied grassroots; as well as Web sites for several state and local candidates. So, yes, I'm an Obama supporter.
But I'm also a long-time business technology journalist, having spent much of my career covering information technology implementations. As a journalist as well as a Web developer, I'm keenly interested to learn more about what the campaign has done on the Web, how it overcame the social networking challenges it faced, and how it continues to wrestle with data management, integration, and security challenges. More than anything, I want to know why it's worked so well.
What I found was a highly sophisticated information technology strategy—one with hard-won lessons for any CIO or business technology executive looking to use social networks or other technologies to push power down to the "ground troops" of their organization.
Indeed, Obama's strategy didn't rely on unique or bleeding-edge technology—far from it—but on using established hardware and software to empower a highly decentralized, largely self-organizing, network of volunteers.
"The approach to the campaign from the very beginning, coming from Barack, was to put as much power as we can in the hands of regular folks to organize in their communities and empower them to take control," says Joe Rospars, the campaign's new media director. "That ethos comes from him. We've been trying to reflect that in all we've been doing in the Web site, the new media site, and when that's combined with the fuel of millions of people willing to get involved—those two things make a pretty powerful mix." With more than 800,000 people registered on the Web site, the campaign's challenge is to get them working on "campaign relevant outcomes" including fundraising and voter contact, Rospars says.