Social Networking the Obama Way

Barry Libert is co-author of a timely new book called Barack, Inc.: Winning Business Lessons of the Obama Campaign

Here's my complete interview with Barry, which is well worth listening to. What follows below is an abbreviated transcript.


MP3 File

Barry, everyone always talks about the success of the Obama campaign’s social network strategy (my.barackobama.com); Can you talk to me about the three or the four areas that you think are the key lessons for business from the Obama campaign

Absolutely. One was “Be Cool.” Barack was a master under pressure to be able to contain himself and maintain his humility, despite attacks that were being levied against him. 

The second was building an online community with constituents that empowered his people and captured their hearts and mind. 

And the third, probably the most exciting, was that he espoused a platform of “Change You Can Believe In.” And if you think about that last point, it wasn’t change I want you to do for me; it’s changes that I will do for you and that’s why you will believe in them. 

Let’s talk about the online community portion, which is really the heart and soul of what your company does. Assess for me the flaws in what you saw with the Obama campaign. How could it have been better?

I’d love to say that I think there were flaws in his social strategy, but I don’t think there were any. In fact, I think he was flawless in his approach. 

And what did he do really well that neither McCain nor Clinton did is one, as a leader, he embraced these social technologies. And that’s the most important thing. 

The second is he put real resources against it, which means he responded to peoples’ wants and needs and stuck with them by putting resources against them in a meaningful way. 


Barry, I work in Radio. Why is it so difficult for broadcasters to understand and comprehend what you just said, even when they see it played out in front of them in such an incredibly effective manner? 

Think about the words you just said – I’ll call them your peer group called broadcasters. That defines who they are and what they do, they broadcast at us. And if you think about it, the concept of receive-cast (I’m not sure if there is such a word), that I’m going to be the recipient of the content from the users, from the viewers, from the listeners, from the readers – that fundamentally changes their mental mindset about how they think about their business. And if they think that their editors are really the producers of the content and the recipients are just the receivers of it, then this model doesn’t work. 

So I think what happens is broadcasters continue to think of themselves as being in control of the content. I don’t think broadcasters remember that they were originally community broadcasters and their job was to serve their constituents. 

Increasingly, you're seeing that broadcasters don’t like the fact, but the recipients are becoming their own broadcasters, their own source of editorial control, and those that embrace it are going to win this new media war. 

Then put yourself in the shoes of those broadcasters right now and your obligation, as you just highlighted it, is to serve your constituents and to make a little money at the same time. How do they go about embracing these technologies in order to make that happen while still being relevant?

I think they're going to become more relevant, not less relevant by embracing these technologies and embracing the content of their constituents. And here’s why: 

If you think about a local newspaper, one of the ones we serve, a well-known metropolitan newspaper that has 50 editors, it’s in a top-10 metropolitan area. They have some freelancers as well, but they have about 500,000 readers. And I was trying to explain to the publishers that they need to reverse that business model. They need to think of their 500,000 readers as future editors, letting all of them publish content, and the 50 editors are nothing but the facilitators, the motivators, the catalyzers or the organizers of that group of people who want to put up content, and even in some cases, editing and vetting the content. 

The result is they go from having the switches of their newspaper in the “turned off” position, to the “turned on” position, and that will allow them to have more readers, more viewers, more interactors, and I hate to say it, therefore more advertisers as people spend more time on their sites reading, editing and participating with the newspaper and its online environment. 

I think it’s their future, and if they begin to realize that the future is getting people engaged with them as a business, they’ll make more revenues and therefore, more profits. 

That’s a key point, getting the audiences engaged with them. Now you’ve put it in a context of a newspaper or in the broadcast world, we could say a news station or a news-talk station, but most radio stations are not that. Many radio stations are music utilities, music brands. Isn’t it a harder translation when your business isn’t current events?

I don’t think so. I am a smooth jazz fan, and I love smooth jazz. And believe it or not, there is no smooth jazz station in my hometown, Boston, which is interesting to me. I have a home in Florida and there are two smooth jazz stations there, and we’re a lot bigger in Boston. 

And so I look at it and say how do I engage with any of these radio stations in Boston to explain to them I’m not unique in wanting a smooth jazz station but more importantly, learning more about these smooth jazz artists, talking to other people about smooth jazz, interacting with these smooth jazz artists – I want it to keep going to shows and hearing these smooth jazz artists. I can't do any of those things right now. There is no way to participate with other people like myself in Boston around this particular music genre. 

And so I think, wow, the major owners of radio stations in Boston are losing my business; they’ve lost it to Sirius XM because they’ve not interacted with me yet on a personal basis, and neither has Sirius XM, for that matter. 

So what you're describing could be applied to any format. It could be applied to Rock, applied to Country, applied to anything. 

But the way you frame this is from the perspective of what you (as the fan) are looking to get, not what they (the radio station) are looking to provide. You framed it as “I’m a jazz fan, I’m a Rock fan, I’m a Country fan,” not a “I’m a WXXX fan, a WYYY fan, a WZZZ fan,” right?

Absolutely. So I’m framing it in the context of exactly what Barack did. His position was change you can believe in. He could have been like any traditional business leader of any broadcast medium and said I’m going to change my station, my music, my talk because it’s the change I believe you're going to like, but it’s basically because of what I like. George Bush would have said I tried to make some changes, but I’m still your Commander In Chief. 

He was “the decider.”

I would argue I have not heard Barack say that yet. He may one day say that during difficult times, but he doesn’t see himself as the Commander In Chief; he sees himself as the facilitator. When he said yesterday on the train ride “I love you back,” tell me the last time you heard a President say that. That’s like going home and saying to my wife one of two things; “Honey, I’m your Commander In Chief, you take it the way I give it,” or “Thank you for saying ‘I love you’ and I love you back.” 

But every radio station is trying to leverage these opportunities. And your message is that that’s fundamentally selfish because it’s not about you; it’s about the value you provide and that which I, the listener or the fan, expect to get out of that value, which is why I don’t care if it’s WXXX, I’m a smooth jazz fan and I want the context to be about that, not about you, the radio station. 

So correct. You have to give up control to your constituents. I don’t care if it’s your employees, your partners, your customers, your investors – it makes no difference to me. 

What your job fundamentally is in the flat and connected world is to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes and begin to mimic and replicate their wants and needs. You need to put yourself there in their shoes and give them what they need, because they can get it from everybody else no matter what. It’s no longer about traditional strategies; it’s about fundamentally serving the other person on their terms. And I don’t think businesses have understood that meaning fully yet. 

Well, Barry, of all the businesses that should understand that, I would think media would be near the top because of what's going on in the mediasphere right now.

You obviously see it in TV. American Idol is doing a really good job in engendering their entire fans, and we have other media properties as well that we work for, including Sports Illustrated and ESPN who really do get it’s all about their fans, what can they do to engage them, I mean, on every single dimension. 

But I am surprised that some of our newspapers still don’t get it, are still trying to broadcast at them with a single medium. Even if they're online, it’s still a broadcast mentality: “I’m going to publish content that I think is right for you, all the news that’s fit to print.” 

That’s an impossible message, right; because that would suggest The New York Times knows what's fit to print. In today’s world, I know what's fit to print based on what I want to print and that’s not me, The New York Times; that’s me, the reader, who is the future editor. I’ll write what I want to write to whom I want to write it on whatever terms and conditions I want to write it with and whatever medium I want to use. That is a fundamentally different mental mindset than what most newspapers have. 

What is it going to take for broadcasters or media icons to recognize that control has changed and the torch has been passed?

You're seeing it all the time. In companies like The Tribune going bankrupt – that’s just the beginning of it. You're seeing the drop in readership, you're seeing the falloff of advertising dollars, and you don’t see the changes of the business leadership changing much, except for Murdoch; I’m a big Wall Street Journal fan, and I’m absolutely blown away by what he has done with the Wall Street Journal online. Next to every single article are two more things, discussions and commentary. And I don’t mean by the editors. 

So he has understood that even at the Wall Street Journal, every piece of content that is produced by the Wall Street Journal should be surrounded by, amplified to, added to, and edited by the readers. And so it’s not only online pieces of content, he has also added community as a separate distinct tab. So maybe the fact that he owns MySpace and has experienced the power of people making it their own allows him to understand the power of applying it to such state organizations like the Wall Street Journal

So I think what will happen is leaders like Murdoch will show more traditional leaders, like Sam Zell, what it takes to be successful in today’s user generated and user controlled world. They have to change, not “the customers have to change;” that they have to change to accept the fact that their listeners, their readers, their writers – and I don’t mean their internal writers anymore – their recipients of the content are now the producers, publishers, and editors of the content. 

And they only own the platforms for which to facilitate the transmission of it from one listener, one writer, one editor, one reader to another. 

That’s their job.

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