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Crowd Enabling, the Obama way

I am continually asked to present on "What is Social Media", "Web 2.0" or even "Crowd sourcing."  Quite often I am met with some level of incredulous skepticism.  Surely, this doesn’t apply to insurance, manufacturing, publishing or any other industry you can name.

I can’t help but recall the early days of the web.  My firm was called in to many a boardroom and it was always the same question, "So, this web thing, is it just a fad?"  And sure enough, every example we showed was questioned.  I was a geek caught up in my techno-futuristic dreams and this web thing would surely not apply nor impact the company in question or their industry.

And here we are full circle.  Sure, blogs might become something else.  Wikis will evolve into new toolsets and even YouTube will transform and be usurped by something else.

But personal expression will not disappear.  The desire of people to have a voice and to participate will only increase in the days to come.  This is what technology is enabling on a scale never before seen on this planet.

The organizations that embrace this shift will accomplish things never before thought possible.  They will learn things that will amaze both them and their competitors.  If this isn’t worth the risk of "letting go of control" then I don’t know what is.

Barack Obama is just one such example.  I want to be very clear here.   Even if Obama fails to achieve his goal of becoming President of the United States, I predict he will have a deeper and more powerful understanding of the American people than anyone in the history of politics.  He will have engaged at a level yet to be fully grasped or understood.

An Historical Campaign

The Washington Post reported on 02-29-2008 that Ms. Hillary Clinton had raised $35 million in February of this year.  Obama is expected to announce a number that is "considerably more" than that number.  What makes this exceptional is that, unlike Hillary, Obama’s donations have come entirely from a source untapped by other politicians: the average citizen.

According to the Los Angeles Times on 02-07-2008, "Clinton has relied heavily on large donors, at least half of whom have already given the maximum allowed by law.  By contrast, Obama has built an extensive network of small givers who are free to keep donating until they hit the $2,300 federal contribution ceiling."

I remember the first time I donated $50 to the Obama campaign.  Within minutes, I received a message from a previous donor who had agreed to match a donation from a first time donor.  The email was written by a gentleman from down south who wanted to share with me his reasons for supporting the campaign, in his words.

Social Media

Obama has been leading on the use of digital technologies since early in his campaign.  Information Week reported on 07-23-2007 that "no Republicans are reaching out with mobile technology" and spoke of Barack’s use of a special short SMS code as well as downloadable ringtones and more.

At the beginning of his campaign, as members of the movement, we were invited to log in to and help to organize block parties in our neighborhoods, start a blog or participate in conversations.  The site has grown to provide opportunities to match first time donors, watch videos and actively participate in the campaign by a variety of means.

Obama has continued to use every channel to spread his message.  If you haven’t watched or read the "Yes we can" speech, then I recommend you do so.

And the YouTube videos of his speech put to music are emotional beyond words.  The fact that Obama has engaged and allowed for others to carry and manipulate his voice and message points to this being more than a "channel" approach.  Unlike his rivals, his campaign is about enabling voices to unite together under a cause of hope.  Something not seen in quite some time (at this scale) in the American political system.

Enabling Our Participation

Yesterday I was surprised.  The weekly Obama emails pleading with me to donate or match the donation of a first time donor had suddenly been replaced by a call to action much like at the beginning of Obama’s campaign.  I was being asked to participate in an online drive to reach out to Texans for the upcoming primary.  Over a million calls had already been placed by people just like me.

This morning I could only sit in amazement as they had already achieved over a million and a half calls.

I clicked on the link in the email and was brought to my personal area of the Obama network.  What greeted me?  A personal message and a list of the top callers in a battle for the top slot.  I may not know Ms. Gold, but I admire her.  I admire any citizen that motivated to making a change.  And my body tingles in the knowledge she is anything but alone.


Mr. Obama and his crew didn’t start with this knowledge of how to embrace technology.  Nor did they begin with such a clear understanding on how to motivate members of their growing "community" of engaged citizens.  But they certainly understand it now.  And the passion of artists, mothers, activists and citizens is palpable.

There is an embracing of "voice". The campaign as much enables the voice of its supporters as it does the voice of Barack Obama.  It is co-creation in one of its finest forms.

Here is Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer David Turnley‘s documentation of a recent rally in Houston. Shared as an embeddable flickr stream.

Crowd Sourcing Versus Crowd Enabling

"Crowd sourcing" as a term drives me insane.  I picture rows of people herded like cattle and prodded into providing input by a system that views them as fodder for its machinations.

"Crowd enabling", by comparison, is both the potential and the benefit of any engagement strategy.  It speaks of value provided by the experience, brand, organization, or what have you.  It embraces and leverages the concept of co-creation which I believe Alan Moore would stand behind (one of the founders of engagement marketing.)

Barack Obama is an amazing case study of how engagement can enable citizens on a scale and breadth never before dreamed possible.  It’s important that we see this campaign as a concerted effort across mediums, channels and communities.  And it’s critical we see the lifting up of the individual, their actions and their individual voices as a cornerstone of the campaign’s efforts.

Organizations and brands that are paying attention will not ask "does this apply", but rather "how this applies."


  1. Dave N.
    Dave N. March 5, 2008

    Great post. The more social media gets its teeth into different categories (shareholder activism, politics, etc), the more amazing case studies get revealed. I only wish some brands would be at the forefront as well….

  2. Sean
    Sean March 5, 2008

    Thanks Dave,
    I hear you. “Control” remains a significant stumbling block. Education and experimentation are critical components. Anything any of us can do to allow or even cajole brands into experiences they can learn from will get us many steps closer.

  3. Monica Hamburg
    Monica Hamburg March 9, 2008

    Very insightful post, Sean. It’s on my now.
    So, you hate the term “Crowdsourcing”, eh? Well, I never! 😉 I know what you mean – I think it’s quite it is quite catchy – at the same time I can’t tell you the number of times I mention what I am writing about and am met with that totally baffled look as if I just made up a term like “HumanCongealing” : “What? Crowd what?” (and not just from my computer-fearing 70 year-old parents).
    I like your crowd enabling (especially in the policial/social activism/funding sense) – though “Crowdsourcing” it not always about enabling it certainly is in that context.

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