Lessons for grassroots campaigns

Originally uploaded by goodmosconi

It’s no secret that I’m an Obama supporter. In fact, I too have Obama Fever, and I’m not afraid to admit it. So you can imagine my excitement when the Obama campaign made a stop in Dallas.

We bundled up the baby and made our way down to Reunion Arena in downtown Dallas. I had a client call that morning and couldn’t leave as early as I’d hoped, and after hearing the stories of the size of the rallies lately, I know I was taking my chances getting in.

When we arrived, it was a mass of people. The line to get in zig-zagged through all 4 levels of the parking garage. Yes, the line was long, but I figured it was worth the experience even if we couldn’t get in. While the news helicopters hovered (far too closely, and loudly) above, we waited. And waited. After 2+ hours in line, we were nearly in. But just as we were walking in the doors, with Sen. Obama already speaking (as we could see on the Jumbotron) … the staff blocked our entrance saying that the Fire Marshall had shut things down. We literally were the first people in the end of the line.

After a few minutes, there was an announcement yelled out from behind cracked doors: Obama would come speak outside after he was done inside and we should make our way around to the other side of the building. We did, and found a choice spot. But shortly thereafter, Random Frazzled Campaign Worker Duncan announced that due to safety concerns, Obama couldn’t come out to speak. He said a few words about dispersing calmly, then turned and went inside.

As I pushed the baby stroller back up the hill towards the car, I became more and more frustrated. Not that I didn’t get to see Obama speak, but that as an Obama supporter I was disappointed at the sheer volume of missed opportunities. I’ve waited for the Dallas news cycle to pass before posting this, because I simply don’t know all the facts. But the issues raised are highly relevant for any (virtual or physical) grassroots campaign.

Expect the Expected
The number of people showing up at Obama rallies has continued to climb. Perhaps the campaign chose Reunion Arena (the smaller, older venue) versus American Airlines Center (the newer, bigger, public transit accessible venue) for cost issues or any number of other reasons. But when you choose a venue that inherently seats a smaller number of people, prepare yourself that not everyone’s getting in. Especially when it happened the week before in Seattle.

Any grassroots campaign is meant to pick up steam as it picks up followers, members, and participants. You have to watch the way your movement is trending and be prepared to respond accordingly. When you’re trending upwards, it’s very easy to not bother to think about consequences. Like free-spending Hollywood stars can often tell you, don’t assume you’ll always be on top.

Engage from the first moment
Aside from a few random local political volunteer, there weren’t any Obama volunteers in sight. Where were the Obama stickers? Where were the Obama fliers explaining the way Texas primaries work (you need to vote AND caucus)? I counted three volunteers in a four story, multi-zag entrance line directing traffic. The crowd of people walking towards the event were Fired Up, and Ready To Go. By the time we’d made it to the end of the line, we were all but forgotten having lost much of that initial enthusiasm.

Continue to build engagement
Once we were in the 2+ hour line, we didn’t see or receive word from the campaign staff once about what the status was. The event started late, and the people around us, standing in the sun were starting to wonder whether they should just head back to work. Asking one (or preferably several) campaign volunteers to walk the line answering questions and giving updates would have done wonders. Throw in a “Obama ’08” sticker and you might just have something.

Make everyone feel like they’re involved, even those who aren’t
When we made it oh so close to the doors, Obama was already speaking. They hadn’t even finished seating before he had started. Let’s assume that there was a reason for this. Where was that sound system to pipe out the speeches to those of us waiting for hours in line?

Interestingly, I was text messaging with buddy who was already inside to find out the status. Had the event setup their own Twitter feed or text message status alert, much of the line could have known what was going on.

Eliminate the “in-crowd” (feeling)
Having the doors slammed in my face (quite literally) then not being able to hear what was going on inside the arena created a sense that there was an in-crowd, and those of us losers at the end of the line (several thousand, is my guess) were not part of that in-crowd. It would have been a simple solution (see above): wire the outside for sound, just like the inside. We wanted to cheer along. We wanted to feel the rumble of hundreds of people around us. We wanted an experience we couldn’t get on YouTube.

While we certainly wouldn’t have had the same experience that others have had, we would have had a connection to it, as well as our own experience. We would have had our “Obama Campaign Moment”. Being part of an in-crowd is great. not being part of the only in-crowd, not so much.

Stick to the plan
I’m not exactly sure how or why this happened, but when the event time of 12:30p rolled around the (arena? campaign?) staff just started letting people merge into the line at the door. We thousands of suckers at the end of the line were waiting patiently, while somehow a gaggle of late arrivals slipped straight to the front of the line. Of course, the rumors have blown this into a much bigger word of mouth story, and if I didn’t have a friend on the inside who watched it happened, I’m not sure I’d believe it.

The plan you put together in advance is there for a reason. Don’t let stress, fear, or confusion throw you off your game. Making smart moves on the fly to adjust for improvement and simply running screaming from the room are separated by a very thin line.

(By the way, I hear rumors that the Dallas police are to blame. I hear stories that it was the Secret Service. Either way, the event planner needs to have a handle on this, one way or the other. And yes, I know that’s not always possible with Dallas Police and/or Secret Service being involved, but the lesson still remains – it’s your event, therefore it’s your problems with security.)

Plan for the money
For years I’ve talked about the State Fair Syndrome, the idea that when people attend an event, they want a souvneier of some sort. It almost doesn’t matter what it is they’re buying, there’s just something about the exchange of cash for branded event goods that makes you feel connected to the event. People in line were buying homemade Obama ’08 shirts from guys selling (illegally) out a duffel bag just to have a connection to the event.

The Obama campaign (like all other campaigns) sends me daily requests to donate, so clearly they’re interested in collecting money. Where were the official T-shirt booths and donations points?

Let the leaders lead
Frazzled Campaign Worker Duncan was tired and overworked. His dress shirt was untucked. His demeanor beat down. He may have been, based on business card title, the “right” person to make the announcement that Obama couldn’t come speak to us, but neither his words nor his presentation inspired us. He was ready to take a break, not kick off a rally. I’d much rather have heard from the local precinct captain, clad in an Obama t-shirt who could have given even a marginal speech. You can’t tell me there wasn’t someone available from, or related to the campaign that couldn’t have done a better job making that announcement…

The parting thought is the most crucial
When the doors closed, many of those still in line just left. Hundreds of us waited even longer thinking that we were going to see Obama come outside. When Frazzled Campaign Worker Duncan came out to announce to those of us who’d bothered to stick around to that Obama couldn’t come out for “safety issues”, the crowd was understandably disappointed, but seemed to understand. What we really wanted was the Obama Campaign Rally experience, not necessarily Obama at that point. Duncan’s parting words were “Please disperse calmly”. What?? That’s the best they could come up with? Rather than adding hordes of excited advocates dying to convince our friends that Obama rocks, we were dispersing quietly. That entirely misses the point of the event.

In marketing terms, “purchase intent” could have easily been drastically higher. It doesn’t matter how great your event is if people aren’t willing to act afterwards.

Ask me for help
Not once was I asked to volunteer, donate, or otherwise participate in the Obama campaign. Word of Mouth guru Andy Sernovitz covers this in his book.

The simplest, most effective way to generate word of mouth is to:
1. Ask
2. Make it easy

Overall, I suppose I’m glad I attended the event to show my support. I sure wanted to do a lot more than stand in line though.