Opinion: Obama connects with voters through tech

U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama has technology on his side.

No, not necessarily the technology industry as a whole, although the Democrat’s tech policy agenda has won him some support. Instead, Obama’s campaign has embraced innovative technologies that help him connect with voters, volunteers and supporters.

Obama’s campaign has used an online collaboration tool from three-year-old startup Central Desktop to help organize volunteers before the California primary, and it’s using an answer centre from RightNow Technologies to create a dynamic FAQ on the campaign’s Web site. In addition, liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org has poured its own technology resources into the Illinois senator’s campaign.

In the past week, MoveOn.org and the two companies have all issued announcements about the Obama campaign’s use of innovative technology. To be sure, other presidential candidates are effectively using Web technologies; Republican Representative Ron Paul has raised gobs of money online, and Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton’s Web site includes detailed policy papers.

But some observers say Obama has taken the use of interactive Web tools to new heights in a national campaign.

Obama’s embrace of new technology seems to reflect his connection to young voters, said Colin Jones, public sector manager at RightNow, a CRM (customer relationship management) software vendor based in Bozeman, Montana. “They really are catering to that under-30 crowd,” Jones said. “These individuals are expecting to get meaningful information the way they want it. They want to have media they’re used to interacting with every day.”

An Obama volunteer in California recommended Central Desktop to the Obama campaign, and the campaign used the Wiki-like collaboration tool to organize precinct captain volunteers before the Super Tuesday primary in early February, said Isaac Garcia, Central Desktop’s CEO. The campaign used the tool to share and receive information from more than 6,000 precinct captains, who organized get-out-to-vote campaigns at local levels.

Obama’s California volunteers grasped the technology quickly, said Garcia, who worked personally with some of the volunteers. “I was actually blown away by their grasp, how quickly they were able to use the tool and the types of questions they were asking,” he said. “They were a younger, more technology-savvy group than what you’d get in your average business, or your average campaign for that matter.”

The Obama campaign’s precinct captain Web site includes instructions for the volunteers, news items about the campaign, instructions for the captains and stories from volunteers about why they joined the campaign. “Barack’s vision is one of shared values and common purpose,” the precinct captain learning center says. “He has called on all of us to join him in this movement, because he cannot do it alone.”

A news item on the front page of the Web site links to a story showing Obama’s lead in Democratic delegates over Clinton. One of the advantages of using the Central Desktop tool is that volunteers can post information and interact in a decentralized way, Garcia said. “It’s set up so that multiple people can contribute,” he said. “Multiple people can edit pages and upload information.”

The Obama campaign’s answer center, powered by RightNow, is a more public-facing technology. About 1.3 million visitors have come to the answer center, with about 70 per cent of them coming in December and January, Jones said.

The answer centre includes a searchable database for many questions voters might have. The most popular questions are displayed first and can change dynamically depending on what questions visitors are looking for, Jones said.

Among the top questions as of Thursday: How much does it cost to have Obama speak at my event? Answer: nothing. How can I work for the campaign? Answer: Send a resume. What church does Obama attend? Answer: Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

The campaign can use the answer centre to track what questions are most important to visitors, even breaking it down by region, Jones said. “There’s a lot of artificial intelligence built into it,” he added. “That top 10 [list of answers] is driven by end-user interaction.”

In addition to the tools from RightNow and Central Desktop, MoveOn.org has poured its tech resources into the Obama campaign. Before Super Tuesday, MoveOn.org members voted by a 70 percent-to-30 percent margin to support Obama over Clinton.

As of Monday, people had contributed more than US$500,000 to Obama’s campaign through the MoveOn.org Web site, and MoveOn members sent more than 520,000 endorsement e-mail messages or Facebook messages to friends and family, using MoveOn’s new Endorse-O-Thon Web tool. MoveOn has also e-mailed nearly

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