Yesterday saw the launch of an iPhone application for the Obama campaign. Big deal? Yes, I do think it is.
While electoral campaigns have been getting hip to mobile technology for a few years now, all that I’ve known of only treat the devices only as outbound communication targets, with the person holding the handset as the end-point in the experience. That view focussed on the output, such as a news update, as the end in itself and ignored the user’s desired outcome: becoming a more effective advocate for one’s chosen candidate. Appropriately, while listening to both the Canadian and US leadership debates last night, I spent some time with the Obama app and found the start of a whole new game for how campaigns look at smartphones, and possibly for how future elections will be fought and won.
The Obama app could have been so much less, a mere aggregator and a pretty face for a bunch of newsfeeds and media sources. Instead, the experience prefers the user’s ability to reach outward and to make action happen on the spot more than it treats them as audience.
Campaign communication traditionally rests on what I call the hopeful interruption model: the phone call as you come out of the shower, the appeal to register while you’re on your way to lunch, the leaflet that arrives with bills. They all try to make the best of an unexpected interruption, and at best it’s a hit and miss operation.
The Obama app leaves hopeful interruption behind and becomes part of a primary mobile communication, productivity and entertainment device. As the one thing someone is likely to have with them out on the street, it opens the most critical campaign channels to on-the-spot interactions. In other words, it situates a campaign’s resources comfortably in the social reality of an electoral race.
The application integrates with the phone and contact list, and offers for using the phone aspect of the application and a note on privacy. A is built in, and by state.
By tapping into the existing address book and putting its own sorting into action, the application instantly becomes a one-person call center, noting who hasn’t yet been called and letting users show off some basic stats for time and effort spent.
The Obama app contains its own as well as a news aggregator, which isn’t very new in itself but within this context is a no-brainer.
A pocket encyclopedia of Obama’s position on various issues offers summary points for answering questions and getting talking points on the spot. The amount of information to be found in this section alone likely equals about 3 kilos of campaign literature leaflets in the pocket, all the time. It needs a search, but it’s a great start. I can see this part being used openly or quietly amid discussions over the issues.
Two very important features for getting people involved in-person leverage location-awareness: finding local events and local offices where one can get more involved. I couldn’t get far with these features, being in Vancouver, Canada where Obama is surely not campaigning, but their utility is clear: make it easy to find and join into the real-world gatherings that truly energize voters.
Here’s the real make or break point in finding a new way of thinking about electoral communication: Receive Updates. Rather than assume that because the application has been installed, the user is now open to a firehose of updates, the Obama app asks you to . No new channel for team Obama to manage, and an extra bit of consideration for the user’s attention. That care for permission and the value of attention, though technically simple, is a moment of brilliance in campaign communication thinking.
Make a Difference Right Now
For the nuts and bolts of a campaign, there are two things that matter most: the money and the vote. The home screen brings these two together near the bottom, marked by an eye-catching green button to kick off a new donation. When a mind changes, when a sensibility is outraged and demands change, it’s a prime time for capturing a donation. Tapping the button , requiring no transaction through the iPhone itself, but instead tapping into the built, operating and proven channel for taking donations that is already there.
Also near the bottom is a countdown of days to the election, and I’ll be sure to check on the app on election day to see what it does then. The application does nothing that is particular to only the iPhone, so I think it can be ported with ease to other smartphone platforms. And to other campaigns.
What makes the Obama app a game-changer for campaigns in general is its potential to turn any interested supporter into a supported and connected campaigner in 5 minutes, and for turning interest into action at many points through the contest. Elections are probably the most complicated and drawn out conversion processes, aiming to capture the ultimate clickthrough: someone’s vote. The ingenuity and imagination of the Obama app for iPhone raises the bar to something new. Watch for it in, oh, about three and a half years.