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Borrowing from Obama: What associations can learn from a personalized, multimedia, grassroots campaign

January 1, 2009

By Kelly Wingard

Regardless of your political persuasion, you have to acknowledge that Barack Obama’s campaign tactics changed politics as -usual. From now on, campaigns will be tailored to reach people where they live—whether online, on the couch, or on the go—with messages targeted to individualized interests. Can REALTOR® associations use these same tactics to rally grassroots support and affect local, state, and national politics? Yes, we can!

Just as JFK transformed television into a potent political tool, Obama harnessed the power of digital technology in a way that revolutionized campaigning. Obama’s team made full use of every possible outlet to reach voters—from traditional methods such as door-to-door canvassing, phone banks and mailers, to nontraditional means such as text messaging, Facebook, and YouTube.

Brian Bernardoni, senior director of government affairs and public policy for the Chicago Association of REALTORS® and current NAR GAD chair, believes REALTORS®—with membership ranks a million strong—are uniquely situated to capitalize on Obama’s methods. “-REALTORS® are everywhere,” Bernardoni states, “and every -REALTORS® association office has the basic tools of a political camp—public space, phone, Internet, etc.”

So, now you know you’ve got the tools. Let’s start exploring ways you can use them.

Getting the Message Out

Tara Lightner, GAD for the Raleigh Regional Association of REALTORS®, N.C., summed up Obama’s success in getting his message out, stating, “Obama’s campaign reached people where they were daily.” Lightner thinks GADs should follow this lead, reaching out to members where they are, “in their cars, coffee shops, wherever.”
But there are so many ways to contact people now—snail mail, voice mail, e-mail, cell phones, fax, text messaging—that it’s hard to know where to focus your efforts. Lightner points out the unique advantage GADs have in reaching their members by phone. “Our group is so plugged in,” she states, “we are not going to miss that call.”
Craig Chick, director of political affairs for the Texas Association of REALTORS®, has always relied heavily on e-mail, because “it’s cheap and effective.” With the advent of smart phones that allow members to receive e-mail on the go, this is an attractive option.

Text messaging is also gaining popularity, but it’s use should be reserved for special circumstances. Bernardoni expresses a common objection to receiving work-related information via texting: He reserves that technology for communicating with close friends.

Allowing people to choose their preferred mode of contact is one option for narrowing down the vast array of choices, but NAR Government Affairs Communications Manager John DiBiase cautions not to rely solely on one source of delivery. “E-mail alone is often not enough,” he says.

Let’s Get Digital

Web sites continue to be a popular venue for disseminating information on legislative affairs. Direct links inserted in e-mails, texts, or e-newsletters are an easy way to drive members to your association’s Web site.

Bill Robie, GAD for the Central Oregon Asso-ciation of REALTORS®, uses Constant Contact, a Web-based application, to create and distribute weekly e-newsletters to his members. He describes this marketing-type program, which provides formatted templates, as “very cost-effective and user--friendly.” Magnet Mail is another such program.

But some GADs fear that members will treat written communications as spam if they are sent too frequently. Worse yet, some GADs assume that REALTORS® simply don’t read. But Bernardoni doesn’t buy into this myth. “We are just not giving them anything provocative to read,” he says. After all, Bernardoni recalls the several e-mails a day that he received—and read—from Obama’s campaign team. “They were each different and they made me want to open them,” he explains.

Podcasts, audio or video files broadcast over the Internet are an alternative communication method for those who favor verbal messaging. This type of transmission allows “Type A” members to multitask while taking in information.
Several associations are making use of podcast technology to keep members up-to-date. Chick reports that the Texas association had great success using self-produced podcasts to promote legislative candidates during the last election. (Samples of these podcasts can be downloaded at http://texasrealtors.com/web/4/32/pa_programs/oppracetools.htm).

Chip Ahlswede, former NAR GAD chair and current GAD for several California associations, produces a weekly podcast on local government affairs for one association. Only a few minutes long, each podcast focuses on upcoming issues and events, or an interview with an official. Ahlswede reports, “The podcast recording service is free and even syndicates to other similar podcast sites.” He distributes these files to members through NAR’s Get Active program.

Meet Me Online

Masterful use of social media fueled Obama’s campaign success. But what exactly is social media?

By definition, social media is human interaction accomplished through digital technology. In other words, it’s a virtual water cooler/bar/coffee shop—an online place where you can hang out with your friends, catch up on the news, and shoot the breeze. MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter are examples of social media that many REALTOR® organizations have begun exploring.

Obama hired Chris Hughes of Facebook fame to manage his digital presence. A key element of this plan was the development of MyBarackObama.com, or MyBO to those in the know (BO as in “bow” not “B.O.”). This easy-to-use, interactive Web site functions (yes, it’s still operational) as a social networking destination for Obama supporters, connecting over a million like-minded individuals.

Online tools help MyBO users create personalized profiles, find local events and groups, and share thoughts through personal blogs. A “Neighbor-to-Neighbor” tool allowed campaign volunteers to -enter their zip code and pull down customized lists of area people to canvass, along with providing a script for them to use.

REALTOR® associations can take advantage of NAR’s purchasing power to add similar tools to their arsenals without breaking their budgets. Resources such as Get Active, a Web-based software platform linked to membership databases, and Electoral Services, a national voter database, can provide GADs with low-cost (or free) methods to rally calls to action or target voter surveys.

Bernardoni praises the innovative technology these resources provide, yet laments their under-utilization.

Many GADs may hesitate to use these resources because they find them overwhelming. While -DiBiase admits that Get Active can be intense at first, he stresses that the program can save GADs a lot of time in the long run.
Robie backs up DiBiase’s assertion, pointing out how Get Active’s call-to-action e-mail blasts provide members with the capability to fire off a letter to their congressman with one simple click.

Power to the People

Granted, not every REALTOR® issue will be as sexy as a presidential campaign, but the basic principles of motivation remain the same: Engage people on a personal level with a message that appeals to them directly, then empower them with resources and the authority to act.

Jim Parker, a foundation executive from Tempe, Ariz., campaigned ardently for Obama, traveling to several states at his own expense to promote his candidate. In every single campaign office, Parker saw the same simple motto: “respect, empower, include.” These three words encapsulate the philosophy Obama used to motivate millions.

By allowing supporters to self-organize, the Obama campaign showed respect for volunteers’ time. Rather than congregate in a stuffy call center, supporters were urged to make calls from the comfort of their own home, and even counseled to use their cell phones during off-peak (free) periods. Through the use of online tools, supporters were empowered to plan, host, and publicize their own campaign events. And by including volunteers in the decision-making process, the Obama team inspired continued commitment.

GADs would do well to incorporate these same principles of “respect, empower, and include” into their own efforts to motivate grassroots support.

Show Me the Money

Last but not least, among Obama’s campaign feats was his ability to raise a large amount of cash from a vast array of contributors. He accomplished this by motivating lots of people to make small do-nations. Supporters were encouraged to set their own fund-raising quotas and then solicit donations via e-mail from friends, family, and coworkers. MyBO.com provided resources for sending these requests, including providing a personalized “thermometer” to track the fund-raiser’s progress toward his or her goal.

“Everyone who raises money for RPAC is envious of the Obama campaign’s fund-raising acumen,” says Lightner. “He took electronic fund-raising to the next level.”
As Chick reports, the Texas association has been well aware of the impact even small contributions can make. Its PAC raises roughly $3 million a year through member contributions that average only $40 each. An added benefit to PAC involvement,
he notes, “If you can get people to donate even a small amount, you can increase their participation [in legislative activities].”

With a million members, REALTORS® have the potential to raise significant capital to advance industry-friendly legislative causes. But Bernardoni notes that although all members benefit from RPAC’s advocacy, not everyone shares in the cost. Ironically, top producers are rarely top contributors, he says.

Bernardoni speculates that many members may subscribe to the motto “Don’t mix politics with business.” But he cautions this adage no longer applies in the current economic climate. Pointing to the recent failure of many mortgage lenders, Bernardoni observes how ill-prepared they were for the fallout because they lacked organization and “didn’t engage in understanding the regulatory process.”

With a full complement of educated, engaged, and motivated government affairs specialists across the country, this fate should never befall REALTORS®. But raising extra RPAC funds couldn’t hurt.