Book Review: “Yes We Did” by Rahaf Harfoush

Yes We Did: An inside look at how social media built the Obama brand

Yes We DidOver Xmas, I purchased and read “Yes We Did: An inside look at how social media built the Obama brand, by Rahaf Harfoush, a volunteer new media campaigner on the Obama 2008 election campaign.

This 185 page book promises to give an insiders account of how the Obama campaign used social media and social networking sites to turn Obama’s presidential campaign into the most successful in history. The blurb offers “strategic insights organizations can apply to their own brands” and how “email, blogs, social networks, Twitter, and SMS messaging” were used to elect “the world’s first ‘digital‘ President.

Before you get started, here are two important links:

The good

Overall, Yes We Did is an excellent account of working inside the Obama campaign. Harfoush mixes the book up with part narrative, part reflection and part interview with other key players in Obama HQ. As you read, you can’t help but feel a bit of her excitement as she moves to Chicago to work on the campaign, or when she participates in phone link ups with David Plouffe and Obama himself. Similarly, you can see the evolution of  the campaign: it is a living thing that learns and adapts to changing circumstances.

In particular, Harfoush’s lessons are worthwhile, and are carefully presented. Most of the major digital elements are in the book: the use of email, neighbour-to-neighbour contact, the creation of, the role of videos and more. Each chapter has a summary of the lessons and tips, followed by more detail.

While many people may focus on the use of social networking, I think the most important chapters are those focusing on email, and the use of analytics. The ability for Obama’s campaign to “iterate” – to repeatedly make minor improvements and customisations to their communications (website and email) is in my view one of the most powerful elements of the campaign. Certainly as important as using Facebook or blogs.

The bad

This is not a warts and all look at the campaign. Harfoush is clearly an Obama devotee, and there is not a lot of details about when things went wrong. Often the most interesting and powerful looks at campaigns are how they deal with mistakes. For example, the Obama campaign mess-up with the MySpace fan-page creator is not really covered. Harfoush was a volunteer, so to some extent it could be that she was not ever involved in handling a crisis, or being a decision maker. However, few of the interviews cover negative aspects or mistakes.

Similarly, while solid, the advice given is fairly generic – most of it is available on countless other websites looking at using different online marketing or engagement techniques. Admittedly, a lot of what is out there is based on “what the Obama campaign did”… which leads my to the next downfall.

The Obama campaign had enormous budgets. While the online elements were nowhere near as well funded as television ads, the campaign was a multi-million campaign, with a large web team. This makes it difficult for smaller campaigns to follow through with most of the advice, simply because they do not have the manpower. The Obama campaign captured the imagination and passion of tens of thousands of people who volunteered and donated. Few campaigns will ever replicate a tenth of this mobilisation.

The verdict

Yes We Did” is an excellent addition to your online campaigning bookshelf. If you’re involved with any kind of online campaigning, whether for a non-profit, union or political candidate, it is well worth reading. It is a solid foundation for building a checklist (or wish list) of online activities and engagement tools, and highlights some important lessons to do with engagement, fundraising and mobilising supporters.

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