Obama 2012 CTO: From Campaign To Enterprise

Harper Reed talks about the pressure-cooker challenge of building an email-powered, microtargeted online fundraising machine in a hurry. See the video interview from Interop.

David F Carr, Editor, InformationWeek Government/Healthcare

November 3, 2014

5 Min Read
(Source: Interop Events)

It's not exactly Harper Reed's fault that you are getting so much political email right now, but he did lead the technical team that set the new standard for how to raise money and activate voters as part of President Barack Obama's 2012 reelection campaign.

Former Obama campaign CTO Reed was recruited into politics from the tech team at Threadless, the personalized T-shirt company, and has since gone on to become CEO of Modest, a mobile shopping technology startup. When he appeared at Interop as a keynote speaker, he spoke mostly about the experience of the campaign and the intensity of it. We caught him backstage for the video interview you can see below (we also pulled a few clips for our "man-on-the street" video commentaries on Windows 10, the future of the iPad, and the significance of the Internet of Things).

With his tattoos and anti-gravity hair, Reed said he is half-convinced he was hired because he looked like a wild-eyed tech guru.

[Frame of reference: Is 1% Improvement Boring, Or A Breakthrough?]

The biggest thing that differentiates a campaign from a business venture is "the temporary nature of it," Reed said. Although Obama's political machine had a reputation for being web- and social media-savvy when he was first elected in 2008, Reed still felt as if he was starting from scratch when he became part of the reelection campaign. He inherited few technological assets that he could use, and in any case the 18-month 2012 reelection effort was completely different.

"In 2008 they were a startup," he said. "They didn't know if they would last a week or a month. In 2012, we were The Enterprise. We knew we were going to be a $1 billion company." As an experienced IT project manager, Reed said he "brought the enterprise to the campaign," which was something it had always needed but had not been able to afford in terms of time or money.

The Obama 2012 campaign has been celebrated for its use of big data, but Reed argues big data is mostly BS. "It's just data," he said, and the trick is always to get the right data and to make intelligent use of it. Microtargeting of voters, on the other hand, really is a big deal, because the better you can understand them and the more precisely you can appeal to them, the more likely they are to give you their money and their votes.

The campaign also learned how to behave more like a retail business that wants to be as easy as possible to do business with, for example introducing a click-to-donate email campaign that could collect money instantly (based on stored credit card information) rather than making supporters repeatedly reconfirm their information. "We didn't ask you if you wanted to give money after you said you wanted to give money" is how Reed explains it.

While the importance of social media in campaigns is easily exaggerated, Reed said he was proud of the way his team integrated Facebook login into the signup flow of supporters and connected Facebook identities to voter records. That's what made it possible, during the early voting phase of the campaign, to reach out to supporters and say something like, It looks like your friend John hasn't voted yet, as a way of using the social network to drive more people to the polls.

As someone who is currently getting an overwhelming volume of political email, I did have to challenge him on whether it's being used to excess and may cause voters to tune out. As for whether the state of the art for microtargeting has really improved, I mentioned the email I received from the campaign of Charlie Crist (former Republican governor and possible future Democratic governor of Florida) thanking me for being one of his best supporters when actually I'd supported his opponent in the primary. Among other things, it struck me as an insult to those who truly were his best supporters all along.

Reed said he didn't have a good answer for the problem of email overload, although he said he'd "unsubscribed from everything" himself. Campaigns will keep using it because it works, he said. In 2012, his team figured "if we'd ever felt that donations were flagging, we'd slow down the emails... but donations never flagged."

As for the precision of targeting, Reed said, "You have to kind of fudge it sometimes." In other words, when all you have is an email address and the fact that someone showed up at a campaign event, sometimes you have to guess how big a supporter that person is rather than really knowing.

"We were amazing at the Obama campaign, it was incredible, we did a really good job. The team we worked with on the analytics were incredible -- really great. But we did not do as well as probably your boring-est business that does marketing and data. We do not have that relationship with the consumer," he said. In other words, Amazon.com still knows the consumer far better than any campaign knows its voter.

"I would say we did a perfect job for the time and resources we had -- and it's very difficult to do anyways."

Watch the video to hear what it's like to be a campaign's technical guru and what Reed learned from the intensity of the experience.

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About the Author(s)

David F Carr

Editor, InformationWeek Government/Healthcare

David F. Carr oversees InformationWeek's coverage of government and healthcare IT. He previously led coverage of social business and education technologies and continues to contribute in those areas. He is the editor of Social Collaboration for Dummies (Wiley, Oct. 2013) and was the social business track chair for UBM's E2 conference in 2012 and 2013. He is a frequent speaker and panel moderator at industry events. David is a former Technology Editor of Baseline Magazine and Internet World magazine and has freelanced for publications including CIO Magazine, CIO Insight, and Defense Systems. He has also worked as a web consultant and is the author of several WordPress plugins, including Facebook Tab Manager and RSVPMaker. David works from a home office in Coral Springs, Florida. Contact him at [email protected]and follow him at @davidfcarr.

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