Obama’s Change Game Changer: The Successful Use of Social Media in the 2008 Presidential Election

Cheyenne Ward & Amanda Wolcott


What motivates people to communicate? While there are many motivation theories applied to communications, perhaps none are more discussed than Abraham Maslow’s now famous, hierarchy of needs, outlined in his 1943 paper, A Theory of Human Motivation (McLeod). Maslow argued that people are motivated by the fulfillment of needs that exist in a hierarchy. Once one need is fulfilled, people will move on to the fulfillment of the next need. Maslow believed that first, people need to fulfill the physiological needs that continue normal metabolic functioning in the body such as eating and drinking. After basic metabolic processes are able to take place, people are motivated by the need to be safe, often fulfilled by finding shelter. Once people feel safe, Maslow argued that humans have a need to belong and be loved. After reaching a state of feeling loved, people seek to fulfill their esteem needs which include self-respect and to be respected by others. Finally, once people have reached physiological, safety, love, and esteem need fulfillment they move on the the last human need, self-actualization, which is the identification of one’s potential and the pursuit and fulfillment of that potential. Maslow believed that it is need fulfillment that motivates people to do anything, whether it is the motivation to get up in the morning, listen to music, or communicate with others.

Since its debut, Maslow’s hierarchy has been applied to many disciplines such as sociology, economics, and marketing, all seeking to explain and more easily predict human behavior. Marketers apply Maslow’s motivation theory when creating and selling all manner of products and services. Marketers are often keenly aware of what needs their product is fulfilling because knowing those needs can help them market their product successfully. If one is selling a designer watch, it probably would not serve the brand to market it to people trying to fulfill basic physiological needs. If one thinks about the things a designer watch gives you such as sophistication, excellence, and yes, the time, it is easy to see that a designer watch would more appropriately be aligned with the fulfillment of esteem and self-actualization needs than with physiological. Marketers can use customer motivation information to help them create the products and services that will fulfill human need, but it can also tell them where and how to communicate with their customers about the product. The marketing for that designer watch would probably communicate more effectively to readers of a popular business magazine than in an equestrian sports magazine.

While it can be argued that communication can help facilitate the attainment of all human needs, it is critical for the social needs of belonging and esteem in that one needs to be able to communicate with others to feel accepted and respected. Communicating with customers is not something new, but the advent of social media makes it easier for marketers to have a dialogue with the customer, rather than just one-way communication though and advertisement, which can be used to create a sense of community. That sense of community not only grows brand loyalty, but fulfills the human need of belonging. As engagement with the brand continues, customers not only feel like they belong, they can feel respected within the brand community which helps them fulfill their esteem needs. Social media has made this an exciting time to be a marketer because they are in the interesting position to not only build brand loyalty through their products and services but also through the communities they help create through their social media channels by being the agents of social need satisfaction.


Barack Obama                                                                       

Barack Obama is no stranger to building communities. He worked as a community organizer for low-income residents in Chicago before earning his law degree from Harvard. After law school, Obama practiced as a civil rights lawyer in Chicago while teaching part-time at the University of Chicago law school. It was during this time Obama became politically involved by organizing voter registration drives during Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. Later, Obama’s community organizing efforts led him to seats in the Illinois Senate in 1996 and in the U.S. Senate in 2004. In February of 2007, Obama announced his candidacy for the 2008 presidential election hoping to win the Democratic ticket over former first lady and U.S. senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. In June of 2008, Obama became the Democratic nominee and won presidency in November against Republican nominee John McCain (Nelson). Obama in many ways should have been the least likely of the three candidates to win the presidency because he was the youngest, least experienced, and the least well known, but he used his community building knowhow to appeal to the human social needs of belonging and respect which won him the ticket and the election.

2008 Presidential Campaign

The 2008 presidential campaign was marked by its innovative use of the computer mediated communication to connect with potential voters. Obama embraced social media early on in his campaign to not only connect with the youth demographic, but also to create a space for the formation of communities within the campaign that helped generate a new kind of grassroots support through user-generated media that was easily shared and viewed. These communities, again, go back to Maslow in that they fulfill the social needs of the community members by making them feel a part of something big (belonging needs) and that their opinions and contributions can actually help manifest change (esteem needs). Fulfilling social needs may have boosted the young presidential hopeful’s ethos enough to win him the election. Social-media consultant and chief technology officer for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, Sanford Dickert, claims:

The integration of technology into the process of field organizing…is the success of the Obama campaign. But the use technology was not the end-all and be-all in this cycle. Technology has been a partner, an enabler for the Obama campaign, bringing the efficiencies of the internet into the real-world problems of organizing people in a distributed, trusted fashion. (Stirland)

Dickert’s assertion here speaks to the idea that the use of technology in the Obama campaign was not just to blast his picture and promises to the masses, it was used as a community building tool, going back to Obama’s roots as a community organizer.

While Obama came from a community building background and leveraged that strength throughout the campaign, he knew he needed help utilizing the technology to its full potential. The campaign team was made up of some heavy hitters in social media, but perhaps most publicized was Chris Hughes who helped cofound Facebook and joined Obama’s campaign in 2007. Hughes is mentioned as being the brains behind the my.barackobama.com (MyBO) social site created as a place Obama’s supporters could organize and communicate (Murphy). Another team member to join in 2007 was Dan Siroker who left Google to help the campaign. Joe Rospars of Rospars and Co. also helped push the campaign forward by creating a massive online presence for Obama using social media and search engine optimization. The list of campaign team members was extensive but also included social media and technology experts such as Michael Slaby, Teddy Goff, Betsy Hoover and Amelia Showalter (Murphy). Obama’s massive team of social media gurus helped to create the online community support that ensured his election win.


While it could be said the goal of any campaign is to win, each person’s road to the White House will have different considerations. The main goals of Obama’s social media campaign were to spread his message, mobilize supporters by giving them a space to organize, and to raise money by engaging with donors. Victoria Chang in her European Business Review article Obama and the power of social media and technology states, “A major success factor for Obama’s victory was how Obama’s campaign used social media and technology as an integral part of its strategy, to raise money, and, more importantly, to develop a groundswell of empowered volunteers who felt they could make a difference” (Chang). While these can be accomplished a number of ways, the bottom-up approach Obama chose seemed to align well with his ethos as a community organizer and civil rights lawyer. The emerging social media technologies only helped his community building efforts because one of the many affordances of the technology is that you can rally support from anywhere, at any time. Chang goes on to say of the campaign, “Traditional campaigns typically focused on getting votes and money. The Obama team’s grassroots efforts revolved around asked for a third element: time, which meant involvement and engagement” (Chang). This type of time commitment, autonomy, and engagement all go into building communities which brings us back to the fulfillment of social needs. Attaching the candidate to need fulfillment bring more intense loyalty than just communicating an idea or message.

The Campaign Rollout

Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign started with his announcement on February 10, 2007. He won the election for president on November 4, 2008. During that time, he campaigned across the US and over social media. He amassed a huge following over many social media sites which helped make the most out of his campaign time (some sources claim upwards of 5 million supporters over all of the various social media networks, though, true followers is difficult to verify) (Chang). Not only was his campaign creating content to publish, but so were members of his growing online community. February 2007 to November 2008 was a time of social media change. From YouTube to Reddit, Obama reached out to connect to potential voters.

The public reacted positively towards the campaign because it pushed a movement and not just a campaign (Walsh). Political strategist Joe Trippi said of the 2008 Obama campaign, “The campaign’s official stuff they created for YouTube was watched for 14.5 million hours,” (Miller). Whether those viewing the content voted for or against him, the media still had the reaction the team wanted. The videos were watched and in a campaign where you want eyeballs on the content, 14.5 million hours of viewing is more than acceptable.

Obama’s team made an effort to reach out on as many platforms as they could. One of his goals was to reach the youth and many of those possible voters use social media sites beyond Facebook and YouTube. “Pulling out all the Web 2.0 stops, the Obama campaign used not only Facebook and YouTube but also Myspace, Twitter, Flickr, Digg, BlackPlanet, LinkedIn, AsianAve, MiGente, Glee, and others.” (Dutta and Fraser). His team had to produce a range of media that could be posted to the different sites in order to get the concentration of mediums they were looking for to create a real sense of community online.

Content Examples:

Screen Shot 2015-10-01 at 11.31.45 PM

Obama announces that he is making plans for 2008. One of his key running points was that he wanted to push a movement and not just a campaign (Walsh). The video highlights him talking about grass roots and community, which will become focal points in his movement.

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Frontline posted their video on YouTube. Even those who missed the televised episode could watch it. While some claim Frontline has a liberal lean, the video could feasibly attract views from other political viewers.

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Race was a bit of a focal point for the 2008 Obama campaign because if elected, he would be the first African American president. Also, much of his work as a lawyer was focused on race issues. This video also shows that the youth are taking an interest in Obama’s opinions. This interest ties back into Obama’s push to grow community and how he hopes to bring citizens together.

Screen Shot 2015-10-01 at 11.58.47 PM

Facebook is a platform that can be used to share media such as videos and pictures. While scrolling through Obama’s 2008 posts, it can be noted that he included media in almost all of them. This particular post shows his campaign’s humor and personality. They take a motivational ad and add a humorous twist. This sort of marketing works well for the youth demographic as they are large consumers of entertainment and humor. Television shows like Viva La Bam were made based off this humor premise. This is an ad that prompts the audience to stay engaged in his campaign and to share it for more than its political value.

Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 12.02.53 AM

This Facebook page is an example of Obama’s community building effort manifesting user-generated content. Women for Obama (WFO) is a page dedicated to women who rally behind him for his presidential election. Often times, members would post personal stories of why they chose to support him. Posts like this serve as content for their grassroots page (WFO) and as marketing for the Obama campaign. These sort of pages are viewed as authentic and breed a sense of belonging which satisfies those social needs.


Near the end of the campaign, Obama chose this image to a caption on Facebook depicting him giving a speech about the economy. The smiles and diversity of the crowd make this a warm image filled with compassion and humanity, which again, brings with it feelings of love that help strengthen the ties within the Obama community.


One of Obama’s most famous tweets was after he won the 2008 election. He uses inclusive language which makes the followers feel like part of his community. This style of message fits perfectly with his grassroots and community campaign themes. He demonstrates that this victory is not just his own, it is a victory for all of those that supported him throughout the campaign.


Obama took on the 2008 political battle with a new style of combat. He was pitching inspiration and power to the youth through a communication medium that seemed all their own. The message was sent out through a huge range of social networks. At the time no other politician was meeting him on this forefront to the same degree:

On his personal Facebook profile—which featured his “Our Moment Is Now” motto—Obama named his favorite musicians as Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, and Bob Dylan and listed his pastimes as basketball, writing, and “loafing w/kids” (note the hip shorthand aimed at appealing to young voters). The 72-year-old John McCain, by contrast, never managed to connect on Facebook. He gave one of his pastimes as “fishing” and listed Letters F rom Iwo Jima among his favorite movies. (Dutta and Fraser)

Obama’s opponent McCain was not as well versed in this style of battle. This stark divide in the utilization of technology drew even more attention from news organizations because they wanted to report the impacts of technology on the election. With the increased attention from journalists came critics who thought Obama was running just based off a popularity contest and not running on his platform of change and community. “Many voters appear to like what they hear, even though he is often heavy on inspiration and a bit light on the details” (Walsh). Many believed he was getting away with not explaining the details of his plan for the country because everyone was swept up in the technological innovations of the campaign.

Today, the current U.S. presidential race is filled with technology and the elaborately choreographed use of social media. Jeb Bush’s perfectly timed tweets that went out during one of the Republican debates is a perfect example of how social media has permeated the political space. Bush’s account has 321 thousand followers and over 2000 tweets. Trump has a staggering 4.31 million followers and 28 thousand tweets. Clinton has 4.3 million followers as well and over 1,800 tweets. These politicians know that having a large online presence is going to help them gain the upper hand because of the success of the Obama campaigns. Trump has been using twitter to discuss politics since well before he announced recent interest in running for president. He most famously tweeted on the sixth of November 2012, “He lost the popular vote by a lot and won the election. We should have a revolution in this country” (Kerpel). Social media has become the go to form of communication for candidates to reach out to the public. Trump can send out a tweet for free and reach 4 million people (less a few fake accounts) or he can pay for an ad to air while hoping viewers see it. In today’s technologically saturated landscape, it is easy to see why the success of Obama’s 2008 campaign started a trend that only continues to grow. It will be interesting to see if this new set of presidential hopefuls will be able to harness the affordances of social media to the same degree of success that Obama had, as theirs in many ways is a response to demand rather than the goal of building a community.

Measurement of Success

For the macro goal of getting elected, Obama’s campaign strategy which included his social media was a success. He won the Democratic ticket and he beat Republican nominee John McCain to become the 44th president of the United States. Going back to the social media goals of spreading his message, mobilizing supporters by giving them a space to organize, and to raising money by engaging with donors, all seem to be fulfilled by sticking to what he is good at and that is building communities.

Obama was able to spread his message of hope and community through all of the various mediums, but perhaps the most influential were the YouTube videos as they could be shared as links and embedded into many of the social media sites. Video allowed Obama to speak to the public in his voice which was amplified by the amount of likes and shares.

Mobilizing supporters was supported by the various grassroots social media pages like the Women for Obama Facebook page, but was really driven by his various websites like MyBO. Registered users were able to create a profile, connect with other Obama supporters, and find rallies and events near by. The website even had a downloadable tool kit for creating your own events and for showing your support. The more developed your MyBo profile was and the more active you were on the site meant you were given access to more downloadable tools (Chang). This sort of built trust helped to fulfill the esteem needs of his supporters.

For fundraising, all of the social media channels were utilized and critical to the success. Joe Rospars, key technologist in creating the various tools and systems said of the fundraising effort, “When we did our first set of fundraising, our goal was the number of people we wanted giving, not the dollar amount” (Chang). Focusing on the people in this way, again, shows the Obama campaign’s focus on building a community. The campaign showcased the 75,000th donor on the blog, on the website, and even sent an email to the Obama community. These kind of considerations inspired more people to get involved and to donate. The campaign itself ended up with over 3 million donors, more than any other campaign in history, that raised 750 million dollars, mostly through the internet and the average donor gave more than once (Chang) (Bradley).

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from all of the success of the Obama 2008 campaign is the importance of picking a social media strategy that resonates with you and your audience. Obama was already good a building communities, so he hired the right people to help him do that in the online space. Since he was doing something he was already good at, his authenticity showed through which won the hearts of the pubic that was seeking to fulfill their social needs. It is safe to say that the Obama campaign was a game changer in the way campaigns are run and funded and the legacy lives on when we tweet at our state senator for change.

Works Cited

Bradley, Tahman. “Final Fundraising Figure: Obama’s $750M.” 5 December 2008. ABC News. 27 September 2015<http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/Vote2008/story?id=6397572&page=1&gt;.

Chang, Victoria. “Obama and the power of social media and technology.” The European Business Review (2010): 16-21.

Dutta, Soumitra, and Matthew Fraser. “Barack Obama and the Facebook Election.”

Usnews.com. U.s. News and World Report, 19 Nov. 2008. Web. 26 Sept. 2015.

Krepel, Terry. “Trump Tweets A Call For “Revolution” After Obama Victory.” Mediamatters.com.

Media Matter for America, 7 Nov. 2012. Web. 27 Sept. 2015.

McLeod, Saul. “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” 2007. Simply Psychology . 27 September 2015<http://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html&gt;.

Miller, Claire. “How Obama’s Internet Campaign Changed Politics.” Bits How Obamas Internet

Campaign Changed Politics Comments. Bits.blogs.nytimes.com, 07 Nov. 2008. Web. 01
Oct. 2015.

Murphy, Tim. “Meet Obama’s Digital Gurus.” Motherjones.com. Mother Jones, Sept.-Oct. 2012.Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Nelson, Michael. “Barack Obama: Life Before the Presidency.” 2009. Miller Center University of Virginia. 26 September 2015 <http://millercenter.org/president/biography/obama-life-before-the-presidency#contributor&gt;.

Stirland, Sarah Lai. “Obama’s Secret Weapons: Internet, Databases and Psychology.” 29 October 2008. Wired. 29 September 2015 <http://www.wired.com/2008/10/obamas-secret-w/&gt;.

Walsh, Kenneth. “Obama Explains His Campaign Strategy.” Usnews.com  U.S. News World  Report, 15 Feb. 2008. Web. 27 Sept. 2015.

Obama’s Change Game Changer: The Successful Use of Social Media in the 2008 Presidential Election

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