Obama’s Organizing for Action leaking personal details of supporters

Yesterday I received an email fundraising pitch from Obama’s new Organizing for America:

Email from OFA

Looks safe … click to enlarge

At the bottom of the email is a link to click to :

Looks innocent!

Nothing there to worry about, right?

But the text you see is not the actual link that is in the email.  That link is really:

Doesn't look like much

Doesn’t look like humans can read it, does it?

There’s a lot of information in that link, most of which does not appear to be human readable.  It turns out that it is encoded using a very common system known as “Base 64”, which is a way to take a bunch of data and put it into a URL like this.  But there’s no magic to Base 64, and when you decode it you see:

A little bit clearer now!

Hey, that’s me!

I’ve replaced my email address (to @secret.com) and zip code (with 99999), however if you are sufficiently energetic you can type in the base 64 text and see what it really is…

Anyone else I share that link with, when they click it, will be taken to the Organizing for Action page and shown my email address and zip code.

Other people appear to have their email address and zip codes exposed clearly in the links they’ve shared on Twitter:

Identifying information blurred by me...

Identifying information blurred by me…

It’s not a terrible security breach, and I’ve only found about 30 or so people who’ve accidentally done this in the past week.  But given that the OFA web site holds credit card information, the leaked data represents two pieces of personally identifiable information that could theoretically be used to assist in identity theft.  And if you share such links on Twitter you may find that people who oppose your views find it an opportune time to start up an email conversation you did not solicit…

Regardless of the risk, I am fairly certain (just about all of) the people involved did not intend to publicize their email addresses and home zip codes on Twitter.

Twitter Secrets of the Obama Campaign: #6 – First Master the Fundamentals

[For the background on this series, please see the Introduction]

So far in this series I’ve talked about many of the tricks the Obama campaign is using to get the most out of Twitter, such as tracking links, using multiple accounts, and integrating Twitter into an overall marketing campaign. While the advanced techniques are the most interesting, it still pays to heed Larry Bird’s dictum “first master the fundamentals”.  Let’s see how the Obama campaign has followed that advice and mastered Twitter fundamentals.

I’ve talked a bit about some of the Obama basics before: in the second installment of this series I talked about the diverse subjects the campaign tweets about and how and when they include links.  That post covers the content of the tweets thoroughly and is worth a review.

But even more basic than that are issues of when to tweet, how frequently to tweet, and how to use the limited space of a tweet.  These issues are driven by the unique nature of Twitter: tweets are fairly ephemeral, scrolling quickly off a feed as they’re pushed down by new ones, and tweets are tightly constrained in length and content.

Continue reading

Twitter Secrets of the Obama Campaign: #5 – Turn Twitter into a Telephone Tree

[For the background on this series, please see the Introduction]

When you look at how effective someone is on Twitter, one of the key metrics is their retweet percentage: how often do their tweets get re-sent by others?  Being retweeted has two important benefits: it furthers the message along to new people and it gives a kind of third-party approval to the original message. (And it’s good for your ego…)

Normally, retweets happen when a user stumbles across a tweet she1 finds interesting.  But actually getting the user to retweet takes a fortuitous combination of her seeing the original tweet and then thinking it is worthy of sending it on to her followers.  This is why it is so hard to initially get traction on Twitter: the odds of a tweet catching on are brutal2.  

As a purely hypothetical example, suppose the chance that a follower reads any given tweet of yours is 1 in 100.  She just may not see it at all because she’s not online at the time.  She may kind of see it, but not read it; perhaps something else is more interesting.  And if she does read it, odds are against her pushing the retweet button. Let’s say (for example’s sake) those odds are 1 in 100.  That means, then, the odds of any given follower retweeting one of your tweets is 1 in 10,000.  If you only have 50 followers, well, 1 in every 200 tweets of yours will be retweeted. That’s a lot of tweeting for not much action.  Of course, the odds aren’t fixed — the content of the tweet and the timing of it have a lot to do with it (I’ll have a post on that subject later).  But over the long run, the odds of getting a retweet are disappointingly small.

Of course, if you’re @BarackObama with 16 million followers, even those disappointing odds turn into a huge number of retweets.  That’s why when you compare @BarackObama to @MittRomney, you’ll see that Obama is way ahead of Romney in terms of retweets — because Romney has only a bit over 500 thousand followers.  Maybe, if Romney can acquire the same number of followers as Obama has and starts tweeting as often as Obama does, Romney can catch up.  But given how hard it will be to do both of those, we can expect the @BarackObama Twitter account will continue to have far more engagement than the @MittRomney one.

But as I described in my previous post, the Obama campaign is more than just the national organization: each state has its own campaign with its own Twitter account.  And the state organizations, like the national campaign, look to retweets as a way to spread their message.  But without the massive follower counts that @BarackObama has, the state Twitter accounts struggle against the poor odds for retweets like the rest of us do.

But what if there was a way to change the odds?  What if you could increase the retweet frequency by several orders of magnitude? Seems unlikely, does’t it?  Short of writing incredibly witty or provocative tweets (or, I sometimes suspect, always including pictures of adorable kittens), there’s not much it seems you can do.  It might seem that way, but you might be wrong…

A clever developer named Kyle Shank came up with a web application called Donate Your Account.  If you are supporter of the Obama Florida campaign (who uses this application), you can use Donate Your Account to give OFA Florida permission to automatically send out tweets on your behalf:

You can also give them permission to make posts to your Facebook wall.  So now you don’t have to read through all the @OFA_FL (Obama For America Florida) tweets to find one to retweet.  Instead, the campaign can pick one tweet a day and use Donate Your Account to send it out, automatically, under your Twitter account.  To everyone else on Twitter, it appears you had manually retweeted it yourself.  Brilliant!

Suddenly, the odds of retweets improve dramatically, and the volume of retweets will grow.  In many ways, it’s like a Twitter manifestation of an old fashioned telephone tree, where the person with the message passes it on to a couple of people, and they in turn pass it on to more people — again and again until the message has travelled to everyone it needs to reach.

So far, at least 8 of the Obama state organizations are set up to do this. Is this working for them?  There’s been quite a few sign ups:

State Twitter Sign Ups Facebook Signups
FL 149 26
OH 75 8
NV 80 0
SC 13 0
CA 27 0
CO 16 0
MT 8 0
VA 23 0

I picked one of the user accounts at random (so, to be clear, this is not statistically valid) and here’s what I saw:

Wow! It really works.

If all those hundreds of accounts that signed up were retweeting once a day, the total reach of these state accounts would be substantially magnified.  But “If” is the operative word: while the users have done their part and signed up, the follow through by the state campaign organizations has been spotty so far.  Everything is on autopilot for the users, but the campaigns still have to manually designate a tweet a day to be retweeted. A couple of the state campaigns are fairly active in pushing out regular messages, but a lot of them are not.  To be clear: if a campaign doesn’t get around to pushing tweets through its DonateYourAccount volunteers, they’ve missed an opportunity.

It’s unfortunate (for them) that there’s a potential here that’s not being tapped.  I’m surprised that the Obama national campaign is not recruiting retweeters too, even with their massive follower counts.  They could easily build their own automatic retweet application into their barackobama.com website.  This would give them the ability to sign up a large, nationwide cadre of retweeters3.  The Obama campaign could then unleash an overwhelming Twitter barrage in the closing days of the campaign.  Such a move — if it worked, of course — would leave people in further awe of the Obama campaign’s social media prowess.

The great thing is that kind of prowess is available to anyone today:  Donate Your Account is free for everyone to use, and so there’s a great opportunity for other candidates to give it a try.  A tool like this could be very helpful to down ballot candidates who have a hard time getting attention on social media; even a small handful of supporters who retweet a message of the day can dramatically extend the campaign’s social media reach. The tool is wonderful in that it allows these volunteers to participate in a way that costs them no money and requires no time beyond a quick initial set up.  That overcomes another problem small campaigns have, motivating supporters. It’s win-win!

For other, more long lasting organizations, the same approach will work.  Charities, social groups, or schools could easily use this technology to get the word out.  Businesses that have partner channels could try something similar with their partners.  Even governments could use this in a variety of ways.

You can sign up for the service here: http://donateyouraccount.com/ .  Let me know if you try it and if it works out for you!

Keep up to date with future updates to this series by following me on Twitter and/or subscribing to updates to this website. To see all posts in this series, visit the overview page.


1) Twitter is thought to have more female users than male users.

2) This is why it’s so hard to get started on Twitter: No followers = no retweets = no new followers…

3) There’s just no hope of having a happy spell checker when writing about social media…

Twitter Secrets of the Obama Campaign: #4 – All Politics is Local

[For the background on this series, please see the Introduction]

For most of us, it’s hard enough to keep up with just one Twitter account.  But if you’re trying to engage a diverse group of people — or trying to engage multiple, distinct constituencies — you may need more than one.

Many candidates running for national office have two official Twitter accounts, the candidate’s and their staff’s. The candidate’s account is meant to be the official voice of the person running for office.  Depending upon the candidate’s time and inclination, the account can be used mostly by the candidate his/herself or mostly managed by staffers.  Like with the President:

It’s mostly tweets from his campaign team, with the occasional “-bo” tweet from the President. Still, if you want to follow just one account to read what the President is thinking and doing, this is the one.

But if people want to feel a connection to the campaign, not just the candidate, a staff Twitter account can be useful.  The account can discuss news and happenings within the campaign, giving a more of a nuts-and-bolts view into the organization.  Like this one for the Obama campaign:

It should come as no surprise that Mitt Romney’s campaign is set up the same way: @MittRomney is for the candidate and @TeamRomney is for the campaign staff. Both campaigns have additional Twitter accounts for various family members, high profile advisors, etc. At the national campaign level, the Obama and Romney accounts are structured roughly the same.

But that’s where the similarity ends and Obama starts pulls far ahead of Romney.

Obama’s campaign team has moved beyond just the small handful of national accounts to create accounts that target various constituencies.  Paying homage to Tip O’Neill’s quip that all politics is local, Obama’s team has launched a set of 51 state-level (including DC) twitter accounts:

... and on and on

These state-level Twitter accounts distribute state-specific news of interest, retweet pertinent general campaign messages, and promote volunteer teams.  Mitt Romney has nothing like this. True, there are a few local groups supporting Mitt that have independent Twitter accounts, but they’re nowhere as well done as Obama’s. 

Each Obama For America (OFA) state account is a “verified account”, meaning that Twitter has validated that they are who they say they are.  Additionally, the accounts all follow the same naming convention: OFA_xx, where the “xx” is the two letter state code. Any Twitter user, upon seeing the name and blue-circle-with-a-check, knows the account is a legitimate part of the Obama campaign.  This is a very important tool: when you search for somebody on Twitter — somebody popular — the number of fake/joke/criticism accounts can be startling.  Being able to easily spot the right account is critical.

Each state account is tied to a state-specific micro-site on barackobama.com; people can navigate seamlessly from Twitter into the Obama web site and land on the correct state’s page. There are state specific Facebook pages as well. All of this provides comprehensive “multi-channel” support for the state organizations.

As an example, here’s the @OFA_FL account (which I picked since I live in Florida…):

You can see that this is a very active account — somedays even more active than the main @BarackObama account!  The logo is well done and is in keeping with the over all style of the Obama campaign.   The Twitter profile page itself (not shown here, but you can see it at https://twitter.com/#!/OFA_FL), is branded consistently with the rest of Obama campaign. For a state campaign Twitter account, it has a very healthy number of followers and helps drive support for the President in Florida.

You might think that, for such an important battle-ground state, Mitt Romney would have a state-specific account too.  But a search for “Mitt Romney Florida” in Twitter only turns up one south-Florida countywide group:

It’s not verified, it doesn’t have a dedicated web page, the profile page has the default Twitter look instead of Romney’s, and the account’s not very active.  For a normal user, it would be hard to know at a glance if this account real or not, especially given all the fake Mitt Romney accounts on Twitter. That’s not a criticism of this group’s efforts, but an observation of an omission on the part of the Romney campaign.  As far as I can tell, there are no state-level Romney for President Twitter accounts.  Romney’s team could learn a lesson on this subject.

What are the lessons for the rest of us, though, who don’t have an organization the size and depth of Obama’s (or Romney’s)?

  1. If you can get your account(s) verified by Twitter, do so.  The blue check mark stands out and will let people know that they can trust your account.  If you cannot get verified (which is likely, as Twitter is very selective about who it verifies), make sure that you use the same branding in Twitter as you use everywhere else.  This is especially important if you have more than one account.  Since fake accounts rarely spend the time necessary to do proper branding, you will want to make sure yours are thoroughly branded by:
    1. Setting a background image in your Twitter profile that looks clean and appropriate for your organization.  It should look like an extension of your web site, albeit transformed for the limitations of Twitter’s layout.
    2. Making sure your picture looks consistent with other pictures or logos you use.  For heaven’s sake, don’t use Twitter’s default egg picture!
    3. Making sure you include a link to your web site in the profile
    4. Stating clearly that it is the official account
    5. Mentioning your Twitter account name on your web site, Facebook page, etc.  This provides a double check for users.
  2. If you actually have multiple audiences that need to hear different (but never conflicting) messages, weigh the costs/benefits of setting up separate accounts for each of them (or for some logical grouping of audiences).  A business will naturally want to consider different Twitter accounts for (mostly) unrelated product lines, independent business units, or any other logical way they organize customer interactions.  Make sure all accounts are branded similarly (unless they truly represent different brands!).
  3. Finally, you’ll find that neither Obama nor Romney have separate “personal” accounts. I’ve seen some candidates who try to have a campaign account and a personal one that is unrelated to the race.  That doesn’t work too well.  If you lock the personal account (so only approved users can read what you tweet), people will wonder what you’re saying — and may assume the worst.  If it’s unlocked, you can bet the competition will be looking for something to use from it.  All public accounts are campaign accounts at the end of the day.

While most of what the Obama campaign does on Twitter can be adopted by smaller campaigns and organizations, the campaign’s spinning up 50+ accounts works only because of the size of Obama’s team and his popularity on Twitter. This is a scale most of us will never reach (although we might hope to).  But we can still keep in mind the best practices we’ve learned as we apply them our more humble efforts.

Keep up to date with future updates to this series by following me on Twitter and/or subscribing to updates to this website. To see all posts in this series, visit the overview page.

Random asides:

The Obama campaign has many additional communities it addresses on its web site that don’t have distinct Twitter accounts — perhaps they’ll roll out additional accounts over time?

Twitter Secrets of the Obama Campaign: #3 – Twitter is Part of a Larger Plan

[For the background on this series, please see the Introduction]

For most of us who use Twitter, the content of our tweets tend to be created ad-hoc with our on the fly observations.  We read something in the newspaper, we want to point out something new on our web site, or we just want to shout at the world about something.

And it’s easy to assume that’s the way everyone else tweets too.  It is the way almost everyone tweets.  But not 100% of everyone.  Not 100% of the time.

Consider the following tweet from Barack Obama:

Seems pretty spur-of-the-moment, doesn’t it? Kind of casual: hey, just letting you know about this new video.

But it’s not.  We can see some hint of the complexity behind it in the URL in the tweet. Not really in OFA.BO/N9J3jR itself, but where it takes you to:


Holy Moly! There’s a lot of stuff in that.  What does it really mean?

Decoding this is a bit tricky, but we can puzzle it out with some understanding of how URLs work.  In a URL, everything up to the “?” is the actual URL — the location of the web page you are going to.  Everything after the “?” (called the “query string”) is extra information which is passed to the web server to help it understand where you came from and/or exactly what you want to see.

In this case, the first part of the URL says you want to go to an Obama Pride page on the campaign web site that has a video and a sign-up form.  The second part of the URL, after the “?”, is readable enough that we can guess, with confidence, that it tells the Obama campaign that you got to the page via @BarackObama’s May 24th tweet on the topic. 

To see a bit more of how this works, consider a Facebook update that describes the same video:

The URL in this post, http://OFA.BO/pAtLAo, expands to:


Same base URL, same sign-up page with a video. But this time the extra information tells the campaign that you clicked on the May 23rd Facebook post on Barack Obama’s Facebook page.

By capturing the information about where you started out, the campaign can compile detailed statistics about what is working and what is not.  That allows them to adjust their messaging in the future to make sure they are always getting the best results they can from social media.

While it may have been in reading the tweet that we first noticed this topic, writing the tweet was the end point for the Obama campaign.  Instead, they started with the goal in mind — geting people to sign up for Obama Pride.  They created the web site page to do the sign-up, commissioned a video to help convince people, and then planned out how to promote the sign-up process in a variety of places.  They created a system to track what tweet or post  got people to visit.  And only then did they create the tweet, the Facebook update, etc.  And, far from being a casual creation, they put the same kind of care into crafting the tweet that they did in creating the system behind it. (In subsequent posts, we’ll actually see some of the incredible attention to detail that goes into tweeting by the campaign).

Here’s the key point: Although this blog series is focused on Twitter, Twitter should only be one channel in your social media marketing efforts.  You need to coordinate your efforts across the various social channels (Email, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest, Tumblr, etc.).

The big question, then, is how do you apply these techniques ourselves, especially if you don’t have the resources of the Obama campaign?   You can still create an informal marketing campaign, even in pencil and paper, or in Excel, that has all the qualities of a top-notch campaign.  And if you’re willing to invest in some not-too-expensive software, you can begin to automate your management of marketing campaigns.

For an informal campaign, you need to generally think about the following steps:

  1. Define your goals.

    You could be looking to convince people of a point, or have some sort of call to action (volunteer, donate, sign-up at the web site, etc.).  You need to now what you want people to do in response to your messages.  (Sometimes, though, the answer is  very simple like “get a laugh”, which is just fine!)

    In the Obama example, they are looking for people to join the “Obama Pride” list by having people to identify themselves as being interested in this topic.

  2. Identify who are you trying to reach.

    Just saying “everyone I can” or “all the voters” is probably not right. Odds are your message resonates to a subgroup of people.  The reason to identify that group is to help you in crafting a message that will best catch their attention, like picking the right hashtags in Twitter.  

    In the example used above, the audience is clearly the LGBT community.  The Obama team used both the name of a Twitter user and a hashtag to try to  get their target audience to read and react to the message.

  3. Create your supporting media and tools.

    These are your web pages, sign up lists, videos, articles, photos, etc. that you want people to pay attention to.  At the very least you can create a custom landing page on your web site.  This allows you to capture statistics on a page by page basis for your web site, so you’ll be able to see how people come to and interact with your website.  With WordPress, which I know many candidates use, the free statcounter.com gives you a wealth of information.

    For Obama’s campaign above, a video was created where the President aligns himself with the LGBT community and a custom page with sign-up list that allows people to register their interest.

  4. Identify the channels you want to market through (Twitter, Facebook, etc.).

    Usually, the answer is Yes to all of them, but with Pinterest you need a strong graphical element — make sure you have one.
    The Obama campaign did not have a a pin on Pinterest for this campaign.  I am not sure if that was an oversight or intentional.  But they do have lots of other pins there that bring people into the fold.

  5. Craft a unique message or messages for each channel that takes full advantage of whatever tools and capabilities the channel has.

    Some channels, like Twitter, work best when you test variations of the same message over a brief time span, while others do not (Facebook starts to look bad with repetitive messaging on the same topic).  

    In Secret #1, I show an example of how the Obama campaign tried two different Twitter messages that led to the same page.  In the example on this page, you see how the text is different between Twitter and Facebook.

  6. Make sure you use all the tricks of tracking URLS (Secret #1) to gauge your response from the various online channels.
  7. Launch!
  8. Measure your responses and compare them to your expectations.

    Determine what worked and what didn’t, and use that as feedback into your next planning cycle.

For a business, it is very likely that you will adopt “big” marketing campaign software that automates a lot of the work here.  That’s beyond the scope of this series, but suffice it say that there are a wide variety of social media applications that offer various ways of approaching the problem.  For most politicians, acquiring custom software is not so likely — until you get to the senatorial or presidential level, where big budgets allow for dedicated marketing staff and deployment of expensive software. I continue to recommend Hootsuite for managing social media communications as a great starting point.  It’s free and it works with a variety of social media networks. Still, if your campaign adopts a CRM tool like Oracle’s or SalesForce’s, then you may want to experiment with true marketing campaigns. As an example, the Romney Campaign has been using Salesforce since the 2008 presidential campaign.

Regardless of the complexity of your tools, the key is to think at the campaign level, not at the tweet level, and lay the groundwork for your tweets in advance.  If you only create tweets on the fly, you’ll fall far short of what you could achieve with solid advanced planning. There is a time an place for ad-hoc tweets (pictures of crowds at an event, for example, or replies to supporters), but you should also have a focus on proper marketing campaign planning and management.

Keep up to date with future updates to this series by following me on Twitter and/or subscribing to updates to this website. To see all posts in this series, visit the overview page.