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: #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; 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!/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 #2 – It’s a Mix Tape of Tweets

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

Cassette image c/o Wikimedia

Imagine you’re a candidate, and you want to reach voters, volunteers, and donors with Twitter.  What do you say?

I recently posted a semi-humorous infographic, Every Political Tweet Ever Sent, which gives a a laundry list of topics. You could just throw a dart at it and tweet whatever that lands on.  But if you look at top-tier political campaigns, you’ll see that they really focus on topics that match their situation and focus on their perceived strengths.

Continue reading

On Twitter, Obama and Romney Agree on One Big Thing

Romney and Obama have been facing off against each other on Twitter for many months now as the GOP primaries have become irrelevant.  It’s interesting to see what each candidate talks about.

Let’s start with Obama:

First and foremost, Obama’s making the case for why he should be re-elected in about a third of his tweets (discussing  accomplishments,16% of tweets, and his vision, 19% of tweets).  He’s discussing what he has done for the people of the country and what he will continue to do in a second term.

About a quarter of his tweets are focused on trying to get people to participate in his campaign in some fashion, from something as quick as signing up on his web site to as serious as becoming a full time participant.  He’s looking to build a massive organization and is recruiting via social media.

Net net, Obama is spending his time and effort to explain to the people why he is the right choice in the election.

Now, let’s look at Romney’s tweets:

Quite different!  

The largest chunk of Romney’s tweets, over a third, have been to criticize the President.  Next is constant stream of “thank yous” to other politicians for endorsing him.

Interestingly, if you combine tweets about his accomplishments and his vision for the future, it adds up to just under 10%.

Thus, it is clear that Romney is spending his time and effort to explain why Obama is the wrong choice in the election.  Mitt Romney hardly makes any effort to explain why he would be a better president, except constantly say that he is not Obama.

So it seems safe to say there’s one thing they both agree upon: the key topic for the election is Obama.

Twitter Secrets of the Obama Campaign: #1-Tracking Clicks

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

Did you know they’re tracking your every click?

You probably did.

Do you know how and why they do it?

The secret is the link.

Follow Obama on Twitter or Facebook, and you will see a steady stream of postings with quotes, information about events, and statements of policy.  And because of the 140-character brevity of Twitter, most of these tweets are just teasers with hyperlinks that lead to further discussion, photos, or videos.  Like this one:

You can tell it’s a video, obviously, but the URL looks strange: OFA.BO/FF1NZ1.  It’s clearly not YouTube or Vimeo or any other well known video web site.  But when you click the link, you find yourself nonetheless at YouTube:

How’d you get there?  That’s mystery #1…

But the plot gets thicker when later on you notice a pair of similar Obama tweets:

Both tweets are on the same subject and if you click either link you will be taken to the same anti-Romney page:

But look closely at the two tweets again: each tweet has a different OFA.BO URL. Why? That’s mystery #2…

Fortunately, the answers to these mysteries are fairly straightforward.

With mystery #1, as you no doubt suspect, the Obama campaign is using a custom URL shortener (for more details on URL shorteners, see this article).  You’re probably familiar with more popular URL shorteners like bitly and TinyURL.  The Obama campaign is using one of these services (see Asides at the end), but working with their own private domain, OFA.BO.

When you click on the link http://OFA.BO/FF1NZ1, the OFA.BO URL shortener (which is just a specialized web site) “unshortens” FF1NZ1 and tells your browser the actual web site you need to visit is at Of course, your browser hides this two-step process from you.  Instead, it quickly takes you to the YouTube page – so quickly that you don’t notice the stop at OFA.BO. It gives the illusion that if you click on the link in Twitter you’ll go right to YouTube 

But while you were going through OFA.BO, your click is captured by the Obama campaign:  they know which specific tweet caught your eye and got you to click on the video.  Very tricky!

The motivation for doing this is pretty simple.  Like any marketer, the Obama campaign wants to know what works and what doesn’t.  A tweet that gets very few clicks is a failure and won’t be repeated or imitated.  But a tweet that gets an enormous amount of clicks is a success and will be used as a model for future tweets.

This is especially useful for them when the campaign is trying to figure out how to phrase or explain something.  That’s the solution to mystery #2, where the two similar tweets have different shortened URLs: the Obama campaign wants to know which of the two messages  gets the the biggest reaction, and so it tracks each tweet by giving it a different URL.  Is it the tweet focusing on Bain’s profit at the expense of jobs? Or is it the other focusing on what sounds like mismanagement?  By the time you’re reading this, the Obama campaign has undoubtedly recorded enough clicks to know if either or both gets people fired up.

The value of this analysis extends well beyond Twitter: as messages are tested on Twitter and the best phrasing discovered, the campaign knows better how to present Obama’s messages in person and in traditional media.   If you hear Obama speak on the subject, and he focuses on how much money Bain made from Ampad, you know the first one got all the clicks.  You can almost imagine them using Twitter not for Twitter’s sake, but to research how to put an important speech together!

Of course Mitt Romney’s team has its own URL shortener: MI.TT.  They too can track clicks.  Interestingly, they haven’t figured how to test multiple tweets to hone a message.  That’s probably because they don’t tweet anywhere near as often as Obama does right now, and multiple tweets on the same subject are rare for them.  But in the times they do, the campaign doesn’t use unique codes:


Granted, there isn’t much difference between these two tweets, but Romney’s team has no way of knowing which of the two is more popular. You snooze, you lose… Politics, like football, can be a game of inches.

There are some key take-aways from this first Twitter Secret of the Obama Campaign:

  • Always use a URL shortener for links you post on Twitter (or Facebook).  Make sure the link shortener has a convenient way of producing reports on people’s clicks. 
  • Try out different forms of your messages, and pay attention to which one(s) work the best. It’s more effort, but you’ll be rewarded with a better knowledge of what succeeds on Twitter (and perhaps beyond).
We’re lucky that the tools to do this kind of tracking and testing are readily available to all of us, not just to well financed campaigns.  You can use something as simple as Twitter’s free Tweetdeck to compose and schedule messages along with bitly to track responses (also for free), or move to an integrated application like Hootsuite which provides scheduling, link shortening, multiple social network management, and analytics all in one package. See the Resources section at the end for some suggested places to start.

For some of you, this secret seems like it is just common sense.  And if it does, I apologize.  But I’m always amazed by the number of people who don’t use anything but the most primitive tools for using Twitter. As an example, in this analysis I did of what Twitter tools US Senators use, over 50% of their usage is via the web interface at Twitter’s homepage.  As a result, they have no way of knowing whether people are responding to their tweets or not.  And these are politicians with jobs of national importance — and who only keep their jobs if the public approves of them!  They should know better.

The learning curve for getting reports out of link shorteners is painless.  Anyone whose tweets are in service of a larger goal has no excuse not to begin to use these tools in their social media activities.  

Give it a shot and see what you learn.  When you do, you can feel proud that you’re using the same avant-garde techniques the President’s campaign team is using!

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.

To move on to  Secret #2, click here.


  • Why have a private URL shortener like OFA.BO? One reason is just pure branding. But another reason comes when people re-tweet something from the campaign.  No matter whose tweet(s) you look at, if the URL starts with OFA.BO, you know that the URL originated from the Obama campaign and is safe to click.  If you see a or any other link shortener’s URL, then you really don’t know — is it a link to real campaign content, or is it a link to a spam or phishing site?  If you are a large company with a reputation to protect, you should probably invest in your own private URL shortener for the same reason.  This cost is negligible.  You can even use the same services Obama and Romney use!
  • Twitter adds an extra wrinkle to the process of getting to your final URL, but it doesn’t fundamentally change the process.  Twitter runs all URLs (even ones already shortened elsewhere) through their link shortener, so your browser actually goes to first.  In the case of Obama’s links, will return an URL to the browser.  Then the browser goes to and retrieves the YouTube URL.  Finally, the browser gets the YouTube page and you see the video.  You still probably don’t notice the process of bouncing around, but it is going to be slower than going right to YouTube.



  • The OFA.BO web site is managed by a company called ShortSwitch.
  • MI.TT is managed by Bitly.
  • OFA stands for “Obama For America”. .BO is the country domain for Bolivia. 
  • .TT (of MI.TT fame) is for Trinidad and Tobago.
  • Either country, if they wanted to annoy a candidate, could cancel the candidate’s domain and leave his URL shortener out of action. That’s not likely to happen, but we can guess that was nervous recently since “.ly” is Libya’s  top level domain…