Turbo-Charged Social Networks: Lessons From Bundlers

A great amount of attention has been paid to how many campaign contributions President-Elect Barack Obama received from small donors. By the end of the campaign, 10 million people were on Obama’s mail and e-mail lists; 4 million of those people donated; and an unprecedented amount of money was raised from donations of less than $200 each.

But the Obama campaign also received record amounts from large donors and bundlers.

According to the non-partisan Campaign Finance Institute, 47 percent of Obama’s donors gave more than $1,000. And according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) — which in the absence of legally mandated disclosure had to use information provided by the campaigns — 561 bundlers had raised a minimum of $63 million for Obama by mid-August. (That’s more than $110,000 per bundler.)

The techniques of cultivating and motivating these bundlers provide some important insights into marketing through social networks. Bundlers are people who can gather contributions from many individuals in an organization or community and present the sum to the campaign.

Traditional marketers are trying to crack the code of what causes someone to tell their digital friends that they prefer a certain band or restaurant. It doesn’t matter whether this is done under the title of word of mouth or viral marketing; marketers are fundamentally trying to get volunteers to carry their good message forward.

Bundlers are the most productive volunteer fundraisers and, therefore, provide a case study for traditional marketers trying to create productive word of mouth or viral sales efforts.

First and foremost, success at the upper reaches depends on the existence of a personal connection. In a study conducted by Harris Interactive and my agency, the primary reason for someone to support a nonprofit organization is a personal connection. And the results of the Obama campaign validate the old adage “people buy from people.”

The second driver of success is recognition and rewards. The campaigns lavish attention on their bundlers, including special briefings, attendance at special events, and face time with the candidates. The effectiveness of well-designed reward and incentive programs is certainly not limited to airlines and hotel stays.

A third driver is competition. During the 2004 Democratic primary, Howard Dean’s campaign highlighted on its home page people who recruited the most supporters to the campaign. I recall news stories of supporters staying up all night to recruit others just so they could remain ranked on the home page. Sort of like staying on the top of the Pac-Man list at the local eatery back in the day.

In campaigns today, bundlers’ goals and their success in achieving them are also transparent to a small group to infuse the effort with competition.

But what I found most interesting and not immediately obvious is the training provided to some bundlers. In the recent “Politico” article “Obama, the billion dollar man,” Jeanne Cummings reported on the Obama team’s efforts to ensure that their bundlers knew how to ask. According to the article: “At the suggestion of the campaign’s more experienced donors, [Julianna] Smoot [the campaign’s finance director] also organized two training programs for her newer bundlers, the surrogate fundraisers who tap into their own circle of friends and family to generate donations to the campaign.”

Which got me thinking: very few folks who want their customers, supporters, and fans to spread the word actually provide guidance on how to do it. We leave it to chance. We assume that a compelling offer or humorous content will be enough for someone to send to a friend. This is no longer enough, especially if we want customers, supporters, and fans to be high performers.

The lesson traditional marketers must embrace here is that serious cultivation of one’s social network requires a compelling offer and opportunities for recognition. But it may also take some effort to train customers, supporters, and fans in what to actually do.

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