“The spark of what we do is community”

With strong, heartfelt convictions and a background in PR for trade unions and leftist politicians, Matthew McGregor comes across as a charmingly un-reconstituted, died-in-the-wool socialist.

But his company, Blue State Digital, has pretensions way beyond the political arena.

In 2006, Blue State Digital was hired by Barack Obama’s Presidential Campaign to build and manage its fundraising website. The site went on to become the most effective campaign website in history, enabling over three million individuals to donate over $500 million online, supporting more than two million user profiles and soliciting more than 13 million email addresses.

Blue State Digital was identified as Obama’s “Secret Weapon” by Businessweek and “the future of politics” by The Guardian.

Last year, Matthew was employed by Blue State Digital to set up its London operation. That’s where we are now: chatting on the sofas on the ground floor of Freud Communications’ building in London’s West End, where the UK office is based.

Although Matthew was not directly involved in the Obama campaign, he spent time alongside his US colleagues in the run up to the US Presidential Election last November. There he witnessed, first hand, the tremendous drive and dynamism of Obama’s support base which was constantly captured and reinvigorated via the campaign website.

Blue State Digital’s suite of online tools include a powerful mass e-mailer, a phone bank – which readily identifies “hot” or “warm” contacts – and an invite tool. These might be considered as typical campaign tools, but Matthew is keen to see their application across the board:

“The spark of what we do is community: where people are able to come together in terms of a common goal, not just political – it could be in terms of test-launching a new product. Politicians generally are really unpopular but look at the spark of engagement you get from someone wanting to test a new Blackberry! Companies have more sense of community than they realise.”

It’s unsurprising that Matthew refers to politicians less than favourably: we’re meeting on the Tuesday after a long Easter weekend which has brought disastrous news for the British Prime Minister and the UK Labour Party: Gordon Brown’s advisor Damian McBride has resigned after authoring a leaked email outlining an alarmingly misguided plan to spread nasty – and unfounded – rumours about rival MPs via the web.

Though he sighs and shakes his head at the thought of McBride, Matthew cites John Prescott and Tom Watson as two UK MPs who really “get” how to use the internet: “They understand the fundamental kernel of authenticity”.

“It’s all about engaging with people directly, on an authentic basis – engaging with people on their issues, in a language they understand.”

And this language of engagement can apply easily in business, believes Matthew.

“Maybe it’s a peculiarly British thing, to be so under-stated. I’m really struck by the language of sacrifice that permeates the UK. In Sweden, their language is of solidarity. In Britain, it’s a sacrifice. In the US, it’s hope. But the language of sacrifice is not inspiring!”

From his political and advocacy campaigns, Matthew has learnt that people need to be given positive messages to make them feel it’s worthwhile to take part in something, and this is just as true for business projects as it is for everything else:

“Being authentic, being engaging and putting people to work applies across the board.”

“You need to encourage people to take action: they need to be encouraged, incentivised, given a reward to take part in the bigger picture.”

In this, Matthew echoes the mantra of all successful social networks: give people a genuine personal motive, and they’ll participate. The importance of a strong underlying community cannot be under-stated:

“Obama wasn’t the first person to do this but [he’s been] far and away the most successful. So people see that campaign and want to emulate it. There’s not a huge amount of difference between Obama and Howard Dean in terms of the actual campaign but in terms of success, yes! Obama did get new media, yes, but what he got was community organising: the principles of good new media community.”

Matthew would love to get more corporate clients, but he’s not completely indiscriminate: true to his party roots, he draws the line at working for one David Cameron.

That’s a shame. Blue State Digital could do great things for the Conservative Party. No matter. I get the feeling that, sooner or later, a beleaguered Gordon Brown (or his successor) might just be giving Matthew a call.

2 replies on ““The spark of what we do is community””

Very interesting to read Matthew’s views on the current state of political blogging.
Labour not only insulted the social media political space, they completely misunderstood it.
I find it deeply ironic though that he says Tom Watson ‘gets’ social media – Tom Watson was Damian McBrides boss wasn’t he. Surely Damian learnt something from the great man himself.

Whilst I have had every respect for Barack Obama’s social media campaign and the way it was managed – I think Matthew is being shortsighted to say the least in only staying true to his party roots. It shows he is in danger of creating his own echo chamber / where peoples opinions just continue to validate their own and the blogosphere becomes polarized..

Ironically it is the Democractic side of the US blogosphere who have more links to blogs which are not reflective of their own opinions – and % wise they have more links to Republican blogs than Republicans do to Democratic blogs. The Democratic party members are more inclined to show Liberatarin views than the Republicans and are more open minded than the Republicans.
(see reference: The Power and Politics of Blogs – Daniel Drezner / Benkler – Wealth of Networks – Chaper 7)

Social media is based on discussions, debates, sharing informaion – blogs form part of that democractic process through people sharing their opinions with feedback and comments as part of the healthy system of checks and balances to keep the opinions less polarized …

At this time more than ever we should all be engaged in deliberative discussions because it is only in that way that true democracy is exercised and the citizen is involved in the rational critical debate of the blogosphere and can debate on the issues affecting us all in our lives.
To profess any different suggests using social media merely as a tool to extend the current governments political messages across this medium rather than encouraging and actively debating political issues.

Thanks Caroline, all really interesting points.

To be honest, I guess what I liked about Matthew was that he was deeply partisan and he admitted to that, and I find that sort of honesty refreshing in a business context. On a personal level, fair enough, if you really can’t stand somebody’s ideas, or what they stand for, then it’s probably a good thing not to work with them.

Having said that, I agree that, overall, it’s best for people to try to put aside their prejudices and actually try to listen to what others might say, even if they feel they disagree at a fundamental level. But it’s not always an easy call.

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