Rahaf Harfoush: Plugged In

This new media strategist, author, and speaker is currently working for the World Economic Forum in Geneva helping the organization with its use of new media

“It takes a village to raise a child,” is an African proverb. In 26-year-old Rahaf Harfoush’s case it has taken a tribe. 

“One of the reasons I love technology so much is that it has exposed me to a tribal network of people I’ve known for years. Some I’ve met in person, others I’ve just met online. They have formed this net of support around me and have had the most influence on my life,” she declares. “When I was writing my book and would go through a phase of writer’s block they would rally around me and bolster my spirits. I’ve been raised as a member of this tribe. I could not have achieved anything without all of these people backing me up.”

Just as Harfoush taps into the power of social networks for support, so did President Barack Obama. The President used social networking and its impressive communication capabilities and aggressive database development to acquire the highest office in the United States. The Obama campaign turned to social networking to raise money, organize locally, fight smear campaigns, and finally get the votes to help defeat the Clinton machine and John McCain and the Republicans. In the process, the world of politics has been forever changed. 

As the election efforts geared up, Harfoush was working as an analyst at thought leader Don Tapscott’s think tank, where she published whitepapers on topics including the Net Generation and women and the web. She was also busy helping with the research for Tapscott’s book, Grown Up Digital, the follow-up to his Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing the World that drew upon a $4.5 million research study that included 11,000 young people and examines how the net generation is changing the world and all of its institutions. Tapscott is most famous for the book he co-authored with Anthony Williams, Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. Harfoush was instrumental in this book as well, working as a research assistant.

For the newest book, Harfoush was responsible for the chapter on politics. A crucial source was Chris Hughes, one of Facebook’s co-founders, and director of online organizing for the Obama campaign. MyBO, the name given to Obama’s official social network, was Hughes’ brainchild and creating a sense of community was essential to its success.

“I was so blown away by what he was creating I begged him to let me visit and experience it firsthand,” Harfoush explains. Hughes did one better. He invited her to join his team.

She couldn’t turn down the offer. Within two days, this self-proclaimed computer nerd was heading south for Chicago from her home in Canada. “I found an apartment on craigslist and rented a car. My boyfriend drove me down and I spent three months working seven days a week, up to 12 hours a day, and it was just the most amazing experience.”

She shares details in her book, Yes We Did, An Inside Look at How Social Media Built the Obama Brand, that gives the reader a front row seat for an experience that changed both politics and branding forever.
By the time the campaign was over, volunteers had created more than 2 million profiles on MyBO, planned 200,000 offline events, formed 35,000 groups, posted 400,000 blogs, and raised $30 million on 70,000 personal fund-raising pages. The campaign used everything from YouTube to Facebook to text messages to the iPhone to the billion emails they sent out, to cover every base. Harfoush points out that social media is a means to an end -- a tool to enable strategy.

“Social media tools must be tied into a strategic marketing or communications plan with clearly defined goals, objectives, and milestones,” imparts Harfoush. “It’s a little like the Wild West these days with companies just doing a million social media things without planning or thinking or analyzing how this can add value. They feel like they have to be in the space instead of actually evaluating why they are there, who they are trying to target, and for what reason.” One of the most common mistakes businesses make is thinking they need to be doing every new thing. It’s all about balance. 
Currently, associate director, digital interaction for the World Economic Forum in Geneva, Harfoush is helping the Forum to showcase the work it does via social media.

Expanding Conferences With Twitter
Popular on the speaking circuit, Harfoush uses technology to engage her audience. A featured speaker at the conference of one of the leading integrated telecommunications operators worldwide, Fundacion Telefonica, in Madrid, questions were encouraged via Twitter.

“The discussion left the confines of that room. I love talking to people and this was a way to talk to even more,” says Harfoush. “This format makes people feel more comfortable. There were about 400 in the room and it can be intimidating to stand up and ask a question. Many are more comfortable sending a question via an iPhone or BlackBerry.”

One of the benefits of social media is it allows a conversation to continue after the conference has ended. After the Telefonica conference, she continued to Tweet back and forth with several people who she now follows and follow her.

“This is also a great way to get a lot of good feedback about my presentation. To find out what people liked, what resonated, and what didn’t.” She cautions, “Using Twitter during a session depends on the speakers’ comfort level regarding the subject at hand. It’s not an off-the-shelf solution that an organizer should randomly plug into a meeting.”

Historically, one of Harfoush’s biggest complaints concerning conferences is that you meet many fascinating people that you lose touch with once you return to your own life. “That’s where social media comes into play. By implementing Google groups, LinkedIn groups, you can stay connected when you get home.”

Communities created around an event tend to have a short lifecycle, Harfoush admits. “If you want a longer lifecycle, create a broader focus on some of the major issues you want to address.”

Social media can increase an event’s return on investment (ROI). “Want to increase the number of early registrants? Get people to your site using Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook,” she advises.

Social media should not be intimidating. “It’s not some sort of voodoo magic trick. It’s just a way for people to do what they’ve been doing for hundreds of years. To talk to each other, share ideas, gossip, work together, bicker. Behind every keyboard is somebody who wants to be heard, to be validated,” she observes. “It has allowed us to expand our network. I can have interesting conversations with people around the world. I love my digital tribe.”

During this year’s Oscars, Harfoush had her Twitter feed and Facebook page open and was having a party of sorts. “What was supposed to be an individual event, me at home alone watching the Oscars, became a communal event. We were all laughing, joking, and sharing.”

Born in Damascus, Syria, Harfoush, her parents, and two sisters moved to Toronto in 1989 and she considers Canada, home. Olympic fever struck Vancouver this February. The hottest ticket in the history of Canadian sport was for the men’s ice hockey game featuring Canada and the United States. 

Harfoush has her own golden ticket.  One where she can connect with her tribe any time of the day or night. “I felt like I was watching the hockey game with a bunch of my friends,” she shares. It didn’t matter that she was in Egypt at the time.