This article was written following the 2008 Presidential Election. It highlights how the effective use of social media impacted Obama’s successful campaign. As the 2012 race for the White House heats up, it will be interesting to see which candidates learn from Obama’s example — and whether Obama himself will be able to expand and enrich his use of these important tools.
Change: the political platform touted by both presidential candidates on the 2008 campaign trail. With differing objectives, Barack Obama and John McCain promise dramatic shifts in government policies upon entering office, but the remarkable transformation that has already materialized is the dramatic increase in voter engagement — a social movement brought about by the Internet. The social web has been utilized by the candidates for spreading political news and philosophy, tracking voter interest, generating awareness and organizing communities. Voters also use the media tool to their advantage, voicing their opinions and creating political content on a national stage. The Internet has fostered a vocal, involved citizenry in the current election. Change isn’t on the horizon; it’s already risen.
From gathering election news to watching political videos, the proportion of Americans accessing the Internet for content and information has dramatically increased since the 2004 race. 40 percent of all Americans received news and information about the primary campaigns from the web, according to a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project developed in June. The study also found that younger voters and Democrats make more use of online media for political consumption and sharing.
Both politicians are highly invested in SEO as a mechanism for growth in their online strategies. AdGooRoo released a recent study analyzing the high stakes search campaigns of both candidates, finding that Obama-related sites receive more than five times the amount of traffic than McCain-related – 22 million versus 3.5 million visitors. Pro-Obama websites are 57 percent more popular than pro-McCain, but the Republican nominee receives 11 percent more traffic from websites not affiliated with his campaign. In terms of search marketing, the candidates employ similar levels of sophistication. McCain has a slight advantage in keyword selection, but Obama wins in targeting topical keywords, such as “lipstick” and “Paulson”. The Obama site clearly wins in natural search rankings: McCain is seen on Google’s front page for 67 keywords, while Obama ranks for 117.
Especially influential during the election has been social networking sites. The Pew survey found that two-thirds of Internet users under 30 have a social networking profile, half of which use these sites to gather or share information about the election. Social networks have streamed politically-related entertainment, data and interactive content throughout the web in massive quantities.
“New media offers candidates with an alternative or complement to their traditional media spending,” says Gary Drenik, President of BIGresearch. “By actually listening to potential voters and using all media, not just traditional, candidates can build an ad strategy that is more likely to influence votes.”
The White House hopefuls have accessed the benefits of using alternative media forms, like social networks, to reach an audience often neglected in the presidential race. Presently on Facebook, Obama has about 2,250,000 supporters and McCain has 579,000; On Twitter, Obama has over 100,000 followers (a social site for which he himself, apparently, actively participates) and McCain has a little over 3,000.
Expanding outside the popularly established networking sites, both candidates have created their own social forums for addressing current issues and fostering supporter interaction. Obama has especially caught the attention of social media users with MyBarackObama.com, created by the stealthy digital team Blue State that remains rather mum about their role in Obama’s campaign. The site is an instrument of organization for Obama; its 850,000 members have already planned over 50,000 events with the help of the site’s innovative tools –- not campaign officials –- and raised $200 million for the Illinois senator. MyBarakObama.com is an excellent example of the power of social media to incite participation on and off the web. An Obama iPhone application and video game advertisements are also part of Obama’s interactive media repertoire.
McCain’s approach to social networking has not been as successful. McCainSpace.com is also aimed at young voters, but it hasn’t reached the level of user participation as Obama’s site. To step things up, in June WhereIsTheRed.com was launched — a blog following three college students as they travel the red states and broadcast the widespread appeal of the Republican Party. But the lagging presence of McCain in the social media sphere sends the message that he’s out-of-touch with the demographic and out-dated when it comes to technology.
Video streaming has been a massively popular toy in the election/social media playground. On the official Obama site, video streaming increased 155 percent from July to August, according to Nielsen Online, reaching 1.3 million views. The site also saw a 173 percent increase in unique video viewers in the same time frame. The same metrics for the McCain site shows increases by merely 16 and 5 percent, respectively. Though Obama is leading on the video front, McCain did make strides in August by attracting more women viewers to his site, clearly due to his choice for running mate.
YouTube has been a major platform for user-generated spoofs and memorable campaign moments. The celebritized Obama effort “Yes We Can” and the “Obama Girl” music videos each drew 10 million views. And, of course, there is the content phenomenon that is Sarah Palin (and all her various interpretations). The Republican Vice Presidential candidate’s network news interviews and SNL skits permeate the web. More than half who watched the recent SNL satires featuring Tina Fey viewed the skits on the web, according to a Solutions Research Group survey, with 11.7 million views on YouTube alone. Without a doubt, content sites and political videos have mobilized the campaign effort. Hosted by YouTube are YouChoose’08 and VideoYourVote — election channels that measure candidate support by user participation. Not surprisingly, Obama-related content exceeds in the total number of views and subscribers.
The pervasiveness of social media has been leverage for both candidates to reach a widespread audience. The obvious winner of the web is Obama. He took voter outreach to another level, transforming the landscape of election campaigns by investing in social media programs that heightened Obama activism in the real world. But the race isn’t over just yet. As noted by Jon Gibs, vice president of media analytics for Nielsen Online, “The question that remains for both candidates is whether web visitors and online video viewers will translate into votes in the general election.”
Whatever the final result may be, it is evident that social media has emerged as a principal transmitter of citizen opinion and a space for political participation — an aid in bridging the gap between disconnected policy-makers and the American public. On November 4th, in the moments before the next president is elected, the Blogosphere will echo with silent anticipation, and the ultimate test for ROI in search and social media campaigns will be revealed.
© Elixir Interactive 2008