Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Power to the People: Politics Tapping Online Networks

Many of us have read the headlines and regardless of our political inclinations, watched with growing fascination the remarkable ease the Obama political campaign amassed an online presence across Facebook, YouTube and its own social network, MyBarackObama.com to create a political base in scope and size unknown in prior elections. This is the real deal. As many media outlets talk about the implications of an Obama presidency and the work at hand, one impact already being felt is the use of online networks to build the power base that traditional political parties would establish on behalf of a politician's campaign using traditional methods of mailing lists, telephone banks and advertising to build get out the vote efforts and donations to the campaign.

Some recent articles I've come across take a close look at the impact of what the Obama campaign has done and the impact it will most likely have on future campaigns. Full disclosure: yes I did vote for Obama, but my interest in sharing these insights is really to look at how successful a social media campaign can be and how important it is to take a 360 degree approach that does not necessarily favor one online tool over another. I think there are lessons for all marketers to consider as they develop their own social media efforts and consider successful strategies.

With that said, again regardless of your political inclination or even interest in politics, here are some thoughts on the Obama campaign's success with social network. First of all I came across this analysis in the NY Times regarding the campaigns use of social media. It gives some excellent highlights and looks at some general implications. The most obvious, when you bring in tens of thousands of individuals to share their own perspectives, a place to voice their expectations, and to provide their own opinion, well the possibilities are endless. But not always manageable.

But the advantage is clear: a lower cost to expand their database and communicate instantaneously to this audience, and more important leverage it as an expanded distribution channel to pass along all types of content to the expanded networks of their community members.

With such a powerful network established, the question then is how will it be used now that the election is over? In a recent article on ComputerWorld regarding MyBarackObama.com it's been confirmed that it will stay online even now as the campaign is focusing on launching his presidency. There was a recent post on their blog confirming this. (On a side note, for those of you unfamiliar with Chris Hughes, suggest you read up on him, we may see this wunderkind pop up again and again.) Now one interesting point the article cites is the fact that legally Obama cannot use this political tool as part of his administration, so more than likely it will be brought under the Democratic Party National Committee and their own social network. It will certainly be interesting to see how well this distinct group, who has so closely identified with Barack Obama's campaign and the political brand he has created using social media, will be incorporated and morphed into some element of the DNC base.

Before I go on, here are some figures I've been able to track down regarding the campaigns use of social media. I've gone to each site to see what figures are reported for lack of an official breakdown of the numbers, so if anyone has other sources of data please feel free to share in the comments:

1) YouTube:Subscribers: 134,998 , Channel Views: 19,576,473

2) Facebook: 914,496 members - and if you perform a search on Facebook you will find any number of groups in support of or against Obama, but this figure is the official campaign group.

Unfortunately, I could not find any clear membership numbers for MyBarackObama.com, so I welcome anyone with such information to please share and I'll update the post with that detail. Though Jeremy Owyang has a great side by side comparison of both campaigns and their comparative figures across these platforms. Now while McCain clearly did not build up as much of a base on some platforms as Obama, some things come to mind. First, his campaign began using these later than Obama, also they did not use it as frequently as Obama's campaign until much later in the general election - though many would say this failure in their social networking strategy may have been a result of the fact that McCain won the Republican candidacy earlier and did not feel the need to develop such tools.

Now for many of you, far savvier and knowledgeable in using social media, the clear lesson here is persistence in my view; the constant outreach across not one but multiple platforms to reach the widest audience possible. From my perspective the campaign's effectiveness in ongoing and constant outreach was unlike anything I've ever seen. Naturally there was a tremendous interest in this election year. But at any time that I would go online there was never a moment when I did not see some site that would link to one of their blog posts, link to a new video update, as well as their constant email after email informing their community members of the latest and greatest available online. It was deafening in my opinion.

As marketers we all have developed a sense of consumer fatigue, how much is too much; but what social media has clearly demonstrated is that rather than worrying if its too much, we must worry about if its enough. The tools available at hand give individuals every ability to control the flow of information, but even if they restrict it, what can be worse than when there is a moment they do come to your site, your online community, or any other effort, and nothing is fresh or new for them to interact with? It's a worry I have and face daily in order to build up and create the type of interactions that are necessary for an overall positive experience. This election year, watching how the campaigns played out online, clearly demonstrates the power of social networks to bridge demographics and create the the relevant associations to a political brand. Through the interconnections across these platforms, they then expanded their reach even to individuals who may not directly associate themselves to a campaign, but nevertheless were reached.

It's an ideal scenario for sure, one we all can learn from, and I'm sure will be dissected for months to come. This is just my own two cents, but one I felt worth sharing. I'm curious to see commenters thoughts and perspectives on the use of social media in the campaigns - though I ask that let's keep any heated political discussions to a minimum.


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