Monday, December 1, 2008

Barack the Vote: Social Media and the Internet in the 2008 Presidential Election

Last Saturday, my colleague Alex and I had the opportunity to attend the Election 2008 conference at the University of Southern California. The two panels we sat in on were entitled “Challenges for the New Administration and the Two Parties: POLITICO Editors and Reporters Look to the Future” and “Technology in Politics: How Campaigns Use the Internet to Talk to Voters.” Though the first was extremely interesting from a political perspective, the latter (and its focus on digital media) is what interested me most.

Over the past year, it was evident that online technology and social media played an integral role in the 2008 Presidential election, with some even claiming that the Internet won Barack Obama the election. Though I don’t personally agree with that bold claim, Obama’s use of the Internet and social media to mobilize and directly connect with supporters certainly helped.

What Obama Did Right

During the 2008 Election, Obama used social media in ways no other candidate ever has. Obama had a Facebook fan page with more than 3.2 million fans (Michelle also has her very own fan page), and a Facebook application with 164,551 subscribers. He had a MySpace page with more than 1 million friends. He even created his own social network, Some 3.2 million supporters donated to the Obama campaign through an excellent, well-maintained Web site. He had a Twitter account and tweeted frequently, ultimately becoming the single most followed entity on Twitter. His campaign launched an iPhone application (something that panelist Becki Donatelli admitted the McCain campaign was quite jealous of). He even announced his pick of Vice President via text message. Yes, now President-elect Barack Obama has made social media part of his everyday life (even post-election, when he took his weekly address online.)

It is clearly evident that times are changing - not only in Presidential campaigning, but in our overall media consumption habits as well. I credit Obama for thinking a few steps ahead of the rest, being the first Presidential candidate to launch a truly integrated campaign (and get it right). As one of the panelists on the above mentioned Election 2008 technology panel stated - Obama didn’t invent the technology; he simply perfected it.

What McCain Missed

Though some attribute McCain’s loss to his lack of engagement with technology, personally I don’t think it was his lack of using the technology (he did, after all, have a Facebook fan page, a MySpace page, and a Twitter account, to name a few); it was more a matter of his objective (which, unlike Obama seemed to be a means to an end instead an end itself). We heard it in nearly every public speech and interview made - “McCain has the experience” - and along with his experience in office, he also has more experience campaigning, even being directly involved in the 2000 race for the Republican Presidential nomination against George W. Bush. Though he lost the race, he did learn a lot about campaigning in the process, taking those lessons and applying them to the race in 2008. However, McCain seemed to have taken the wrong lesson out of 2000, focusing more on the end result (ie, media relations and generating positive press coverage) and not enough on connecting directly with supporters.

Obama, on the other hand, brought excitement to the grassroots approach. To him, it was important to go straight to the people, not the media, and the Internet served as a key player in helping him do so.

Will TV ads (and traditional media) become obsolete?

The recent hype around Obama’s use of online and social technologies makes this question seem more real then ever - will TV ads become obsolete in future elections, being replaced solely by online initiatives? While some think yes, a few of the panelists surfaced an interesting perspective - offline ads help drive people online.

Take a look at the sheer numbers - TV ads are not becoming irrelevant anytime soon, and candidates are still focusing heavily on paid advertising (in addition to his online initiatives, Obama also bought half-hour primetime segments on CBS and NBC less than a week before the general election, for example). TV ads may be diminishing in importance, but it will be a long time before they completely go away. However, the panelists pointed out that now, we are seeing more of an online/offline plan. Online and social technology and traditional media serve completely different purposes - the Internet is used to activate the base and raise funds, then the money raised is being used to get people sitting at home on their couches to go online. It is now vital to synchronize both and integrate into one solid campaign.

Looking ahead to 2012/16

During the conference, one panelist made the bold claim that by 2016, campaigns will no longer exist in brick and mortar buildings; instead, they will exist solely online. Though traditional advertising will still play a dire role in campaigns, social media will become increasingly important to candidates seeking election as it becomes more mainstream. Due to both advances in technology and a growing number of media outlets for people to choose from, it will become vital for candidates to have a short, buttoned-up message.

Moving forward, Presidential candidates won’t be the only ones to use social media in campaigns; candidates at the local level will begin to jump on board as well. Campaigning via social media is cheaper, more effective, and easier to mobilize a core group of constituents to act.

Last, technological advances like TiVo and XM Radio have empowered consumers to choose what information they want to receive. Often, the casual constituent (or as Joel Benenson calls them, the “Up-for-Grabs” voter) doesn’t hear political messages via TV and radio ads; they hear about them through YouTube videos or e-mails and SMS videos forwarded by their friends. It is now important for candidates to broadcast their message across as many different channels, in as many different ways as possible to reach that casual constituent.

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