Hail the Twitterer-in-Chief

Learning from the methods that unlocked the White House

Learning from the methods that unlocked the White House

David MacGregor


Barack Obama made the jump from zero to the biggest brand in the world faster than Google—which is pretty fast. He raised a fortune from the American public and turned that into an advertising campaign that mauled his Republican rivals, and especially in the ‘battleground states’. While the television advertising campaigns effectively carpet-bombed resistance, more subtle munitions were deployed to win the hearts and minds of voters, especially those who were unsure or were traditionally indifferent to exercising their right to vote—the young, women, blacks and Hispanics and, presumably, young black and Hispanic women.

The Obama machine was not only brilliant at capturing the simple, single-minded message of Change with a capital C wrapped in Hope with a capital H, but also positioning of Obama as an unflappable messiah, heir to the Kennedy mystique and living, breathing manifestation of Martin Luther King’s dream. Better still, he was the un-Bush, everything the 43rd President was not—the antidote to the antecedent.

For the first time in US history, a presidential candidate disintermediated himself with aplomb from the conventional media fetters of television and the press. His campaign spoke directly to constituents through social media networks like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. (Twitter, if you’re not yet with the programme, is a network that distributes messages of up to 140 characters across the web and mobile devices.) Obama is the world’s leading Twitterer with the most followers in his network.

By going direct to the audience Obama was able to overcome the mainstream media’s tendency to bait and create distracting tabloid issues such as John McCain’s age and Sarah Palin’s hokey hockey mom-ism. He won the election online.

There have to be lessons for marketers. The key is mobilising the audience. Successful marketing gets people to do things—to repeat or change their behaviour in favour of your brand or idea. It does not set out with the intention of simply creating awareness or entertaining with ‘creative ideas’.

Of course, social media and marketing fits nicely with the convention that ‘the consumer owns your brand’. The avenues for them to participate and engage are broad—from referring your products to demonstrating their affections in spontaneous (and, admittedly, sometimes unpredictable) ways.

While TV is still a powerful force for reaching a wide audience, in New Zealand it’s comparatively expensive. Obama’s YouTube channel attracted over 18 million visitors, with no additional cost for longer durations (compared to the US$4 million he spent on a half-hour infomercial in broadcast airtime). The combination of email, Facebook and Twitter enables an interconnected series of channels that multiply in effectiveness as they grow.

The cost of content online is also a lot lower than broadcast TV. Video for YouTube doesn’t require the ‘production values’ associated with hi-definition TV, as it won’t be competing with big budget shows for attention. A simpler approach can also be less standoffish and more engaging.

Social media lets people get involved. The famous ‘Yes We Can’ video on YouTube wasn’t made by the Obama campaign, but by hip-hopper who produced it and uploaded it onto the web himself.

Social media allows you to engage in a conversation with your constituents and to hear what they have to say about your products and services versus making illuminated pronouncements from on high.

But there is a caveat. Obama was clear about his goal—the keys to the White House. If you are going to use social media as a part of your marketing, you still must apply thought to what your objectives are. Who will help you accomplish them? And what messages will resonate?

Social media in and of itself is not a magic bullet. McCain had a respectable 600,000 friends on Facebook and his teams were no slackers. It may be that the battlefields have simply changed. In using social media, Obama chose to fight the campaign in familiar terrain; the Republicans were still scouting new territory.

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