Thursday, April 22, 2010

How President Barack Obama’s Use of Social Media in Campaigning Really Changed Politics

What are the true realities that can benefit business?
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I was asked recently by Andy Lopata, a colleague from Enfield, United Kingdom, to write a guest piece for his U.K. publication for an American political and business perspective on his updated 2008 article detailing U.S. President Barack Obama’s effective use of social media in his campaign. Andy is considered “One of Europe’s Leading Business Networking Strategists” by U.K’s The Financial Times and ”Mr. Network” by U.K.’s The Sun.

My first reaction after reading Andy’s original article was: I think we can all agree Obama changed politics forever by setting the bar for all future political candidates to strategize and effectively use social media in political campaigns. Obama was indeed the first politician to prove out the tremendous power of social media if used with a positive, individual interest, networking message strategy especially if appealing to voters younger than 30. His use of social media to solicit campaign contributions will be studied in-depth in higher education political science classes for years to come.

My deeper thoughts were: The fact that every post-Obama politician’s campaign must effectively use social media to win is not the 2010 follow up piece bigger picture story however. I believe the greatest impact of Obama’s powerful use of social media is in how social media as a tool is changing the face of politics and policy in general - not just in campaigning. Everyone learned by watching Obama including America’s citizens – the governed – the voters. And, many of the C-level in business took emerging 18-30 demographic marketing strategic note.

In reality, Obama didn’t just change politics by using social media – social media itself is what changed politics. Obama did change the momentum of his campaign with social media, but social media evolution and the world are not stagnant. The social media strategy and impact entente has grown tremendously in the last two years. I take nothing away from the brilliance of Obama’s campaign in 2008 and what his strategy was able to do – what his “first” innovative use of social media in a political campaign accomplished. The real story of how Obama’s campaign social media use changed politics is very simple in reality. He taught “the world” by stellar example the importance of its use as a tool in winning anything by creating buzz, momentum, connection, and image. The potential learned from examining his campaign is universal for all people and all business, not just by politicians or in politics.

The social media strategy tenants remain somewhat the same in 2010, but the participants; and therefore, the dynamics have evolved. Sticking to just the political environment for the example, in post-Obama campaign evolution, the political focus in social media use will not necessarily be on a politician’s campaign message, for no candidate will be able to tightly control their branding and messaging like Obama seemed to successfully do in 2008. The social media dynamics have evolved and become much more organized by citizens and corporations – the citizens are now in reality just as powerful as the politician’s press secretary and media relations today whether politics or the media like it or not. Even if the media controls the brand and message by only presenting a candidate in a positive light, ignoring any emerging negative factors, social media doesn’t allow this to go unchallenged as the only message people see or talk about anymore. Others now understand the strategy of social media universe and buzz creation.

This is the holy grail in business SMM today. Bloggers and social media platforms can be the medium for a business’ planned “grassroots” marketing campaign as well as a spontaneous, unplanned, unexpected, and genuine grassroots buzz around a company or product. And the negatives around a campaign or a product can grow just as rapidly too of course. When we add the high speed growth of social media users, especially amoung the over 30 demographic in just the last two years, we can only imagine the rocketry of social media exposure in 2-5 years from now.

As noted by Andy, Obama’s key tactics overcame the historic strengths of “old money”. Ironically, voters are now using Obama’s key tactics to overcome the “power of politicians” who ignore their expressed desires in passing unwanted legislation and more taxation. Now social media affords in reality a leveling agent for both political campaigning and debate playing fields in the political realm. In politics, these leveled playing fields allow for more accessibility, connection, and networking for the everyday, everyman participant; and these leveled fields are much more equal in several ways to a candidate’s political campaign team’s level. The everyman has the ability to have a political discussion that is person-to-person and person-to-group with an unlimited audience. This is true even if the everyman has no actual access to traditional media or no actual participation in televised candidate debates.

The citizen organizer has the ability to identify like-minded individuals; to create political consensus; to establish political allies; to provide information outside of the candidate’s controlled message; and to persuade others in supporting or not supporting a candidate. This is true whether we are talking about political campaigns or existing politicians – whether proposed bills or existing legislation. This is certainly a dynamic for business to study and to respond for consumer psychology success.

In 2008 an often minimized reality was the majority of the U.S. traditional media pushed Obama as their candidate due to their desire for an historic election for the most part. They controled the brand and messaging for him in the media with limited exception. They endorsed him, and the reality is the objectivity of the media in the U.S. is gone. The main stream media, most often liberally slanted, were effective at defining and controlling the Obama message for most Americans; yet today their position as the definer of what is to be accepted as “good” like Obama or “bad” like the Teal Party movement is severely waning due to much Obama buyer’s remorse with out of control spending, higer taxes, and larger deficit policy realities.

Social media now permits a pointing of people in a direction for news outside of information by the limited and possibly political philosophy controlled traditional news sources and the political candidate’s Internet networking. The citizen news directives can be more enthusiastic and dedicated as illustrated by my April 9 research snapshot of Twitter tweet counts of traditional news organizations versus just two citizen groups:


# of all Tweets as of 4/ 9/2010

Tea Party News 100,146

Obama News 13,829

Fox News Headlines 10,090

CBS News 7,185

CNN Breaking News 2,806

NBC News 2,791

ABC World News 1,317

BBC Breaking News 1,013

Social media is leveling the playing field in sharing news and getting the word out. In addition to being the notifiers and distributors of information, citizens are also the active producers and directors of news and political debate more and more. Citizens are using Obama’s tactic of a people-to-people media in a world that once only allowed point-to-mass media control. Social media users create real-time daily mini-newpapers on Twitter, Facebook, and the like with their thoughts and opinions as the daily headlines. And the readers of their mini-newpaper headlines can debate and discuss in real-time. Andy and I agree the power of Twitter in particular is its ability to establish a clear and conscice memorable communication message. Obama used this well in his campaign.

The political ramifications of social media, Twitter in particular, to the political and media governing status quo can not be underestimated. China and Iran have shut down the Internet during times of citizen uprising as a way to control information and message as well as opposition organization. They understand the power of social media in politics. During times of rebellion, they do not want like-minded individuals and groups to find each other, to communicate, to organize, and to participate as a like-minded force. Yet, we all saw how Twitter allowed a way to circumvent government and government controlled media quite effectively recently.

In the bigger picture, a vital point to consider is history and undisputed fact used to be established only by the winners and the powerful. The true political power of social media is history and fact are being written by everyone in real-time. The power of the Internet is this history by many observers and participants, even those without any political or media power, will remain forever. Youtube ensures the scripted and unscripted words as well as the campaign promises of all politicians (and company CEOs) will remain forever accessible to anyone with a computer.

The greatest impact of Obama and social media is the voter and the consumer took note of his effective tactics. For example, we are definitely in the social media political era that allows and encourages voters every day to get connected, network, and endorse or not. Voters voice their support or protest of just about everything – politicians, government policy, companies, and consumer goods and services. As noted earlier, social media brings like minded people together as allies As Andy mentioned in his original article, Obama was able to turn ‘me’ into ‘we’, and ‘I’ into ‘you’. Now citizens’ groups are using his techniques to do the same.

Again, sticking to the political realm for this example, on Facebook there are over 9,900 fan pages or groups related to a recent search on the simple keyword “political”. Many politicians and specific legislative issues have just as many or more opposition pages associated with them as supportive pages. There are many more Facebook fan page followers for voter issues than fan page followers for existing or campaigning politicians. There are many more people following PACs and pundits on Twitter than are following existing or campaigning politicians. (President Obama has the most Facebook fan followers and Twitter followers, but I think we can all agree that would be a given for any US President.) Ironically, Obama’s political success with social media may have made it tougher for politicians in some ways.

Voters and consumers now want a real seat at the table, and they know social media can easily facilitate this. As Andy perceived, people become most invested when they feel ownership in the process. The expectation of two-way participation and communication in politics (or consumer products) in real-time is an emerging and lasting dynamics with social media users whether they be voters or consumers. The days of politicians or business CEOs thinking the dynamic remains I talk, you listen, and you don’t question my message are over. The new dynamic is now you spoke, I listened; now you listen to me as I speak my experience and opinion - a two-way exchange and a more personal individual relationship is expected. Should a politician or business CEO ignore the two-way communication that social media fosters and voters and consumers expect, they will be viewed as out-of-touch and replaceable no matter how great the initial excitement, the strength of message, or the value of the product.

Solicitation and participation in two-way communication is the only way voter or consumer loyalty will be achieved and solidified. Those that facilitate a successful Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter campaign for their products and services that go viral are the winners in turning social media platforms into a positive return on investment and consumer base increase whether a politician or a company. Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty held his first Facebook town hall meeting March 31. It was well received, and it proved out to be a great use of social media to provide a real-time, transparent, economical, and interactive way to talk with voters. Maybe company CEOs or other senior staff should be doing the equivalent of town hall meetings for their company with consumers. This instills a sense of ownership and endorsement – one of Obama’s key campaign tactics. It is very interactive and can add a lot to the brand.

Politics and business are both in a “campaign” with consumers. There are lessons from the political realm that can easily be applied effectively to business. Companies can excel at using social media to bring together like-minded people that love their product and are a target market for their product. They can encourage proactive two-way participation and communication with their customers cementing loyalty to their company and their brand. When business comprehends that consumers are producers, directors, and have control over message to other consumers ultimately, they will add to their success by not only developing their message with consumers, but developing their real-time relationship with their consumers via social media. They will successfully establish that relationship only by accepting the new marketing paradigm components are information, consultation, and participation – and social media is the perfect platform.

It will be interesting to see how the political parties in the U.K. employ social media to reach the 18-30 demographic in the upcoming May General Election. It will be worth noting the involvement level of this demographic in the election process in 2010. Will it be the same as the youth involvement in Obama’s 2008 campaign? If so, social media will be validated in the U.K. as an undisputed legitimate marketing tool as it was, especially in the 18-30 market demographic, in the U.S. after Obama’s successful youth engagement. Business in the U.K. will follow political strategy tactics as business in the U.S. did. That may be how Obama really changed politics the most.

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