Campaign rewrites rules

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The most revolutionary number in a numbers-crazed presidential campaign turned out not to be the margin of victory, the size of the turnout or the number of electoral votes. It was 3.2 million.

That's how many people registered themselves as “friends” or “followers” of Barack Obama on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, MySpace and a dozen other social networks the campaign chose to spread its message.

The Obama campaign closed the loop on a revolution started but never completed by Howard Dean four years ago. It did it by understanding two important truths of the new-media world that every marketer should also grasp.

Truth No. 1: You are the media. Political campaigns have long been held hostage by television. Events didn't begin until the cameras arrived and candidates didn't stay long after they left. Success was built on image ads and a few memorable sound bites. Voters weren't the audience; the media were.

While the Obama campaign used TV to great effect, strate-gists also understood that technology makes it possible to deliver messages 24/7. So in the downtime between stops, staffers sent a continual stream of text messages, tweets and e-mail. Long before the TV cameras arrived, workers were capturing scenes on videotape for immediate upload to YouTube. TV was only one of many channels. That leads to the second great truth:

Truth No. 2: Go where the audience is. Teen-agers spend 60% less time watching TV than their parents and 600% more time online, according to the Arthur W. Page Society. The Obama campaign used this fact to energize the youth vote and to reach out to self-defined communities.

Barack Obama was a member of no fewer than 16 social networks encompassing anywhere from a few hundred to a couple of million “friends.” The numbers didn't matter; what mattered was that the candidate's presence in such youth-oriented communities as MySpace and YouTube as well as special-interest groups like BlackPlanet, AsianAve and Glee said something about who the campaign was trying to reach. The messages may not have varied much, but the discussions that surrounded them reflected the interests of each group.

Take these lessons to heart. You now have the capacity to take your message directly to your constituents without filters or friction. This is enormously empowering, so don't blow it by thrusting elevator pitches down people's throats. Talk to people about what matters to them.

Also, be aware that your constituents now want to talk to you on their terms. They've formed groups around topics that interest them, and they're challenging you to engage on their turf. Do it and you'll be rewarded with feedback and insight that you could never glean from one-way messages. You might even win by rewriting the rules—just like the Obama campaign did.

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