Obama's Rivals Should Steal From His Social Playbook

Web Strategy Forges Deep, Wide Connections

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Today's web and the new media that underpin it are known for the ability to create instant sensations. From Digg's social news to CareerBuilder's Monk-e-Mail campaign, companies can advance from zero to 20 million viewers practically overnight. The viral nature of this highly social, user-driven environment enables complete strangers to connect over common beliefs, desires or interests and together create winners and losers. It empowers both the individual and collective voice. And isn't that what a presidential election is all about?
Obama-Clinton-McCain
Photos: Sharkpix/Gamma/Jonathan Alcorn

Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain

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Candidate Comparison
Rallies, debates and broadcast advertising -- traditional campaign-push marketing vehicles -- are becoming less effective at engaging the masses. A provocative and poignant new-media strategy can elevate a candidate's position. Combine that with packaging similar to an iPod or Nike Plus running shoe and you have the opportunity for a candidate's message to go viral.

Political commentators believe Barack Obama is more popular with web surfers because his followers are younger, and young people are more likely to use blogs, social networks and other new media. That may be true, but it's far from the only reason he's faring well. Obama's campaign is immersed in his audience's experience. He meets his audience where they already go on the web, and his message of "change" is packaged in a clear and consistent manner, much like the best consumer products.

Candidates must put create interactive, personal and engaging Web marketing if they want to affect the conversations on the web. These conversations can affect voting decisions much as they can alter consumer purchasing behavior. So far, only Obama has shown real skill at building community. And it's having an effect.

But the numbers alone don't tell us everything. Obama has made substantial efforts toward reaching the broadest audience on the web with campaign pages on numerous third-party social sites and branded microsites dedicated to different ethnic and age groups. He has an e-book and YouTube videos that aren't just repurposed content and commercials. One Obama video is a personal talk with listeners that makes it seem as if he's sitting in their living rooms. He offers downloadable widgets, logo buttons, videos and posters, as well as wallpaper and cellphone ringtones. When you look at the details, Obama has a far-reaching strategy.

Clinton is increasing her presence on the web with information hubs and microsites dedicated to specific voter groups. McCain's campaign has employed a minimalist, new-media approach. Although McCain has added a branded social site called McCainSpace, it is unclear how many people it has attracted. Both of these campaigns fall short of drawing large, passionate audiences. The fact is that their messaging has changed over time, leaving Americans confused about what the candidate stands for. Although they both are implementing basic new-media features, without a clear, differentiating message, the results are lacking.

Obama's message of change has taken hold in voters' minds. And owning a word in your audience's minds is marketing's holy grail. His focused message speaks to voters' hearts, helping his followers to become passionate advocates. IPhone owners choose Apple because style is important to them and they want to look good to their friends. Consumers buy Nike Plus running shoes because they want to be part of a bigger running community. Apple and Nike are selling emotion and life experience. Barackobama.com asks visitors to "believe" and "make a difference," which has the same objective. And it's certainly changing campaign results.

What word does Hillary Clinton own in voters' minds? Her website hollers "Clinton for president." What about John McCain? His simply states "The story of John McCain." These candidates are marketing their entire personal, professional and political history. Just imagine the Apple iPod box with every possible feature, function and technology listed. It would lose its cool.

Hillary Clinton and John McCain, take note. More than 73% of American adults are online. More than half of Facebook users are over 35 years old. Your followers are on the web -- if only you knew how to reach them.
Denise Shiffman is principal of Venture Essentials, a marketing-innovation consultancy. She is author of "The Age of Engage: Reinventing Marketing for Today's Connected, Collaborative, and Hyperinteractive Culture."