Can Herman Cain Turn Viral Gold Into Real Cash?

GOP Presidential Hopeful's New-Media Chief on the Candidate's Strategy Going Forward

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Former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain was a long shot in the Republican presidential race until last month, when he won the Florida straw poll. Today, polls suggest he's neck-and-neck with Mitt Romney and pulling ahead of Rick Perry.

Herman Cain, right, with his new-media chief, Michael Johnson
Herman Cain, right, with his new-media chief, Michael Johnson
While pundits speculate about whether Mr. Cain is a flash in the pan, he's become something of a viral phenomenon. According to Experian Hitwise, 55.4% of traffic to GOP hopefuls' sites went to his page on the week ending Oct. 15, and data gathered by political agency Engage shows that Mr. Cain is dominating the conversation on Facebook, with 41% of chatter about the Republican field centered on him on Oct. 18, compared to 19% for Mr. Romney. But he trails the establishment candidates in fund-raising, taking in $2.8 million during the third quarter that ended on Sept. 30, according to Federal Election Commission filings, compared to Mr. Romney's $14 million and Mr. Perry's $17 million.

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Advertising Age spoke with Mr. Cain's director of new media, Michael Johnson, who joined the campaign in January after working for the Wisconsin chapter of the political advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, a major backer of Republican candidates in 2010, which itself is backed by the Koch brothers.

Mr. Johnson discussed how his candidate's likability (which he terms "the Hermanator effect") and 9-9-9 plan to overhaul the tax code have helped generate social buzz, and how he hopes the imminent ramp-up in online political ads will boost his candidate's coffers.

Ad Age : At what point did you notice Mr. Cain was going viral? Did any pieces of content go crazy with engagement?

Michael Johnson: [Mr. Cain's] got a very viral element to him just because of his personality. Of course, Sarah Palin is in a stratosphere of her own as far as messages being taken and people talking and chatter. But I would say that South Carolina really showed me -- back in the beginning of the summer when that first debate was, when he performed so well -- just the potential there and how quickly we could move messages and how responsive people were online to Herman Cain.

Ad Age : Did you notice a bump in the online conversation after that debate?

Mr. Johnson: Absolutely. We bumped up in followers on Twitter and Facebook, and we weren't even doing a hard push or any ads online. And that 's also been the spike in the past couple of weeks. We've done some online advertising through Facebook and other avenues, but really it's that peer-to-peer aspect of people telling their friends.

Ad Age : Does the 9-9-9 plan play into making him a viral candidate?

Mr. Johnson: Absolutely. Mitt Romney's 59-point plan can't fit in a tweet, but Herman Cain's can. Of course, on the flipside, it's very easy for someone to post about 9-9-9 in the negative aspect because it is so short.

Ad Age : Now that Mr. Cain is in front of the pack, does it change how you're steering the online conversation?

Mr. Johnson: It's a little bit different because we have to now arm our people with more of a knowledge set rather than just allowing them to talk about [Mr. Cain] as a person and as a candidate. It's more, "OK, these are the issues, and this is the meat and potatoes of Herman Cain."

Ad Age : How have you approached video on your YouTube channel?

Mr. Johnson: If you see some of the other candidates, they [have] either attack ads against other candidates, attack ads against Obama himself or just trying to show that dark side of what people are feeling in America right now where things are kind of falling apart. We can focus on that , and we do in some of the videos coming up. But the main focus is that American spirit.

Ad Age : Do you think you'll buy Twitter ads?

Mr. Johnson: Anything's possible. I've been monitoring some of the other candidates who have done it and trying to see what the impact has been. I know Romney started using them two debates ago, which is why he's second to Gingrich as far as followers on Twitter. ... My focus is not always to be the No. 1 person on Twitter, the No. 1 person with followers on Facebook, but it's making sure that those people translate to boots on the ground and then votes.

Ad Age : The Iowa caucus is around the corner. Can you talk about the role online ads will play vs. more traditional channels?

Mr. Johnson: I'm biased toward online advertising because I think you get a lot more bang for your buck. I can tell you it's going to be a lot more targeted over the next couple of weeks and months.

Ad Age : Targeted toward the early-primary states?

Mr. Johnson: The primary states, but also key demographics. Those people that we see as potential Herman Cain supporters or voters.

Ad Age : The campaign raised $2.8 million in the third quarter. How does that affect your thinking?

Mr. Johnson: It's a dual focus over the next couple of weeks and months. It's increasing that name ID, but then also trying to raise money off of the ads. And we've done a little bit of that push online already as far as name ID ads [mostly search] and then also straight donation ads, which link to the "Donate" page on our website.

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