How President Obama Used Social Media To Win Friends And Influence A Generation
We all know the role social media has played in movements around the globe. From the streets of Egypt, to the hand-held videos of Tunisia, to the gallop of a Korean pop star named Psy. So where have the digital winds of change blown stiffest?
Look no further than the US.
In 2008, then candidate Barack Obama introduced a social media operation that was nothing short of a work of art. Whether his brain trust was initially aware of it or not, they had tapped into the digital consciousness of a collective populous. Some viewed social media as a fad, David Axelrod and crew saw it as the purest form of communication since the town square.
Four years later, Facebook has gone from being a curiosity, to an international obsession. In 2012, President Obama could no longer count on the element of surprise. Governor Mitt Romney had a digital team with years of planning under their belts. They were “at parity” with Obama’s operation, Zac Moffatt, Romney’s digital director boldly proclaimed. Now that the campaigns have receded into historical footnotes, and the final votes have been tallied, it’s time to assess just where Mr. Moffat went wrong.
There are three basic pillars in social media. Be authentic, be responsive, and be adaptive. Simple, right? All you really have to do is be real. Real is waking up in the morning and giving the alarm clock a dirty look. Real is a high-five after a game winning touchdown. Real is a lot of things, but it is most certainly not a TV commercial.
The biggest folly one can make is treating social media as another marketing tool, when it is in fact an avenue of communication. It’s strangers in a bar swapping stories. It’s a family reunion. It’s a first date that you hope blossoms into a long-term relationship, rather than a short-term fling. If traditional media is a voice talking to people, social media is a conversation between people.
To his credit, Governor Romney was quite proactive in staking his ground in the digital landscape. His campaign’s expenditures on Facebook ads dwarfed that of President Obama’s. If you did a search for “democrat”, “Obama”, “middle class” or just about any other hot button topic, there was Mitt Romney’s face smiling back from the right side of your screen. But, did we ever really get to know him? He told us where he stood on the issues, but politics is as close to authentic as Cleveland is to South Beach. It’s a world of plasticity and controlled messages. It’s a lot of things, but it’s certainly not a family picnic or corner bar.
The GOP did a far better job of introducing us to the Governor’s wife, Ann Romney, than the Governor himself. We got to know about her brave battle with MS. A Pinterest board allowed Mrs. Romney to share her favorite recipes and crafts. She showed family photos via Instagram. So what about Mr. Romney? His first person tweets clearly came from the hand of a staffer who possibly sort-of knew the Governor. In other words, they were as authentic as a street corner Rolax watch.
Responsive? Adaptive? Not so much. I got the sense that their campaign was sketched out on a dry-erase board, turned into a spreadsheet, then broken down by assignment. Sounds like the worst first date ever.
“The internet is a powerful thing, and not everyone is watching TV spots anymore, so we’re trying to use the web to our advantage the best way we can”, said the field general of Romney’s digital campaign. And that right there was their downfall. You don’t “use the web”, you become a part of it. Social media is not interchangeable with TV commercials. Social media does not belong to the seller, it belongs to the people. It’s a two-way conversation, not a dissertation. It’s a dialogue that allows for engagement, but doesn’t demand it. It’s a sneezing panda. It’s David at the dentist. It’s a meme about “binders full of women”. It’s organic, a testament to the fact that we’re all only a couple degrees removed from one another. If peer pressure aims to manipulate, Peer Power sets out to liberate. It allows you to become a part of something greater than yourself, a global community. Calling someone on the phone is a lot more effective than slapping a bumper sticker on it.
Even President Obama’s iconic “Hope” posters were crowd-sourced, created in the minds of others, not in a bullet-pointed email. Peer Power. Of the people, for the people, by the people.
So how effective was President Obama? Here are some numbers: According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, in 1996 a paltry 37% of eligible 18-29 year olds voted. In 2000, that number barely reached 41%. By 2012, thanks in no small part to the social network, exit polls indicate that, that number is set to top 53%, higher than any year since 18 year olds won the right to vote. All the while the rest of the population has shown-up to vote at a relatively steady rate. Such a mass influx can only be explained by a single unifying force. Peer Power. 60% of their votes were cast for President Obama, merely 37% went to Governor Romney. More than enough votes to tip the scales in nearly every single swing state.
The end result, for the first time in memory baby-boomer issues took a back seat, as 2012 saw the passage of legislation supporting gay-marriage, the legalization of marijuana, and the election of the first lesbian Senator, amongst other notable upsets.
Now the President is focusing his social media muscle on the fiscal cliff. Can he get his budget passed by harnessing the right combination of ire and inspiration? Only if he follows the principals that his own team forged. The conversation must flow both ways. After all, it’s not about amassing an army of millions of soldiers, it’s about motivating millions of generals, giving them the power of a collective purpose.
After all is said and done, the most spread image in the history of social media wasn’t a slogan, an attack ad, or a campaign promise. It was a simple picture of the President hugging his wife. It really doesn’t get more personal or authentic than that. The caption, “four more years”.