Before joining Ketchum earlier this year, Jonathan Kopp was part of the team at integrated marketing agency SS+K that engineered the successful youth campaign that helped drive President Barack Obama to victory. That campaign relied heavily on social and other digital media, and its impact was in not only getting messages out to a target audience, but also welcoming this influential audience to share their own messages in support of the Obama brand. Here, Kopp shares some key learnings from his work on the Obama campaign and talks about their applications for corporate communications.
What Corporate Marketers Can Learn from the Obama Campaign
By Jonathan Kopp, Global Director, Ketchum Digital
One of the keys to President Obama's victory was the campaign's groundbreaking social marketing movement, which used both traditional and nontraditional media. The campaign defined the Obama brand early, maintained a consistent message, and invited everyday people to be a part of the brand. The role of digital media in the process was indispensable.
Here are six lessons about the way the campaign used digital media and some thoughts on how tools and tactics can be applied for corporate brands:
Lesson One: A social networking site was a powerful complement to the campaign's official Web site.
The Obama campaign benefited greatly from both its Web site, BarackObama.com, and an opt-in social networking and community organizing engine, MyBarackObama.com (MyBO). They were the two MVPs of the campaign. The Web site offered useful top-down content, such as news releases, speeches, position papers and volunteer opportunities, while MyBO served as a way to communicate ideas and connect people based on their interests and locations. Importantly, MyBO – which was designed by one of the founders of Facebook – didn't just deliver information. It encouraged and facilitated people taking action to help the candidate, such as making phone calls to voters, hosting house parties and donating money. It offered a way for people to be involved in the campaign both online and offline.
In addition to their corporate Web sites, companies and brands also can use online communities to connect consumers around their products or issues related to them. Already, some brands offer sites where consumers can share information and advice, rather than just receive information from a company. Such sites also can be used to facilitate volunteer activities or encourage attendance at local events and promotions.
Lesson Two: Relentless e-mail blasts kept supporters connected to the campaign.
The campaign used e-mail to drive fundraising, capture data, and to reach out directly to voters to rally support throughout the campaign. These frequent, opt-in e-mail messages had the effect of making people feel connected to Obama and to the greater movement. They also personalized politics in an unprecedented manner by delivering messages not only from the candidate and his campaign manager, but also from his wife, his running mate and his running mate's wife. At the same time, the campaign was always careful to balance the e-mail blasts between "frequent" and "too much" to avoid overwhelming audiences.
In the same way, companies can personalize consumers' and other stakeholders' connections to their brands. Opt-in e-mail blasts can keep customers informed of new products, product enhancements or other relevant news. They can even be used to communicate directly to stakeholders when issues and crises arise, and to capture data for consumer research.
Lesson Three: Paid search and search engine optimization were important elements in online advertising.
Obama outspent McCain 10-to-1 in online advertising, including click-through banners and boxes and videos, and his cash advantage enabled him to target messages to different constituencies around issues such as healthcare and the economy. Paid search and search engine optimization enabled the campaign to promote the candidate even when Internet users were not specifically looking for information about the election.
Search engines are the most frequently used sites on the Internet, and many companies already use search engine optimization to direct consumers to their Web sites. Companies and brands should carefully consider ways to get the most out of both SEO and paid search. For instance, a company faced with undue criticism or false information about its brands can employ search to directly deliver accurate information to individuals who are looking for information related to the topic. Or a mattress retailer can target ads to consumers who are looking for information about buying a new bed. Tools such as Ketchum's Search Matters can even predict what topics consumers will be searching during a given time — enabling brands to stay ahead of market trends.
Lesson Four: Text messaging was an invaluable tool for gathering data.
Text messaging was a critical element in helping the campaign reach a young, mobile audience. In fact, the campaign's database ballooned when it publicized that the candidate's choice for vice president would be announced via text messaging. Even the short code (62262) was a strategic piece of communication: It spelled O-B-A-M-A on the cell phone's alphanumeric keypad. Supporters also could use their mobile phones to voice their concern about particular issues, such as the war in Iraq, in response to outdoor, video-projection billboard messages. And the campaign later was able to send text messages directly to individuals to help drive voter registration and turnout on Election Day.
Brands can use text messaging to drive participation in contests and promotions as well as to gather quick feedback on existing products or changes that consumers would like to see. Highly mobile consumers who may not take the time to complete a survey can send a text message in less than a minute. Twitter offers similar speed of communication and is a great way to personalize corporate and brand communications and build conversations with the public. If used as a promotional device, Twitter also can drive revenue.
Lesson Five: Open source activity was a major asset.
Some of the most memorable activity in support of the Obama campaign didn't come from the campaign at all. It came from unaffiliated individuals who created artwork, music and videos that took on lives of their own, both online and offline. Rather than try to control or compete with those outside efforts, the campaign encouraged, and even equipped, fans to express support in their own ways. For instance, the campaign's "O" logo was animated and reinterpreted for numerous constituent groups, from students to environmentalists to gay and lesbian organizations to various ethnic groups. Not only did unregulated, open-source activity allow groups to show support for Obama, but the fact that the campaign did not oppose or try to compete with the activity made the groups feel supported by the candidate.
Companies are naturally protective of their brands. But in the Web 2.0 world, the best way to protect brands may be to welcome and encourage consumer involvement with them. Young people, especially, don't accept brands as static things; they feel free to re-imagine them. Companies should use the Web to make it easier for consumers to provide feedback and suggestions and even to share brand news and information with others. Enabling consumers to feel more connected to your brand also will develop brand advocates who may be motivated to defend the brand when negative news arrives. For instance, the campaign had dissenters as well as supporters on MyBO; we accommodated them for a more authentic conversation and to empower supporters to respond, too, offering third-party validation.
Lesson Six: Microtargeting was an essential way to get into the conversation.
Conversation about the campaign was happening on the Internet. Since the campaign couldn't control the conversation, it simply engaged in it. One way to do that was microtargeting — speaking to different audiences in ways that showed that the candidate related to them. For instance, when we created ads for Barack Obama to speak to youth, we had him speaking to a webcam. It was another way to show that Obama understood the ways that young people communicate.
Similarly, by marrying macro brand messages with micro customization, corporate communicators can draw in niche audiences. Customizing conversations for specific audiences enables brands to introduce their points of view in ways that people will more readily listen to. For instance, Levi's recently launched a global branding campaign called "Go Forth," which focuses on the theme of the American pioneer and targets men ages 18 to 33. To complement traditional advertising done by Weiden+Kennedy, Ketchum created a guerilla campaign on Craigslist across U.S. markets that provided a modern take on Antarctic explorer Ernest Shakleton's legendary classified ad seeking brave men for hazardous work and low wages. The ad has already generated thousands of unique visitors to the "Go Forth" Web site, and the campaign is still underway. We also created and published a social media release and provided blogger and online media relations.
On a final note, Barack Obama was a stellar candidate who represented the right change at the right time. But discipline on consistent communication strategy and messaging throughout the two-year campaign was critical to his success. The same is true in corporate marketing. To achieve that consistency, digital communication and offline activity must be integrated seamlessly – and from the beginning. Digital communication cannot be just a tactic or a bolt-on to a marketing campaign. It needs to be a part of the discussion during the strategic development phase and embedded in the core communications all the way through. Only then will a company truly harness the full spectrum of the digital space.