Forget all the jibber-jabber in this presidential campaign about policy and strategy. The highlight for me of this election cycle came when the Obama campaign released its Spotify playlist a couple of weeks ago.Perusing the list of songs Barack Obama supposedly likes on the social music service, I saw that “Roll With the Changes” by REO Speedwagon was apparently among his favourites. Knowing the candidate likes this song, the staple of so many of my seventh-grade air guitar fantasies, pretty much clinched my vote for him.
OK, I’m kidding.
But the fact that Obama’s campaign took the time to assemble a Spotify playlist is an example of how the use of social media has shifted and dramatically expanded from 2008. Yes, the use of social media was a big part of the narrative of that election. But the extent to which campaigns are using social and digital media in this campaign is going to make the 2008 election look like the social media Dark Ages.
“In 2008, social media was an auxiliary component of the campaign,” said Zac Moffatt, digital director of the Mitt Romney campaign. “Now it’s integrated into the core concept of how the campaign will reach people. We have moved away from the mindset that the website is the primary place where people will interact with the campaign.”
I spent time talking to campaigns to better understand the new role of social media. The four years between the two campaigns is a good marker to
help appreciate just how quickly social and mobile media continue to evolve and reshape our digital lives.
Consider just the two biggies: Facebook and Twitter. Both are many magnitudes larger.
In August 2008, Facebook crossed the 100 million user mark. Today, it stands at 850 million and counting. Meanwhile, Twitter was a true novelty in 2008, a service just over 2 years old, used by a smattering of journalists, and boasting 6 million users.
Today, Twitter reportedly has 500 million users, and is a staple of news coverage. At the same time, the size of these two incumbents hasn’t slowed the proliferation of new social networks.
As if that weren’t enough to master, toss in a smartphone revolution. Back in 2008, the iPhone had been on the streets only about one year and the app economy was just emerging.
Remember how hip Obama seemed obsessing over his beloved BlackBerry? Such a device would draw snickers today, and smartphone adoption has exploded. And of course, the iPad was just a twinkle in Apple’s eye back then.
The differing social media strategies thus far of the Romney and Obama campaigns help illustrate the challenges and opportunities.
With the luxury of having no primary opponent and more resources, the Obama campaign has been leaving no social media stone unturned. Of course, the campaign is focused on Facebook and Twitter and YouTube.
But the campaign is also posting photos to Instagram, sharing songs on Spotify, spreading stuff on Tumblr and has hosted a Google+ “Hangout.”
Unlike 2008, when the campaign might have cut and pasted the same information in different places online, it must now figure out which content and conversations resonate on each platform while allowing the potential voters to feel like they are connecting with real people.
“If we strike the right notes, then all these people have the power to do the work for us,” said Teddy Goff, digital director of the Obama campaign. “But it’s also risky. Because if we are not authentic on those things, people will not just tune out, they will tweet about how they are tuning out.”
The campaign has also upgraded its website to better display on mobile browsers, while also rolling out iPhone and iPad apps.
Goff said in evaluating each platform, the campaign tries to understand how each can help with its three main goals: persuading voters, recruiting volunteers and raising donations. To that end, the campaign is still taking a hard look at Pinterest, trying to understand whether there is any benefit to jumping on social media’s latest hot thing.
“We’re not interested in being snazzy and innovative for the sake of being innovative,” Goff said.
Moffatt said his camp is taking a different approach for the moment, focusing more on the three big platforms, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
The campaign had a big success when it released its jobs plan on Twitter, offering a free copy on Kindle for people who re-tweeted the link. The plan was a top 10 download on Kindle for a week.
For now, the campaign has no apps and offers a stripped-down version of its main website on mobile browsers. And it’s holding off on other platforms for now, even though Romney’s wife, Ann, has jumped on Pinterest. “Ann’s way ahead of me on this one — check out her Pinterest page here http://pinterest.com/annromney,” Romney tweeted last week.
Alexander Howard, a Government 2.0 correspondent for O’Reilly Media, said he’ll be watching to see how effective all these social strategies are. In 2008, despite the hype around social networking, good old technologies like email and text messages probably had more impact on turnout and fundraising.
“I think Facebook and Twitter got them a lot of attention in 2008, but I’m not sure it really converted into votes,” Howard said. “That’s what I want to see in these campaigns. Getting clicks and followers is fine. But can they turn them into votes?”
Contact Chris O’Brien at 415-298-0207 or [email protected] Follow him at Twitter.com/obrien and read his blog posts at www.siliconbeat.com.
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