Obama’s election success is a victory for digital marketing

Barack Obama is not just America’s first black leader in waiting, he is the first digital, database marketing and social networking president

At the top of the list is, of course, the first African-American as president. As the front page of the New York Times declared on November 5/ “Obama – racial barrier falls in decisive victory”. But he’d also be the first mixed race president or, as some others have pointed out, the first Hawaiian president. But the astounding and unlikely success of the Obama campaign by a one-term senator virtually unheard of just four years ago is being noted by others as a victory for the first “marketer” president.

In fact, to describe Obama as a marketer president might not be doing justice to the power of his campaign, which harnessed 21st century technology and communications tools in a way few commercial marketing campaigns have succeeded in doing, let alone any previous US election campaigns.

You really could take your pick. Obama could be the first digital president, the first database marketing president, the first mobile marketing president, and the first social networking president. He was all of the above.

Early on in his campaign he enlisted help from one of the founding Facebook members, who worked with his campaign team in developing a network of young, energetic campaign staff up and down the country via the web. That online network also raised money to levels never seen before in US politics.

At last count the Obama campaign had a database of more than 3 million opted-in supporters and it had raised over $600m (£400m) – a mind-boggling figure even in cash-rich US presidency races.

It was this bottom-up marketing approach to campaigning for the nation’s highest office – probably with some skills learned in his days as a community organiser – that helped the president-elect overturn the Clinton political machine in the Democratic primaries and John McCain in the national election.

Early signs are that the Obama team intends to continue with this approach and build on the strengths and goodwill that they have earned over 20 months of campaigning. The BarackObama.com website which was the hub around which the national reach-out was built has been succeeded by an Obama-Biden transition website at www.change.gov. Anyone who’s interested in working with the Obama administration can apply through the site by filling in an “expression of interest” form.

Political observers are predicting that this president will be able to use the communications skills he has developed to have more frequent two-way conversations with citizens, checking in with Joe The Citizen on their Facebook or MySpace page and having fireside chats via YouTube.

“Senator Barack Obama understood that you could use the web to lower the cost of building a political brand, create a sense of connection and engagement, and dispense with the command and control method of governing to allow people to self-organise to do the work,” said one interviewee in the New York Times this week.

Obama, who had already been recognised as the marketer of the year by the Association of National Advertisers and trade mag Advertising Age, didn’t just throw the millions of dollars he raised at buying TV advertising space. Though to be clear more money than ever was spent on advertising.

“Our challenge isn’t to scrape up enough money to buy TV time,” writes Seth Godin, marketing blogger and author of All Marketers Are Liars. “Our challenge is to make video interesting enough that we’ll choose to watch it and choose to share it.”

Other long-time brand marketers were impressed by the consistency of the Obama brand marketing, the fact that his message of “Change” never, well, changed.

The Republican candidate John McCain was roundly criticised by brand experts and political pundits from all sides because they said his message followed issues of the day rather than set the agenda. Some even said he had harmed the authenticity of his hard-earned “maverick” brand over the course of the campaign.

However, for an election as historic as this one McCain really was one of the few losers.

Traditional Media

Obama might be seen as the first digital president but thanks to his election, traditional media had its best few days in years. The New York Times issue mentioned earlier sold out very early the morning after election day. And even though the paper reprinted thousands of copies, readers had to queue round its midtown Manhattan offices to get a copy.

The November 5 issue of the NY Times is officially going for $14.95 on the NY Times website and up to $50 for the historic issue on eBay. Not bad for a newspaper industry that has been haemorrhaging jobs, losing sales and closing down titles in recent months.

Meanwhile, the big TV networks ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox also had a decent performance in viewer numbers on election night against their cable network news rivals including CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. But the networks’ ratings had a smaller share of the viewers from the last election in 2004.

Political satire got a very healthy boost thanks to McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential candidate. Though it might be more correct to say American satire got a boost because of Saturday Night Live actress Tina Fey’s dead-ringer impression of Palin. More interesting for marketers is the fact more people watched Fey’s impressions on NBC/News Corp-owned video site Hulu.com than on NBC.

Of course, with all the optimism, excitement and hope for the change of a new president on January 20, many realists are getting very concerned that what they had been willing to accept as a marked economic slowdown or recession could evolve into something much deeper and long-term.

There is a slight irony of electing a president who triumphed through his masterful handling of marketing and massive advertising spending at a time when corporate America will be taking an axe to its marketing and advertising budgets. None, but the most foolhardy marketers expect that their budgets will not be cut.

The prognosis looks very bad for most advertisers in the US, according to a bleak report from analysts at Citi last week. They have downgraded their forecasts for US advertising and now believe it will shrink by 3.6% next year.

“Because advertising campaigns are typically planned in advance, ad pullbacks and recovery can lag the economy,” says Citi. “If advertisers are unwilling to increase spend until the economy has begun to strengthen, which, according to Citi’s economists won’t happen until the fourth quarter of 2009, then an ad recovery could elude us until 2010.”

Citi forecasts a couple of bright spots in search marketing and online video. This should be seen as a call to back Google, which is not only the lead search engine but also owns YouTube, the leading online video site and the number two depository for search terms.

However, investors and experts now believe that even mighty Google will feel the pain of a slowing economy, and several analysts have cut back their revenue and profit expectations for the year ahead.

Google chief executive Eric Schmidt, who supported Obama and has been involved in providing economic advice for the president-elect’s transition team, told cable business channel CNBC that many companies panic and cut their marketing spends at exactly the time they should focus on winning customers during a downturn. “People will discover you need to advertise to make revenue,” said Schmidt.

Schmidt said he will not be leaving Google to take a role as “technology tsar” with the new administration. As the US economic crisis seems to have no end in sight at present, the new administration would be helped by his technology know-how, but they could also do with some of his optimism. 

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