Online Social Media in Presidential Campaign Provides Tips to Marketers

Forget the lawn signs, campaign buttons and bumper stickers. The internet and more specifically, social networks are providing a compelling and persuasive platform for this year’s presidential candidates to lure and rally prospective voters.

Each day, thousands of supporters log onto social networks to talk about the presidential campaign and their candidates. The growing importance that networks play in connecting candidates with prospective voters will help define how people, brands and marketers tap social networks in the future.

Barack Obama’s campaign hired one of the Facebook founders to create a network that would allow his campaign staff to have conversations with people who typically don’t vote. Obama is popular among young people, and most credit his early adoption of online social networking. And, if his campaign is right in believing that talking with young people and engaging them in the political process will cause them to vote, then social media will have effectively changed and driven consumer behavior.

And John McCain’s camp, which has been criticized for slowly adopting social media strategies, is now taking steps to connect with constituents online. His campaign has tens of thousands of ambassadors on Facebook, Myspace and YouTube alone.

The power and influence of social networks is growing, and knowing how to use them to talk with people is essential to marketing ideas, people and products. For years, the communications industry has worked hard to carve an online place for their brands and products. Web sites alone have grown from 18,000 sites in August of 1995 to more than 106,875,138 Web sites in January of 2007, according to Netcraft, an Internet monitoring company.

Today’s marketers are well beyond creating static Web sites. Some of the big brands have embraced social media well and, like politicians, are vying for consumers online. For example, McDonald’s just introduced its new Southern Style Chicken Sandwich with a campaign that included video on YouTube. That video has been downloaded more than 200,000 times. Facebook fan and foe groups are forming around the sandwich, which was created suspiciously like fast food competitor Chick-Fil-A’s classic chicken sandwich.

Coke is using the online environment to build its brand with the creation of its own trademarked program called Coke Tag™. The program, a widget and Facebook application, allows people to aggregate various forms of content and share it by placing the widget on their Facebook pages, blogs and social networking sites.

Others brands haven’t fared so well. Starbucks, for example, touted its fair trade policies, which backfired online when consumers used the Internet to research and share the company’s less-than-perfect fair trade practices in social media forums, networks, blogs and news sites.

The biggest mistake a brand can make online is underestimating the power of consumers to seek the truth and see through an orchestrated public relations message.

The presidential campaign teams seem to get that. They have engaged young people and are talking with them every day. They are posting plans and position statements. They are building a support network and giving people information daily. That information is providing compelling content for real-time discussions and debate.

People are choosing their candidates online and wearing their social networks like campaign buttons. The candidate with the best social marketing strategy may very well win the election. But the jury is still out. Time will tell if young people will do what they haven’t done well in the past: line up to vote in November. You can be sure that marketers are watching.

By Mary Beth Popp, director of Brand PR at Eric Mower and Associates