Lessons From the Campaign Trail

Businessweek’s Catherine Holahan writes this week about the big lead Barack Obama has built against John McCain in online visibility. While I’m not going to declare a preference for either candidate, I do think it’s worth noting the lessons marketers can learn from the Obama campaign’s success.

Political campaigns have long been about the 30-second television spot. Candidates staked their reputations and their success on a series of carefully crafted (and very expensive) image ads that ran in key markets. The high cost of this approach forced campaigns to bet everything on strategic media buys.

The Obama campaign has challenged this conventional wisdom. While the 30-second spot still has its place, it isn’t with the emerging population of young voters. When young people do watch TV, it’s rarely in prime time and they are usually fast-forwarding through the commercials. Perhaps one reason this group has become so politically disenfranchised in recent elections is that no one is reaching them on their terms.

The Obama campaign, however, has figured it out. Its innovation has been in understanding that mainstream media is no longer the bottleneck of communication. When candidates — or marketers — use all the media channels available, they can create significant impact without relying on traditional media or advertising at all.

The numbers cited by BusinessWeek are impressive. The Obama campaign decided at the outset to leverage every possible channel to reach its audience and to take every possible opportunity to drive home its message. The candidate is essentially broadcasting every waking minute. When Obama gives a speech, a staffer videotapes it and uploads it to YouTube. When the candidate is in the car, aides are delivering messages on Twitter. Between campaign stops, the candidate conducts chats on MySpace or distributes position papers on his own social network.

The cost of these activities is next to nothing and the young audience they reach has been almost completely ignored by other campaigns. Perhaps more importantly, the Obama strategy has centered on frequent repetition, which is a classic marketing best practice. Instead of waiting for the media gods to bestow attention upon the candidate, the candidate chooses to become the media.

What can marketers learn from this? For one thing, you are no longer a prisoner of the media. You can become the media. Secondly, if you choose a strategic combination of channels and then deliver messages consistently and frequently, you can get better results than by renting a half minute on TV once a week.

Finally, the Obama campaign has demonstrated the beauty of small markets. When you aggregate the candidate’s 43,000 Twitter followers, 60,000 YouTube subscribers, 1.1 million Facebook friends, 21,000 MySpace friends and 850,000 members of, you’re quickly over 2 million followers, each of whom has volunteered for that status. If you can convince each one of those people to spread the word to three others, well, you do the math.

Four years ago, the Howard Dean campaign tried to leverage the Internet to run a grass-roots campaign and fell short. There were several reasons for that, but lack of tools was one of them. Today, the problem is how to choose from the bounty of tools that are available. The Obama campaign demonstrates that word-of-mouth campaigns can open a whole new world of possibilities.