When White House staffer Jim Messina was tapped to manage President Barack Obama’s campaign for re-election in 2011, he approached the unbridled animal that is modern presidential politics not like prior election campaigns but, rather, much like he would have if he was leading an explosive start-up tech company. For that reason, instead of seeking the guidance of political stalwarts in Washington, Messina sought out the consultation from the technology industry’s most savvy business leaders at Microsoft, Zynga, and Facebook as well as the most successful figures in the field like Apple’s Steve Jobs and Google’s Eric Schmidt.
According to a profile on Messina in Bloomberg today, Obama’s campaign manager has read the tea leaves for the future of presidential politics as it shifts away from the practiced method of hammering millions of dollars down television channels and other advertising spaces (although don’t expect to be completely bereft of those TV ads this fall) and into a more complex network using online avenues like email, texts, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, and a myriad of other online communication services. To Messina, a successful election campaign can no longer depend solely on one or two channels of access to voters but must multitask the numerous and disparate communities of people to engage and impress them with the intent of converting followers and Likes into voters.
(Does this vernacular sound at all familiar? It will, just wait for it.)
Enrolling himself as a student in the scholastic program of Eric Schmidt wisdom, Messina absorbed the executive chairman’s knowledge about how to successfully build a brand in a difficult age of political apathy and über-capricious consumer interest.
“I said to [Schmidt], ‘You’ve done what I’m being asked to do,”’ Messina says. “He said, ‘Yes, I have. Let me sit down with you, and we’ll talk.’ For three hours we sat in a conference room, and he just gave me advice about all the mistakes he’d made, about purchasing supply chains, about HR, about the blocking and tackling of growing fast and making sure you have organizational objectives.”
“What I like about Jim,” Schmidt says, “is that he starts the day thinking, ‘What are the analytical measurements that I should make decisions on?’ Many people in politics have no concept of what I just said. They’re intuitive thinkers, and they’re often right. But the difference is that to run a large operation in today’s world, the best way to do it is analytically. And you have the tools now.”
In a curious way, Messina’s gamble that Obama’s re-election hinges on the viability of social media and building an online network of supporters in order to convert fans into voters isn’t unlike the very dilemma that corporate advertisers face with the potency of social advertising on sites like Facebook. He all but says so in the Bloomberg profile. The parable of a presidential campaign as a social advertising campaign could result in a lot more beyond who is sitting in the Oval Office for the next years – will demonstrate whether there truly is any credence to the concept of advertising on social media sites.
In a year when the cultural currents have been forcibly shifted by the power of social media, from the tidal push-back against bills like SOPA to the Susan G. Komen kerfuffle to Rush Limbaugh‘s slut-shaming to the video contagion that was KONY 2012, marketing a brand through social advertising can be effective. The difference in the examples listed above and something like a presidential campaign is that these candidates aren’t new, viral sensations; they’re established brands that we’ve been exposed to ad infinitum. Those aforementioned social media efforts that drove some of 2012’s more significant moments of online politics were essentially grassroots movements, which was one of the facets that Obama employed in his 2008 election. As Messina told President Obama about the direction of the 2012 campaign, though, this election would be completely different than the 2008 campaign because they’re attempting to machete through the online wilderness that is social media electioneering, and doing so as an established brand.
In other words, General Motors might want to pay close attention.
If Obama manages to win re-election based on the strength of social networking through online communities, corporate advertisers should take note as it will be a likely become a textbook case in how to manage a successful advertising campaign on social media (this is, of course, barring any global catastrophes or political meltdowns before November 6). If a sitting president with paltry approval ratings across the board can leverage his social media influence into turning out enough voters on Election Day to claim victory in spite of a financial disadvantage, it will herald the most significant study in the efficacy of social advertising to date. Obama’s reach on Facebook is said to be outpacing that of Republican Candidate Mitt Romney and the Federal Election Commission’s decision to permit political donations via text in this election year could add to Obama’s social media momentum. It could also demonstrate a new model of social commerce on a scale that has yet to be achieved.
However, if Romney’s war chest really is enough to negate the Obama campaign’s powerful engagement through social media, or if the Obama administration simply plays its social media cards wrong, then not only will the result yield a new presidential face in the National Portrait Gallery but will also perpetuate the on-going confusion on just how to really implement social advertising for an significant level of success.