As we approach the final days of the U.S. presidential campaign, all the media attention shifts to the ground game: how many doors are knocked, and how many voters are mobilized in crucial swing states like Ohio. But while field organizing is essential in this closely contested race, the groundwork has been laid over many months by the campaigns’ digital operations.
Online outreach has enabled the candidates to raise vast sums of money, identify their supporters and likely supporters with precision, and leverage social networks to engage peer pressure (the more polite term from psychology is “social proof”) on their behalf. And though the campaigns’ digital efforts have received far less notice this time around compared to President Obama’s much-ballyhooed effort in 2008, businesses can still extract many important (and little-noticed) lessons from this year’s online contest.
Here are some of the most salient, which I discussed in a session I moderated last week at the Inbound Marketing Summit on “Digital Marketing in the Political Arena,” guest-starring Harvard Kennedy School professor Nicco Mele and fellow HBR blogger Michael Schrage, who recently wrote an astute piece about polling.
You can thrive on constraints. Everyone knows politics is a big money game. In fact, a recent New York Times article revealed that nearly $6 billion will be spent on this year’s election. But most of that money goes to high-priced television ads — and on every other front, campaigns are as cheap as they come. (On the presidential campaign where I served as spokesperson, we were forced to raise the pay of our field organizers midway through the campaign because it turned out we had been violating minimum-wage laws.) That’s why online media has been such a perfect match for the world of political campaigns: though it takes time and strategy, it doesn’t take much money. Just as Nancy Lublin suggested in her book Zilch: The Power of Zero in Business, corporations have a lot to learn from underfunded nonprofits, and the same is true of political campaigns. Great online efforts can thrive with creativity and brainpower, even sans capital.
Novelty fades fast. During the 1996 election cycle, campaigns could literally get media coverage because they had a website; it was that unusual. By 2000, there were glimpses of websites’ practical value, as when John McCain had a fundraising windfall in the days after his New Hampshire primary victory. In 2004 and 2008, the media gobbled up stories of the online prowess of the Howard Dean and Barack Obama campaigns, highlighting alluring new tools like Meetup, blogs, and text message marketing. Today, that process-based coverage is largely gone. In a little more than a decade, online tools have gone from novel to fashionable to completely unexceptional. You have to move fast to keep up, and the bar is getting higher.
Everyone has to play. Barack Obama’s digital infrastructure is legendary. He ran a well-regarded online campaign in 2008, nurtured it during the intervening years, and throughout this election cycle has understandably held a formidable advantage over the Romney campaign: 31 million Facebook likes to Romney’s 11 million, and 21.5 million Twitter followers to Romney’s 1.6 million, as of the beginning of November. But it’s clear that online operations have become so central to political success, everyone has to play: Romney simply cannot afford to cede the advantage and focus elsewhere. Indeed, AdAge revealed Romney has a whopping 110 staffers focused on digital efforts. And wherever possible, his campaign has tried guerrilla online actions against Obama, including making early use of Sponsored Results on Facebook, which presented viewers with Romney ads when they searched for the president.
You’re not controlling the message, but you can (and should) try. It’s been clear for a while that social media has allowed individuals access to a megaphone they never had in the broadcast era. But the sea change is only now becoming evident. A study by Bluefin Labs showed there were 7 million public comments on Facebook and Twitter in response to television coverage of the conventions — 2.5 million of them in the final 90 minutes of the Democratic Convention. That’s a tidal wave of public input, and it makes it much harder to shape the narrative, the traditional goal of campaign press departments. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t trying. After getting hammered by the press and most commentators for his lackluster performance during the first debate, Obama’s campaign wasn’t going to take any chances during the second one at Hofstra University in New York. In what was viewed as an effort to shape discussion and, essentially, distribute early talking points, his team tweeted a remarkable 37 times during the course of the 90 minute debate, leveraging 117,000 retweets. If there’s a deluge of conversation, they’re going to at least try to be part of it.
By itself, digital won’t win elections — or, for that matter, sell your product or service. It has limitations (as Nicco Mele pointed out during our session, it’s still much better for rallying committed supporters rather than for persuading new ones). But it’s also become a mandatory, even banal, part of campaign infrastructure. The sexiness of Internet tools has worn off — but their emerging importance in meeting your ultimate goals, whether in politics or business, cannot be overstated.
This post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review website on November 1, 2012.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.