Friday, December 12, 2008

Search And The Presidential Campaign

During the 2008 election, President-Elect Barack Obama and Senator John McCain had successful strategies that included ground-breaking use of online media in a presidential campaign to reach voters and convey their platforms.

Arguably, the popularity of online forums and maximizing the opportunity for consumer engagement through online presence allowed the candidates to be in two places at one time - live, in-market shaking hands while also available 24/7 online -- without collapsing from exhaustion on the campaign trail.

So what should we take away from the use of search and social media in the 2008 presidential election? To help answer that question, I've harvested the insights from a keynote panel at MediaPost's Search Insider Summit in Park City, Utah that discussed the two candidates' online tactics.

Search marketing is a valuable branding tool. Don't underestimate the power of search marketing in building and maintaining your brand. Organic results bring your genuine content to the forefront of the search engine results page (SERP). Those results increase with social media outreach, with consumer-driven content giving you third-party endorsement. Through paid search, you own your message and can adapt it properly -- and frequently - to speak directly with your audience when they raise their hand about subjects related to your brand. If McCain and Obama could do it on a topic like politics, you can, too.

Search serves as a powerful channel for lead generation and direct response. During early campaign efforts, the Obama camp used paid search for list-building and donor acquisition. Later, in general election campaigning, paid search played a role in voter mobilization and driving voter registration. The 2008 presidential election reinforces the valuable role search marketing can play in lead generation or direct response, whether you're looking to build your CRM program or drive your audience to a specific call to action.

Always optimize your campaign to better connect with your audience. According to panelist Emily Williams, interactive account executive at MSHC and member of the Obama campaign's interactive marketing team, the economic crisis didn't shift the team's strategy, but there was increased attention paid to "issue" terms. The analysts also focused on the impact of successful paid search strategies that favored the competition versus going against the competition. The reality is, your strategy is built early on, but like a growing plant, should never be left without water or pruning. The nature of business, consumer preference, consumer-driven media and the news media can shift what's important at any time. By keeping your audience in mind every day of your search program, you'll continue to be relevant and reap the benefits of your optimization.

Analyzing search behavior can inform and improve your demographic targeting. One can't help but question whether data from search trends and traffic served as competitive intelligence to guide where the candidates targeted their campaign efforts. Did lagging polls in Ohio drive a targeted search effort? Was the search strategy different to win California versus sustaining voters in another state? Little was disclosed from the Obama camp other than confirmation that there were strict measurements for search marketing and certain silos of focus.

However, analytics looking at this level of behavior is a significant source of information for any advertiser, whether you're a CPG brand that wants to dominate certain markets, an entertainment brand needing to increase ratings in areas with low viewership, or a quick service food restaurant striving to increase market share in a lagging city. And we can certainly expect insights from search behavior to play an increasingly significant role in future political campaigns.

Social media increases visibility. All this talk about search marketing, yet the Obama campaign was sending Facebook updates and messages to 'friends' almost daily. Yes, social media's value in engaging consumers and unveiling its success was only strengthened with the 2008 elections. What the Obama campaign did right was to put their candidate and platform in places where consumers were already spending their time. Williams shared that "the Obama campaign was looking for people who were looking for 'us,' and there's no better place to that than online."

She added, "The strategy of the Obama campaign was to build solid tools and allow people to use it in a way that fits them. Our job was to build it and maintain it so that other people could use it."

And that, alone, is something every brand marketer should be doing.

Using the right channels to effectively reach an audience segment is key, too. As Clickable's Ben Seslija, another panelist, pointed out, Obama's use of social media successfully reached a younger audience.

It all goes back to making sure your company and your brand are visible and a part of the conversation in forums where your potential audience or consumer is spending time. While it's up to you and your planning teams to determine the appropriate weight each channel should carry to fulfill your objectives, advertisers can learn from the Obama and McCain campaigns that peppering yourself traditionally and innovatively across the marketing mix maximizes your potential reach - and return.

It's the entire package that counts for your brand. What the presidential candidates did successfully that every company and marketer can learn from is to look at integration in a broader spectrum than only whether your media is aligned channel by channel. Results and success, as the candidates taught us, comes from the content, the tactic, and the image of the person or brand. You can't rely on a good offer or great pricing to drive your success if your brand perception is weak.

That is where the marketing, PR, image, the quality and value of products or services and the people driving the business play a truly synergized role in delivering the complete package that sways consumers to vote for your brand.

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