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Politics Unusual Media and the making of a President

6 minute read | November 2008

By: John Burbank, Chief Marketing Officer, The Nielsen Company

SUMMARY: Not since the Kennedy-Nixon debates has media played such an important role in a presidential election. The Internet, the new kid on the political media block, is proving highly influential in everything from fundraising to myth busting. To track the interplay of candidate web buzz, political advertising, pundit programming, entertainment parodies, convention and debate coverage requires an integrated, multi-media view.

Many credit the Internet with single-handedly moving Barack Obama’s candidacy from pipe dream to juggernaut. The secret to his success was a major paradigm shift that deployed the Web for fundraising and grassroots outreach. By adopting a “subscription style” approach that allowed followers to make iterative, smaller donations, the Obama campaign walked away from the fat cat donor model, and walked away with, as of the end of August, more than $458 million, more than half representing contributions of $200 or less. In September, Obama blew the doors off, raising $150 million in a single month, with an average donation amount of $100.

The campaign’s mastery of the Internet medium didn’t end there. Obama’s robust web site, complete with multiple touchpoints and consumer experiences, ranges from social networking to text message alerts, voter registration, a dozen different ring tones and a news widget to cite a few offerings. The multi-faceted approach has yielded astonishing returns, including more than 750,000 volunteers, 8,000 affinity groups and 30,000 local events.

The new face of politics

In keeping with his successful sponsorship of campaign finance reform, John McCain foreclosed on the traditional Republican fundraising paradigm, instead accepting only individual donations of up to $2,300 per person in 2008. Changes fostered by the campaign finance legislation effectively neutralized the influence of large donors and bundlers (a Republican strength), and shifted the focus to connectors or raisers, people who could leverage the value of online social networks on sites like Facebook and MySpace, or utilize listserve tools to build their own networks.

Outreach techniques have taken a page from the electronic workbook…

In addition to making it easy to build an affinity group, outreach techniques have taken a page from the electronic workbook as well. Volunteers with some time on their hand can log on to the Obama site, click on the “make a call” button and get a list of voter phone numbers to contact. It’s cheap, efficient, fast and available 24/7 to accommodate all time zones and work schedules.

Pinballing content

Video streaming has introduced a new dimension to presidential politics. If you missed an important speech or interview, you can catch the video clip on the candidate web sites, YouTube or other video boards. Videos on the Internet have introduced us to the pinball effect of content. In many cases, when a candidate was interviewed on mainstream TV, it found a new life on the Internet being played over and over again.

Not to be dismissed is the pivotal role played by entertainment media. Tina Fey’s remarkably spot-on renditions of Sarah Palin ramped up Saturday Night Live’s ratings by some 50% and enabled the show to carve out a desirable weeknight special edition slot until the election. Actually, more people tuned into Tina Fey’s tongue-in-cheek take on the VP candidate than to SNL itself, thanks to video on demand, digital video recorders, YouTube, and even NBC.com, from which Nielsen reported more than 13 million streams of the skit to viewers who connected virally.

According to Nielsen, curious Americans did more than just watch online parodies of the candidates. In August, the Obama web site garnered 1.3 million streams and 824,000 unique viewers, and the McCain web site received 1.2 million streams and 475,000 viewers. Sarah Palin single-handedly changed the gender make-up of www.johnmccain.com video viewers in August, a re-distribution attributed to female voters who accounted for 58% of unique video viewers, a 10% and 21% jump from July and June numbers, respectively.

Not to discount the value of live action…

This is not to discount the value of live action. Nielsen found that the much-anticipated Biden-Palin vice presidential debate garnered a 45.0 household rating in the top 55 markets, outdrawing both the first presidential debate rating of 34.7 and the second “town hall” style debate rating of 42.1 in those markets (one rating point equals 1% of the total TV audience in a market). As might be expected, 33% of those highly touted hockey Moms dialed in to watch their rink leader, Sarah Palin, in action, versus 23.8% of all Moms ages 25–54.

And let’s not forget the indelible impression made by Obama Girl, which became a YouTube mainstay early in the campaign. The actress has resurfaced in October with her own riff on the Republican VP nominee.

The Internet has taken on an additional role of truth sayer…

De-spin zone

The Internet has taken on an additional role in the 2008 presidential race—that of truth sayer. To countermand opposition “spin” replete with rumors and innuendo, the Obama campaign launched a first-of-its-kind web site, www.fightthesmears.com, which addresses the most egregious charges circulating on the Internet.

For those who prefer a more thoughtful, expository approach to information gathering, both candidates are prolific authors and have penned books which are character-revealing in content and tone. Nielsen shows McCain’s biggest selling title, Faith of My Fathers, sold 73,000 copies between January and September 21, 2008. Obama’s fastest-moving book, The Audacity of Hope, outsold McCain’s title by 639% during the same period, with sales of 540,000 copies.

The single largest mobile marketing event ever…

Mobile-izing for action

In another technology coup, Nielsen reports that the Obama campaign staged the single largest mobile marketing event ever in the United States by announcing Joe Biden’s selection as running mate. The 26 word SMS text message reached an estimate 2.9 million mobile subscribers simultaneously.

The campaign bolstered effectiveness by picking the right technology for its constituency, given the Democratic penchant for the mobile medium. Democrats are heavier users of mobile data services than Republicans, more likely to use text messaging, picture messaging, MMS and mobile Internet.

Ready for prime time

Television may have more competition with alternative media choices, but remains a dominant element in the election media mix. Almost two-thirds of U.S. households tuned in to at least one of the conventions, and one-third watched both parties’ celebrations, according to Nielsen.

Political advertisers voted with their budgets, gobbling up 36:24 of Democratic convention commercial air time versus just 13:12 of Republican convention air time, with CBS dominating as the network of choice. The Top nine political advertisers at the conventions per Nielsen were the AFL-CIO, Democratic National Committee Campaign, John McCain Campaign for President, MoveOn.org, Barack Obama Campaign for President, Republication National Committee Campaign, SEIU Union, Sierra Club Organization and the Vote Vets Action Fund Organization.

Unfortunately, post-convention advertising has taken a decidedly negative turn, with nearly 100% of McCain ads judged to be negative by a university ad-watch group, versus 34% of Obama ads during the 10/06/08 week. Expect the pressure, and the attacks, to continue as the campaign moves into the final stretch and ad budgets ratchet up to an estimated $30 million/week Obama spend against a $17.5 million/week McCain spend.

Beyond the battle

The Internet, social networking and email are driving changes that reach far beyond how to run a successful political campaign. Media and marketing companies need to control the pinball effect of how content is consumed in order to drive success in the electronic foray.

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