The 2008 US presidential election was hailed by many as the first digital election – but in truth, it was more of an online massacre than a competition. Where Obama and the democrats innovated and engaged with a new generation, McCain and the republicans looked and acted like they had no idea how to engage with new media.
Mitt Romney and his campaign team clearly learnt some harsh lessons from the bloodbath and have invested heavily in a digital campaign, which may not match the scope or innovation of Obama’s, but has gone a long way to levelling the playing field.
Romney’s digital director, Zac Moffat claimed in an interview with Mashable that the Republicans had learnt from the digital whitewashing they suffered in 2008 and there was now parity between the two campaigns. His boldest claim was that they had the lead in a crucial area- online advertising. Online advertising is where the real money is spent in the US digital environment and mastering it is becoming as crucial as mastering the radio and TV ‘air war’.
Once the Democrat convention has finished, there will be a sudden and dramatic increase in the number of adverts splashed across sites- expect to see political advertising on almost every US based site you visit.
What we are yet to be convinced about is whether carpet bombing works in this way or if a more focused, targeted ad campaign is the way to go. When working on digital campaigns, we tend to focus on the potential reach the campaign offers, but reach is only so important and at the end of the day, it is engagement that is the crucial factor.
Both campaigns need to remember this and realise that however much they spend on advertising; it is all for naught if the audience they are searching for simply ignored the advertising. Online advertising has potential, but if done poorly it has the potential to alienate an audience in a matter of seconds – just think of how annoyed you get when an ad takes over your whole screen.
This problem has led the Obama team to continually explore new ways to engage with the online audience, most recently taking to Reddit to host an Ask Me Anything session. This proved so popular (2 million views and counting), that it very temporarily broke Reddit and showed the campaign team was willing to try new and potentially risky things if it helped them reach a new audience.
The Romney campaign has been narrower in its approach, choosing to focus on a few core platforms and favour a quality over quantity approach. They argue that this has been successful, citing greater engagement with their content on Facebook. But, where this approach is lacking is reaching potential voters who would not normally engage with the political sphere. People who take the time to become a fan of Romney on Facebook or follow him on Twitter are either supporters or people with an interest in the political process.
We’ll be following the campaign with interest and in particular the experimentation as new tools are tried and either embraced or consigned to the scrapheap. We’re very excited by the potential of Chirpify – a new micro donation tool that allows you to give money via Twitter. But, part of the joy of the process is seeing what has been missed – is there a tool or site you think is currently being neglected?