President Barack Obama and his team have leveraged the political power of social media since the Illinois senator announced his intention to run for the top job in the White House in 2007. According to techpresident.com, in 2008 Obama's online efforts included 13 million emails, 4 million digital donors, and 2 million members on My.BarackObama.com, a social network that inspired grassroots campaigning on a scale never seen before in the United States. And the momentum has carried through his term: During last night's Democratic National Convention, Obama's nomination-acceptance speech set a new record of 52,000 tweets a minute.
Rahaf Harfoush was one of the strategists on Obama's team during the 2008 campaign. As she explained to me in an email, "All initiatives were designed to get people off of their computer chairs and into the streets knocking on doors and raising money." Harfoush, author of Yes We Did: An Inside Look At How Social Media Built the Obama Brand, describes how social media was used in conjunction with traditional media to rally voters.
"Their strategic objective of converting online organizing into offline action showed their implicit understanding that the gap between online and offline would need to be bridged and translated into value-added actions in the real world," says Harfoush.
Whatever your political views, it's hard to dispute Obama's continued success in the social media sphere. While other high-profile politicians are present across the top networking sites, the President and his team always seem to be one step ahead. As we watch anxiously for Obama's next digital move, there are many lessons to be learned about how to use social media to build your brand, whether you're a company or an individual.
1. There is no "i" in (the social media) team.
While it might take a village to raise a child, it takes a social media army to raise your digital profile. Obama's technology team is just one part of the equation. The First Lady's speech Tuesday night led to 28,000 tweets per minute, twice as many Twitter messages as Romney's speech[/url] racked up last week at the RNC.
Michelle Obama is active on Twitter with almost 1.5 million followers, a great digital partner for the president, who is nearing 20 million followers on Twitter (demonstrating that his digital army is well intact). These communities weren't built overnight. Instead, they've been well-nurtured over the past few years, so Obama truly has a groundswell of support leading up to this year's election.
2. Reach out to influencers, including early adopters.
While presidential candidate Mitt Romney has been adding new initiatives to his digital strategy, such as buying a trending topic on Twitter, the Obama campaign has organically become a trending topic online thanks to bold new moves such as engaging in a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything). The live chat, which took place at the end of August, led to record-breaking traffic on the popular news site. Not only did the President's Q&A on Reddit crash the company's site, there were more than 100,000 page views on Reddit during the active AMA.
In other words, while it's tempting to stick to the same ol' social media sites, it's a good idea now and again to break free of that routine and try your luck with new audiences and new platforms.
3. Fight back with class—and a cheeky photo helps, too.
As you grow your online community, there is no way to escape criticism in the very public spotlight of the Internet. How you deal with that criticism will eventually define your continued success in the social media space. Soon after actor Clint Eastwood wrapped up his "Invisible Obama" speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention, where he criticized the President about broken promises, a memorable photo graced the top of Obama's Twitter news feed. With three simple words, "This seat's taken," the president's team posted a photo (pictured, top) taken from the back of his chair, sharing a very clear message about who is in charge. In 2012, visual social media is on the rise. According to an ROI Research study, "forty-four percent of respondents are more likely to engage with brands if they post pictures than any other media." So, if the community gets tough, it could be time for you to get snapping.
4. Treat your social media training like a marathon, not a sprint.
"The last election cycle set the precedent and we have only seen an increase in activity by politicians using the web to reach out and connect with voters," says Harfoush. "The challenge will be in rising above all this noise and creating something that will get people talking." One way to get people talking is to keep engaging in conversation. When comparing the Romney campaign versus the Obama campaign, and their social media efforts, one thing is clear—the Obama campaign rarely takes a breath. A Pew Research study analyzed social media activity between the two campaigns between June 4 and June 17, 2012. During this period, the Romney campaign tweeted on average once a day while the Obama campaign tweeted on average 29 times. According to the study, Obama produced twice as many blog posts and YouTube videos as Romney.
With so much noise in the digital space, it's critical to treat your engagement like a marathon—train efficiently and pace yourself so you're ready for the big run.
5. Think mobile—not just apps, but your website too.
It's only been four years since the last election, but on the mobile front a lot has changed (it seems like eons ago, but the first iPad was just released in 2010). While having a clear social media strategy is a must, in today's economy that strategy must take into account the growing population of mobile users. Just recently, the White House updated both its Apple and Android apps in time for President Obama's convention speech (they also made the source code available to developers). This app allows users to live-stream presidential events (and get alerts when these events are happening), view blog posts, and check out high-quality images with, for example, the iPad's Retina display.
The WhiteHouse.gov site was also updated so it's more friendly to smartphone and tablet users (over the past two years the number of mobile visits to the site tripled).
In short, no mobile voter will be left behind. "I think the digital part of the campaigns have become essential, whereas in 2008 they were seen as a nice-to-have," says Harfoush.
Will social media help President Barack Obama win another term? It's tough to say, but no matter what happens in November, his tech term has already won.
[Image: The White House]