To some, the US primaries, if not the presidential election itself, look like a done deal. The numbers speak for themselves: Clinton trails Obama 101,758 supporters to 428,899; McCain on the other hand has just 50,480 supporters and Huckabee doesn’t have a single one.
I’m not talking about delegates, votes last Super Tuesday or even predictions for this weekend’s ballots. Instead I’m talking about Facebook – the number of people who have said that they are ‘supporters’ of each candidate’s page on the social networking site. It’s not that these are particularly large numbers for Facebook (over 143,000 have joined a group about panic-buying carrots in May for instance) but that these ‘supporter pages’ are particularly active with high participation rates, moreover thay are a way to tap into a particulaly important demographic for candidates. A report by the Pew Research Center in January showed that 24% of the US public learns about the presidential campaign from the Internet; for those aged between 18 and 29, this figure rises to 42%. In a campaign where every vote really will count, the Internet is as much a battlground as the townhalls of New Hampshire have been and the cable channels and national TV debates will be.
That the Internet is a campaigning tool and source of information for voters is not new and not particularly surprising. What is interesting is to look at how the candidates are using their presence online and where they are going. Rather than just using their own websites to broadcast information in the hope that people will visit, the campaigns are being taken to places where voters hang out online – most notably Facebook and YouTube. Candidates are identifying supporters or potential supporters in these places and then harnessing them in groups or networks. This is a great example of the oft-cited shift in marketing theory from an age of ‘interruption’ (think traditional TV advertising) to onw of ‘engagement’ (think tailored ads online or word of mouth campaigns). The candidates are proving to be very good at using new tools; better in some cases than large brands are.
So what is the benefit of using Facebook or YouTube in the way that Clinton and Obama, McCain and Huckabee are? Well natural preexisting communities of people are easier to tap into and easier to seed with information and ideas than are communities of people you have to build yourself. You can use these communities as a place to share all your information – no need to have seen a particular campaign ad when it aired as you can watch it in your own time on YouTube. But what is more exciting is the opportunity to use groups such as those on Facebook to test new ideas – get feedback on campaign slogans and positioning with a sample of a few thousand people before you release it on the whole country. This is more people than you could reach with traditional methods such as Focus Groups, and because you are tapping into a community with social bonds and networks you are able to watch how a community (rather than set of individuals) respond. You can see how the influencers in the group react, and how they pass your message onto others. If you use it properly, you have created a microcosm; a test lab for your ideas and messages. And all for relative little outlay.
The candidates in the US primaries appear to be ahead of the game in terms of marketing and using online communities for innovation. They could teach brands a lot, but have a significant advantage in being able to easily identify where their target audience hangs out and are happy to engage them publicly for all to see. Brands often need some help with this.