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Analysis: Internet marketing was breakout star of 2012 campaign

November 14, 2012 by Scott Bomboy


It appears that Internet marketing via social media was the big winner in Election 2012, in a game changer from President Barack Obama's campaign that echoes TV’s importance in the 1960 presidential contest.

The 2012 general election results caught many observers by surprise, setting off a flood of opinions about the changing makeup of the American electorate.

But there has also been detailed analysis in the week since President Obama’s win over Mitt Romney about the huge yet quiet role that social media and Internet marketing played in the Democrats' win.

The Hill and Politico were among the first media sources to discuss how insiders in both campaigns saw social media and email as key factors in the election.

But it was the Democrats who were able to execute social media strategies to get more voters to the polls.

The Hill also talked about how the Obama team used email lists to fine-tune its message, a technique that is very familiar to anyone in the Internet marketing business.

“While both campaigns blanketed swing-state television airwaves with advertisements, outside observers said Obama’s treasure trove of data helped give him a notable edge over Republican Mitt Romney,” said reporter Jennifer Martinez.

That concept flies in the face of the conventional wisdom founded in the 1960 presidential campaign, when the debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon made television the focus of media spending.

As recently as on Election Eve, the effect of Internet marketing seemed little understood in the mainstream press.

“As notable as the boom in TV ads is the lack of a corresponding boom online, where onlookers have been predicting big shifts in campaign spending since at least the 2004 cycle. But in 2012, like 2008, television remained king. The great digital migration just isn’t happening,” said The Wall Street Journal on its Corporate Intelligence blog.

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The signs had been out there, especially in a series of reports from the Pew Research Center that showed how people on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were talking about politics—and how they influenced their friends to vote.

Zac Moffatt, the Romney campaign's digital director, told The Hill that the Democrats heavily outspent his own 120-person team, which had fought an uphill battle since primary season.

"Republicans from 2008 had not embraced digital," Moffatt said. "We had to build a plane while flying it, so we were constantly learning new things."

Obama insiders said it was how the campaign managed the feedback from its email lists, Facebook profiles, and other online tools that made the big difference.

To be sure, spending on campaign ads that appeared on websites and mobile devices soared from 2008 levels. Analysts at Wells Fargo said online political ad spending was forecast at $311 million for 2012, passing radio as the second-biggest venue for ads.

Television political ads were forecast at $3.4 billion for the same period, fueled by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that allowed unlimited spending by special-interest groups.

An article in February 2012 from the U.K. newspaper The Guardian profiled the Obama campaign’s social media operation, which appeared to be state-of-the-art in the very competitive world of Internet marketing.

The campaign’s digital strategists had appeared at a seminar sponsored by The Guardian, and the Obama team’s approach was hardly a secret to anyone at the event.

“At the core is a single beating heart – a unified computer database that gathers and refines information on millions of committed and potential Obama voters. The database will allow staff and volunteers at all levels of the campaign … to unlock knowledge about individual voters and use it to target personalized messages that they hope will mobilize voters where it counts most,” said The Guardian.

One Obama campaign staffer said the goal was to use a huge amount of data from Facebook to make sure messages were tested first, and then “passed to your friends but to those friends that we think are most in need of passing it on to.”

Data from Pew Research released on Election Day showed that at least 22 percent of registered voters let people know how they voted using Facebook, Twitter, and other services, and 30 percent had been told how to vote in online messages from friends and family.

An October study from Pew showed that 39 percent of all American adults had done “at least one of eight civic or political activities with social media.” And of that group, 38 percent "liked" or promoted materials related to politics or social issues posted by others.

In the end, the Obama team’s ability to maintain the demographic turnout of the 2008 election provided the 2 percent victory margin in the national popular vote, and victories in all but one of the swing states.

The campaign was able to get younger voters back to the polls, keep minorities in the loop, and also target women using Facebook, which skews heavily to female users.

The critical role of Internet marketing techniques, which cost a fraction of television advertising, will be a big issue going forward in all national political campaigns.

Also, the ability of candidates to grab a big online presence should be up for grabs.

The Spartan Internet Political Performance, a measure that looks at 650 factors about how candidates connect with an online audience, shows that John McCain did a better job in 2008 than Mitt Romney against President Obama in terms of getting online attention.

As of late October, Romney had about 30 percent of the “market share” of combined online support for the two candidates, compared with Obama’s 70 percent. In 2008, McCain had 35 percent.

The Spartan Index reveals that Obama had 77 percent of the discussion on social media sites in 2012, compared with 23 percent for Romney.

Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.

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