What your business can learn from @BarackObama

As the 2012 US presidential election campaign rages, I thought it was worth checking out how pollies (arguably some of the planet’s least progressive people) have managed to better understand and utilise social media than almost everybody else. What do they know that you don’t?

During the 2008 presidential election race, then Senator Barack Obama proved once and for all the staying power of social media when it comes to engaging and motivating a typically apathetic audience.

When he first contacted Netscape founder and Facebook board member, Marc Andreessen, to ask his opinion on whether social networking could be used in a political campaign, President Obama probably didn’t fully comprehend what he was about to set in motion. What he created – by concentrating a range of social media platforms under a single, focused banner – was an unstoppable machine, capable of raising money, organising huge groups of people and, ultimately, handing him the reins of the most powerful country in the world. Check out the figures from this 2009 report.

Obama_figures
Yeah, I’ve seen worse results.
(Image: Edelman Research, “The Social Pulpit”, 2009, p. 4)

This might come as a surprise, but people actually like using social media. Take Twitter, for instance: since founder Jack Dorsey sent the first ever tweet on March 21, 2006 the number of twitheads has grown to an astonishing 140 million active users, who together send more than a billion tweets every three days. Traditional media formats can only dream of engaged audiences this size.

Obama was elected President in 2008, the same year Twitter turned two. It was also the year the social media giant reached its first billion tweets. If Obama could pull off all he did when a billion tweets hadn’t even been sent, just think what you and your business could achieve with a billion sent every three days. And let’s not forget the scores of users interacting daily with Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Google+. With an audience this huge actively seeking out, engaging with and hungry for digital content, you can’t afford not to have a social media presence.

But with so much ‘noise’ in the social media landscape, how can you make sure your message is heard? It’s a complicated question with an equally complicated answer. I won’t sugar coat it: it’s not gonna be easy. You need a solid social strategy, combined with traditional brand planning tools like constant research and monitoring; but most of all you need to make sure you underpin everything with a sound content strategy: it’s your content that followers, fans and friends will coalesce around.

The key here is ensuring your brand is known for its quality in an environment increasingly polluted with mindless quantity. There’s no need to hashtag or retweet every little thing. Trim the fat from your message and you’ll find your business generating more interest from actively engaged users than you ever thought possible. It might not get you into the White House but I promise the end reward will be a lot more than a few “Likes”.

I’ll leave you with one caveat, though. There are two sides to the social media coin. While you can learn a lot from Obama’s tweeting triumphs, you’ll be equally served taking note of Julia Gillard’s social networking stuff-ups. In August the Aussie PM tweeted Wallabies star Quade Cooper after a function to say how nice it was to meet him. His response: “I didn’t attend but thanks for the tweet”. Ouch.

Here’s another great lesson from a politician on what not to do.

Richard Parker is the head of digital at strategic content agency Edge, where he has experience working with leading brands including Woolworths, St George and Foxtel. He previously spent 12 years in the UK, first at Story Worldwide then as the co-owner and strategic director of marketing agency Better Things.

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