oobpThursday,1 November 2012

The Snap:

Social media has profoundly changed political communication. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and other social networks have created a new kind of consumer-citizen which is strikingly different from the consumer-citizen produced by the dominant mass-medium of the late 20th century, television.

Television, the medium these presidential debates are staged for and staged on, is based on the “interruption” advertising model. Networks present content consumers want to see, and in exchange consumers tacitly agree to allow advertisers to interrupt the “programming” with sponsored messages. This advertising model relies upon a clear separation of “producers” and “consumers”. The television networks produced “programming” in order to sell advertising space, as when sports programs break from their majestic displays of athletic prowess to demonstrate the near-magical properties of an energy drink. “Consumers” for the mass-media advertiser represent a relatively passive audience, a recipient of structured, intentional messages, both from networks and advertisers.

Social media is based on an advertising model in which consumers generate content which is consumed by their communities, corporations provide the platform in which the content is consumed, and advertising is targeted contextually to the users based on browser cookies and opt-in demographic data. This advertising model is not an addition to the mass media interruption model, but rather a subversion and subjugation of it. The roles are between consumer and producer are confused and collapsed.

In a similar way as advertisers in mass media like television and radio, social media users treat the mass media as a content source to advertise their personal brand. During an event like the Presidential debates, consumers wait for an opportunity to seize on a “meme”, a sharable bit of content which can become a source of social conversation. “Binders full of women” and “horses and bayonets” are both commercial products, pieces of content which can be modified, repurposed, and shared with an individual’s online community.

The word “prosumer” has been used to describe the replacement of the “passive” consumer with the active, engaged “prosumer”, a consumer who actively produces content, or who consumes mass media content in order to produce social media content which they can leverage to build personal brand awareness (popularity) and dominate social share-of-voice (respect and recognition in their audiences).

“Prosumers” are the result of social media as a social structure democratizing the role of the “marketing professional”. The overall goals and specific key performance indicators of the prosumer are much the same as for any other marketer: to build brand awareness, reach, engagement, and so on. People want to be liked, to be popular, to be informative and respected. Social media provides a ubiquitous and omnipresent means of effecting this.

Most significantly, social media platforms provide a set of simple metrics through which these producer-consumers can gauge the strength of their marketing effectiveness. The most obvious are likes and comments on Facebook, retweets and favorites on Twitter, and so on. For the sophisticate, Klout, Peerindex, and other services provide the prosumer with an integrated, cross-platform evaluation.

As was made plainly obvious during the party conventions and the presidential debates, memes have become essential to the prosumers marketing functions. Memes provide structured content that can be modified, repurposed, or simply curated. The meme is a way for prosumers to generate positive sentiment, or at a minimum, interaction with their online communities. Prosumers would rather be loved, but if they can’t be loved, they will be hated. For the prosumer, like any other marketer, the only insult is silence.

Because the mass media networks function on the same broad structural requirements as the new media’s prosumers, memes which reach a critical threshold of exposure to prosumers in turn become content for the mass-media. As Nathan Jurgenson of the New Inquiry put it:

Retweets, reposts, reblogs, repins, and remixes lead to reporting. The Meme Election 2012 isn’t just a matter of what’s found in some sticky gif’d-out corner of Tumblr; it also dominates everyday Facebook feeds and news blogs. And because journalists are disproportionally connected digitally, popular memes also burrow into mainstream-media narratives as a measure of what has captured people’s attention. Whether you watched the conventions and debates on one screen or three, there’s a good chance you encountered discussion of Internet memes afterward.”

In its broad outlines, the meme’s closing of the loop between social media and mass media demonstrates what is common in both. The mass media provides a shared cultural reference point for social engagement. People tell jokes they heard on television to their family and friends. They discuss sporting events or political debates around the water cooler at work. The difference in the modern era is that social media provides a means for the effectiveness of our engagement to be quantified objectively- through followers, fans, likes, comments, and so on, which is much more tangible, compelling, and perhaps anxiety-producing than the ambiguities of dinner table conversation.

The speed at which these conversations take place is also an important factor in distinguishing mass media from social media. Social media conversations happen in real time- you don’t wait to tell a joke when you see your friends, because your friends are always available. As soon as the words “binders full of women” is transmitted to a mass audience, it enters the social universe as a meme on social networks, where users can employ the meme and its variations to build their personal brands while advertisements can be served against it.

The difficulty most marketers have with memes is their pace: memes burn fast and bright. While memes typically only last a short time, they reach broad exposure almost instantly. Speed is a major advantage for any brand or advertiser: twitter accounts and facebook fan pages can have hundreds of thousands of followers within the first few minutes of their existence.

[Binders full of women] immediately went viral, birthing a hilarious tumblr parody Twitter account @Romneys_Binder with more than 13,000 followers and counting, and a Facebook fan page dubbed “Binders Full of Women,” which had amassed nearly 200,000 likes at time of writing. The #bindersfullofwomen became a trending topic on Twitter and the phrase also was the third-fastest rising search on Google during the televised debate.

The Daily Beast

The Download:

Obama’s 2008 campaign was the first to successfully exploit the power of Internet marketing in a significant way. Like JFK, he successfully rode a new medium into the White House. Much has changed in the internet since 2008 however.

During the last election Barack Obama’s internet marketing team was led by Google employees who focused on their campaign website as the center of their online strategy. They effectively employed techniques that and tools associated with that platform, including Search Engine Optimization, Search Engine Marketing, landing page optimization, and web analytics. The Internet has become much more social in the past four years however, and websites no longer occupy the same nearly exclusive centrality in the online marketing mix. Some of the catching-up marketers are doing can be witnessed in the current presidential race.

During the final presidential debate for instance, Romney attacked Obama’a defense policy, arguing that the US military was weaker than in the past because it had fewer ships. Obama countered that the statement revealed Romney’s ignorance of military matters, and the at the US having fewer ships is a result of increasing technological progression- we have fewer ships for the same reason as we have fewer “horses and bayonets”- because we have submarines and aircraft carriers.

Obama’s team instantly bought the Twitter search term for “bayonets” and were running promoted tweets on it during the debate. They were was fast, and smart. Buying the “meme” phrase was clearly the right decision, but there were several opportunities for improvement with their strategy.

Here are tips on improving your meme marketing:

1. Contain a link. If you are buying the “meme” keywords during the event, make sure your ads contain a link to a landing page. Your goal should not only to show up first in search results for your keyphase on any particular social platform, but also to provide a clear conversion funnel to move searchers through.

2. The link should point to a mobile optimized landing page. Prosumers use their mobile devices- phones, tablets, etc.- while they are engaging with traditional media, like television or mass events (baseball games, etc). Make sure your landing pages are optimized for mobile devices- ie, clear, obvious calls to action, fast loading times, flexible design that allows your site to automatically resize to different browser dimensions, etc.

3. Clear call-to-action. This should be a button, a form, or some obvious way to move to becoming a volunteer, a donor, or building a relationship through social media, subscribing to an email list, etc.

4. Make it easy. A way to share the message, leveraging the prosumers exisitng social networks to amplify the message. Once the prosumer has went through your funnel and converted, reward them in some way by giving them something they can share through their social networks. Even if it is a tweet, “I just donated to X Candidate because I believe in America!”, the idea is that you are providing them shareable content in exchange for converting on your website.

Key takeaways:

1. Know what prosumers want. Political consumers are like any other prosumer now: they are looking for a content to market to their personal audiences- their family, friends, their online communities, and so on. The key formation is the “meme”, digestible bits of stand-alone content that can work across platforms, be repurposed or modified, or expanded upon. Images and short “catchphrases“ are most effective. Absurd juxtapositions and/or nostalgic tropes tend to have currency (Big Bird, Invisible Obama/ “Eastwooding”, Binders full of Women).

2. Planning. The excitement of discovering and sharing memes comes from encountering the unexpected. In the future, political figures may intentionally package and distribute effective memes through mass media, at present they emerge through off-the-cuff, unexpected, and usually clumsy formulations. It is possible to build memes into your mass-media content, however. Memes are often built by condensing or displacing existing concepts: Obama got some traction with “Romnesia”, a portmanteau of two existing words, “Romney” and “amnesia”. Obama makes it easy for his communities to modify and add value to this “meme” by using a joke set-up from Jeff Foxworthy: “You might have Romnesia if…” This is the direction future political communication will trend.

3. Listen, Fast. Political marketers in the meme era are at a numerical disadvantage. The constant exposure to professional and amateur video recording equipment and the intstantaneous transmission of information guarantees that memes will emerge, and when they do it will be lightinging quick and will spread like wildfire. The memes will happen, you wont be able to predict when or what exactly. The “gaffe”, or unintentionally awkward statement, by definition emerges unexpectedly.

The key for the political marketer is to have templates, a marketing infrastrucure in place so that when the memes occur you can act upon them. Obama’s campaign ideally should have been the ones to start and own the “binders full of women” Tumblr, Twitter account, and Facebook page. That would have kept these extrordinarily valuable viral properties under their control, allowing them to embed sign-up forms, donation widgets, or other end-of-funnel components into the websites. Have a process in place to secure these accounts before the meme goes viral. Set aside a budget to aggressively advertise against these memes while they are becoming viral, memes go stale quickly.

4. Measure and Convert. While for the prosumer “share of voice” and “brand awareness” (that is, being respected and popular) are sufficient goals, for the professional marketer you are expected to do more, which is convert awareness into action, meaning purchasing a product, visiting a help center on a website rather than calling a phone number, and so on.

Create a clear path for your prosumers to contribute meaningfully to your campaigns, whether that is creating content for you to run ads against, making a donation or a purchase, or engaging with you on your social platforms. Measure your marketing effectiveness using web analytics tools and look for choke points in your conversion funnel.

It is essential for political marketers success to understand and effectively engage with the environment that we find ourselves in. The speed with which social media is reshaping the political and cultural landscape is truly breathtaking. Observation, preparation, and commitment to foundational marketing strategies are the keys to unlocking the mystery of political communication in the era of social media.

Hat Tips:

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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