Obama media campaign begins in earnest as Republican candidates lag behind

As the primary campaign soap opera heads south Tuesday for the Alabama and Mississippi primaries, there has been a spike of marketing activity in the past week. 

The New York Times ran a front page story: “Obama Mines for Voters with high-tech Tools,” which provided all of us with a look inside the Obama online campaign machine in Chicago.  With a payroll of more than $3 million per month, this is the largest staff ever assembled for a presidential race, according to the story.  Jim Messina, campaign manager for the president, has called the Republican contest a “sideshow,” suggesting that all of  the time that the Republicans have spent beating each other up has provided the campaign machinery time to hit its stride from a reconnection with voters and messaging standpoint. The online bunker is staffed with some of the brightest web developers and analytics folks in the business. 

A boatload of press stories are hitting the web and print newspapers. The Wall Street Journal asks “When Will Social Media Elect a President?” ZDNet‘s online pages ponder why “Facebook users not talking about Rick Santorum.”  Finally, after months of spouting off about the need for someone other than Barack Obama to take a closer look at the important role that the online community will play in generating votes in November, it appears that the press is causing some candidates to wake up.

It is very clear to me that the media is trying to do all it can to keep the debate alive between Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.  It makes great financial sense to the networks, cable operators and local stations to see all of this continue.  As much as the pundits out front on nightly news programs lament about the use of Super PAC money, an extended primary race means that many more profitable “attack” ads will flood the airwaves and bring new life to broadcasters’ profit and loss statements during a period of the year that would typically be devoid of such activity if it weren’t an election year.  Network folks aren’t protesting too much over the rumor that Super PAC spending will top nearly $10 billion before Election Day.

As we close in on what seems to be an inevitable Romney candidacy, it would be very smart for the Republican National Committee and others to take a closer look at the relative efficiency of their marketing strategies before moving forward. There is a reason why President Obama has that $3 million monthly payroll allocated to pouring over databases and online messaging.  President Obama knows target marketing. His team knows how to reach the right folks with the right message at the right time, and do it cost effectively. All of those broadcast dollars are an indiscriminate blathering strategy attempting to catch fish by throwing darts into the ocean.  If Republicans want to win in November a drastic change is required in focus. Just look at this past week online:

Facebook Friends

Mitt Romney – 1,527,542 – up 14,787
Ron Paul – 906,864 – UP 11,671
Newt Gingrich – 295,795 – UP 3,671
Rick Santorum – 175,634 – UP 8,427
President Barack Obama – 25,540,427 – UP 78,790

•    Mitt Romney — Hallelujah! The Mitt Romney page has awoken from its static existence. For the first time, I am seeing some real spirit and passion within the site.  The Romney page also debuts the same “state based” pages that the Obama campaign rolled out several weeks ago. Photos have changed. The page is asking for Mitt Friends to stay engaged and “like” various components of the page. What’s still missing is a clear statement of what Mitt Romney will do as President. We know clearly what he doesn’t like about President Obama. Voters need more of Romney’s plan to change things.

•    Ron Paul — Ron continues to be the consistent candidate online. Like him or not, each week his following online grows despite the fact that he gets the least amount of attention of any of the candidates from the media. He has a strong base online and will no doubt factor into the election even after a Republican presidential nominee is chosen.

•    Newt Gingrich — Newt continues to be a media darling as he takes shots at Romney. Network media folks are keeping him around based on the fact that he is a Republican who continues to provide news talk shows with outrageous commentary about his fellow Republicans. His lackluster performance online, however, is a testament to the fact that the race is over for him.  If his advisors were smart, they would abandon this “strategy” before he becomes a man without a “party.” Based on what we have seen thus far, I can’t see any role for Gingrich going forward supporting a Romney candidacy.

•    Rick Santorum — Rick may still be mathematically in the race, but it’s clear from the last several weeks that his campaign is running out of steam. The effort to position himself as the “true conservative” in the race has done little to stir anything close to “surge” level movement online. Yet another candidate that is benefiting from the broadcast media spotlight and desire to keep candidates that have little or no chance of seriously competing as a counter balance/annoyance to the Romney candidacy.  These numbers don’t lie; Santorum still lags significantly behind the top three in the online channel.

Twitter Followers

Newt Gingrich – 1,444,594 – UP 1,870
Ron Paul – 392,427 – UP 5,007
Mitt Romney – 362,291 – UP 10,622
Rick Santorum – 155,018  – UP 7,956
President Barack Obama – 12,851,171 – UP 106,211

•    Newt continues to Tweet — The real issue here is twofold. No doubt Newt continues to have a large number of followers within Twitter, yet his rate of weekly growth continues to decline. The real question is whether any of his followers are “listening” anymore. Twitter follower growth happens as followers introduce their followers to someone worth following.  It is that dynamic that fueled Newt’s early rise and the lack of that viral excitement that is causing his stagnant growth now.

•    Ron Paul is having the same issue as Newt. While he continues to grow, his rate of growth is off substantially. This could be a matter of having been overexposed in terms of the channel. Followers are looking for new and exciting ideas. When the brand becomes predictable, there is no real attraction or stickiness created. None of these candidates have a “rock star” personality and/or lifestyle that would sustain their brand without constant real time updating

•    Romney is hitting his stride — With each primary win, it is becoming readily apparent to the Republican universe online that Romney should be the candidate to watch and follow. Mitt continues to grow each week by nice chunks of followers. As great as the change has been on Facebook, the candidate needs to make sure that he does all he can to increase his rate of growth in the weeks and months ahead.  He must craft a strategy that allows him to build a community of Republican followers who can put aside primary politics and support him online. Without that his ability to seize the power required to compete with the Obama machine will be severely diminished.

•    Santorum swoon — Rick has hit a plateau as well in terms of rate of growth. His campaign team has done little that is engaging within his Facebook page and his online presence is severely lacking. He would be well advised to bring some of the spirit and vibrancy of his stump speeches and media interviews into the online venue. Right now his campaign has stalled and I fear, along with Newt, that it has run out of gas.

While President Obama had a good week in terms of Twitter growth, he too has leveled off (albeit at a much higher level) in terms of his rate of weekly growth on Facebook.  Rising gas prices, serious issues concerning Iran and Israel and recent polls that show a growing dissatisfaction with the president are all significant issues to deal with from a marketing perspective. Even the best minds in the marketing business cannot overcome a brand that has significant uncertainty and/or flaws at its foundation. President Obama has benefited greatly during the first three years of his presidency. Those around him that have marketed both him and his presidency have done a masterful job. As the election season draws near, it will take much more than superior marketing tactics to win the day.

Despite the commanding lead that the president has within the online community and based on the recent challenges to his administration and the volatility of his approval ranking, there is a slim opportunity for Republicans to make this a close race.  The Romney camp has shown some signs of life in this past week, and that’s a good thing.  What remains to be seen is whether the Republican Party can fully comprehend the importance of marketing from an integrated standpoint.

I continue to get emails from Angela Meyers (RNC Finance Director) and Anthony Parker (RNC Treasurer) pleading with me not to “give up” on the Republican Party.  They ask me to renew my support by providing a contribution of $2,000, $3,000, or $4,000.  Their email efforts plead with “activists” like me to support the party. Note to Angela and Anthony: I would really love to support the party, unfortunately I have a big problem with the way that my contribution dollars are being spent.

No one here is saying that they should drop advertising on television or direct mail. Our debate is about the relative weight being applied to television spending versus the other tools within the marketing kit.  What the Republicans need is their own bunker, filled with the best minds in marketing and online media planning the strategy to compete with the team in Chicago.

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