Rarely does a presidential campaign initiate so much response from the marketing world. President Barack Obama didn’t just make a huge impression with his social media campaign targeted toward youth, he also taught marketers and brands a valuable lesson: teenagers are listening. Many assume that moody teenagers don’t want to hear or participate with brands that interrupt their social circles. President Obama showed us how wrong that is.
Five years ago, when a relatively unknown freshman senator from Illinois put his hat into the ring for a bid at the White House, few among Beltway insiders could have imagined how successful the run would prove to be. After all, the notion that the country was ready to elect a half-Kenyan, Columbia University- and Harvard Law School-educated, former community organizer who was born in Hawaii (despite what Donald Trump might think) as our nation’s 44th president simply seemed too audacious. But Barack Obama had something up his sleeve that his challenger lacked, namely an active and adoring social media presence that spoke directly to the so-called youth vote.
In the intervening years since that first successful run at the White House, lots has been written and said about the Obama campaign’s savvy and strategic use of social media to rally and mobilize otherwise disaffected voters—especially students and recent grads—through social channels such as Twitter and Facebook. During the 2012 Presidential race, many of the social media seeds that were spread among a populace of young teens (who weren’t yet eligible to vote) also appear to be bearing fruit. The social campaign’s important lesson: people may think that teens aren’t listening, but, in fact, they are.
While adults went to the polls to cast their votes, many teenagers across the country participated in their own mock elections. High school students from around 130 schools across the United States—at least two from each of the 50 states as well as the District of Columbia—participated in this year’s VOTES Project (Voting Opportunities for Teenagers in Every State). The purpose of the program was to familiarize the younger generation with the electoral process and ignite their interest in the 2012 elections, and, hopefully, future elections.
So, who won the hearts of the American teenager? President Barack Obama bested Gov. Mitt Romney, 27,107 votes to 22,252 votes. Nickelodeon held a similar mock election for the even younger teens/tween age group, and the results were the same—teens and tweens love Barack Obama.
After evaluating President Obama’s campaign strategies, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise as to why he won. Throughout the grueling campaign months, he was determined to talk to the younger generations, and the campaign did so where young people spend most of their time: on social media platforms. Of course, Obama wasn’t primarily targeting the not-yet -of-age tween or teenager. He was aiming his social stick at the 18–29 year old voter, many of whom could recall the Obama campaign’s social media outreach from 2008. Generation Z’s dominating presence in social media (more than 70% of them are on a social network!) has always made them enthusiastic listeners and eager participants, no matter if they were or were not able to vote.
Obama’s social media presence among teens during the election was impressive, and worthwhile to consider for brands looking to tap into this market. His voice was heard not only on Facebook and Twitter but also on YouTube, LinkedIn, MeetUp, and Flickr. The Obama campaign demonstrated a keen understanding that each channel should be used in its own distinct way, and regular posts kept all channels up-to-date. The Obama campaign even incorporated social media into live events. MTV News invited its audience to post questions for the President on Facebook and Twitter, which were then answered by Obama in a live 30-minute MTV special. Perhaps the most important thing Obama did with social media was that he opened the conversation about his campaign to the world. He allowed fans and critics alike, many of whom were not-yet-eligible-to-vote teenagers, to comment on posts, and often responded with witty, relevant, and casual retorts. Talk about an open-door policy!
The stereotype may say that teenagers are self-absorbed narcissists who will only begrudgingly listen to someone outside their exclusive social bubble. And at one point, that may have rung true. But today’s teenagers are different than those from previous generations, particularly when it comes to engaging in conversations with brands. Teens today have grown up in a world where Internet and social media have always existed, and interacting and influencing each other and brands—even if the brand is President of the United States—is as simple as typing a 140-character post. Teens simply assume—and accept—that brands, no matter how big or small, will engage in two-way conversations. Having brands interject in their private social space is as normal to this generation as it is watching a commercial in the middle of a favorite show to the older generations.
The fact that Obama won the mock election in American high schools is proof of this belief. Through Obama’s strong social presence that continued to push the boundaries, teenagers were able to chat and listen to what their President had to say and find out what he stood for. Perhaps more importantly, teens felt as if they were also being heard.
Brand marketers should take a page from the Obama campaign social media playbook. Brands can’t be timid about entering the space or be reluctant to open up the conversation. Teenagers want to be heard, and they’ll also listen if the communication is done so effectively. Obama didn’t win by ignoring the naysayers or by staying silent—and neither will brands.
The polls just don’t lie.