Viral Video and Elections: Blessing or Curse?

Every week the news blog The Daily Beast pulls together the top ten “buzziest” videos, representing a cross-section of the most viral and most viewed clips and commercials on the Internet. You might think that the bizarre and the Kardashians get the most buzz -- but no.

For the last week I looked at while writing this, political videos took five out of 10 Daily Beast spots. And this was the week after Whitney Houston tragically passed away. Just goes to show you that while Kevin Costner’s heartfelt eulogy topped the buzz overall, the presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle dominate. It’s a consistent pattern that is bound to intensify as the 2012 campaign for president ramps, and as more local races take wing. Political viral video may not get 50% of all video views on a weekly basis, but it is arguably getting half of the attention.

Let’s define online video on a political level. There are the astute informational spots that campaigns and PACs create, often cleverly accented with “video bites,” the pithy moments that capture audience attention.  Then there are the 15-second video moments –- professionally produced or just clipped from the nightly news -- that often define the moment’s conversation, like President Obama singing “Sweet Home Chicago” or Mitt Romney riffing on his car ownership profile.



It’s the video bites that most often go viral. Getting a video to go viral is a marketer’s dream. But in politics it can cause one to take two aspirin and go to bed.  Fair or not, it’s unfortunately the bloopers that often go viral -- those curious moments hard to control and even harder to erase once they’re out there.  What to do when that happens? 

Ask yourself, “What would Old Spice do?”

I’m serious. Political campaign managers and ad executives need to channel Old Spice. In 2010 Procter & Gamble executed one of the best viral video initiatives the Web has seen - the “Smell like a man, man” campaign, an enormously successful campaign by any measure.  The Old Spice team saw that the Twittersphere and even YouTube was lighting up with positive responses to the campaign’s clever creative.  Rather than just stand back and passively observe, the team jumped into the discussion by creating over 250 response videos to consumer tweets and video submissions.  The result?  Over 13 million views and -- more important, a rarely achieved, highly prized bond of trust and goodwill between a brand and a consumer audience. 

The takeaway here is that when a negative video goes viral, there are two choices:  ignore it until it goes away or, as P&G did (admittedly for a positively received video), engage in the conversation.  Both approaches have advantages and disadvantages, but consider the latter.  Engaging in the conversation with response videos is an opportunity to influence the message and its impact.  It’s an opportunity, as in the case of Old Spice, to establish trust and goodwill.

It’s easier than you think.  Plug-and-play Web-based platforms can ramp your video ad initiatives overnight and take advantage of the engagement opportunity that viral video distribution presents. As you approach this strategy, meeting constituents where they live (online), consider the following:

1.     Make sure you can measure campaign impact.  Campaign personnel need to be able to wake up in the morning and have one unified view of campaign performance across all campaigns media buys -- aka “site by site performance.”  If a campaign is getting five different reports from five different media placements, it’s not easy to gauge performance.  Use a video ad platform that will give you all the reporting you need, all in one place, and in a way that will inform decision-making.  It’s also important to have detailed reporting, such as whether or not the interactive elements in the video ad are resonating or not.  Are viewers clicking on your Facebook link?  Good video ad platforms provide this level of detail.

2.     Don’t forget about mobile.  On average, 7% of all Web traffic occurs on mobile devices, whether smartphones or tablets. Don’t add to negative viral ads by creating a response that doesn’t work.  Some video ads will “break” on devices, including the iPad, if the video ad doesn’t render in HTML5. 

3.     Target, target, target.  Video platforms can enable you to target your impressions down to the zip+4 level so that you’re not wasting impressions.  Some  can even change the message in your video -– or even show different videos -- based on who is watching and from where, what their political affiliation is, their gender, their age, and so forth.

Bottom line for campaigns: Get active. As of Feb. 9, the top 10 Super PACs in the US have spent $44.9 million in advertising on behalf of 2012 campaign efforts.  It remains to be seen how much of total campaign spending will be devoted to online, but rest assured it will eclipse the percentages spent in 2008 when ad budget allocations were in the sub-10% range. Video ads were in their infancy in 2008. Today the story is wildly different.

In December (2011), the U.S. internet audience watched 23.2 hours of video online on average representing 43.5 billion video views.  More than 20% of all American adults now owns a tablet computer, and 40% use it while watching TV (by the way, multiscreen exposure increases recall).




1 comment about "Viral Video and Elections: Blessing or Curse?".
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  1. Art Zeidman from Pixability, March 15, 2012 at 3:03 p.m.

    Walter, I totally agree. There are some great insights here on the lessons political campaigns can learn from brands about how to leverage social video to build awareness, advocacy, trust and even to defuse a potentially controversial situation. The sharing of video content across the web is likely to influence the 2012 presidential campaign in a way that no medium has done before. Smart political campaigns will embrace this new reality in the same way the smartest brands, like P&G's Old Spice, have already done

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